Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin
originally published 1903
Watermill Classics, 1st printing, 1981
Genre: Children’s literature
Synopsis & Review: Eleven-year-old Rebecca Rowena Randall sets off on a journey, leaving her beloved Sunnybrook Farm, mother, and siblings behind so that her maiden aunts Miranda and Jane Sawyer of Riverboro might “make something of her.” For the next several years, her Sawyer aunts will clothe, feed, shelter, and educate Rebecca, but in turn, she will also teach them about love and the child’s place in the home.
Her time with the Sawyers is not untroubled; Rebecca gets into scrapes due to her impulsive nature, ruining a new dress, being accused of swearing, and clogging up the well. But she also performs well in school and becomes a popular figure among the Riverboro small fry. She charms adults and children alike, soon enslaving the blacksmith’s daughter Emma Jane, who will remain her best friend until the novel’s end, and also enchanting the Cobbs and her teacher. Rebecca also gains her own personal genie in the form of Mr Alan Ladd, a rich bachelor who takes an interest in the delightful child, sponsoring her whenever possible. Only Aunt Miranda resists Rebecca’s charms.
Before there was Anne Shirley, there was Rebecca Rowena Randall, an early example of the literate, articulate, and lively little girl that would become so popular in early twentieth century children’s fiction. These girls were irrepressibly joyful and romantic, readers and writers both. But Rebecca was caught between this new style of girl and a nineteenth century model of perfection and womanly virtues. And it shows.
Like Anne’s development through the Anne books by Lucy Maud Montgomery (and that of Emily and Sara Stanley, the Story Girl, as well) does follow her from a somewhat feckless and self-absorbed youth to an the emergence of an adult member of the community, Wiggin’s Rebecca follows the same basic template. (Although it must be said that she came before the others.) Rebecca enters as a bit of an autodidact, learning literature and poetry on her own from what books she can scavenge; she also displays competency in many basic domestic arts, even to handling babies with aplomb; she does well in school, though not in every subject, and eventually goes to high school away from home–all of these things are in common with Montgomery’s later girls.
But Rebecca still has a great deal of nineteenth century attributes, for more so than Anne, she must suppress her impulsive and instinctual behavior, and learn to channel her energies into appropriate venues. Instead of daydreaming on a freshly painted bridge, she must do her chores, and later, rather than take a lucrative and improving teaching position, she must return to Sunnybrook Farm to care for her injured mother. The latter sacrifice places Rebecca ahead of her older sister Hannah, once considered more promising than Rebecca for her mild disposition and domestic mastery. Miranda and Jane Sawyer have made Rebecca–with help from Miss Temple and Alan Ladd, as well as the Cobbs–into a responsible adult with appropriately clannish tendencies. An emphasis on duty and sacrifice, particularly in a Christian context, is ever present in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, something that was left largely out of Montgomery’s work, and that of Burnett as well as other popular followers. Rebecca practices self-denial throughout the novel in order to please her family and community, and her only outlet for independence is her schoolwork and writing–which she does not purse in any large measure, instead focusing on caring for her family.(Is she Pollyanna-ish? I don’t know, I haven’t read that one.)
In general, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is a mostly enjoyable and amusing book, with a fairly charming, only a little too perfect heroine. The magnetism felt by her peers and sympathetic adults is not convincing, but Rebecca’s relations with most other characters are. Emma Jane is somewhat dull, and Alan Ladd too creepy (hints of a more disturbing sort of Daddy Long-Legs situation abound), but Miranda and Jane Sawyer, the Cobbs, and Hulda Meserve and Hannah Randall are all lively, interesting characters. Though extremely popular in its day, RoSF has been largely supplanted by later, improved orphan girls made good.
The novel is pleasant, and suitable to read aloud to readers not yet ready to enjoy Anne Shirley, Emily Starr, Mary Lenox, Jerusha Abbot, or Sara Crewe on their own.
Read also: Anne of Green Gables or Emily of New Moon by LM Montgomery, Daddy Long-Legs by Jean Webster, A Little Princess or The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Eight Cousins, or the Aunt Hill by Louisa May Alcott
Cover: I always recognize a Watermill Classic when I see one (I have at least two others, Heidi and Daddy Long-Legs. Where did they come from? The latter was from a book order, but I’m afraid the others may have been, er, acquired from some elementary classroom. So, so bad.) It’s a very simple design featuring an illustration of the opening scene, Rebecca’s ride to Riverboro with Mr Cobb. This is a favorite of cover illustrators, it seems.
“Give me an example, please.”
“I might have been glad
Thou mightst have been glad
He, she, or it might have been glad.”
“`He’ or `she’ might have been glad because they are masculine and feminine, but could `it’ have been glad?” asked Miss Dearborn, who was
very fond of splitting hairs.
“Why not?” asked Rebecca.
“Because `it’ is neuter gender.”
“Couldn’t we say, `The kitten might have been glad if it had known it was not going to be drowned’?”
“Ye–es,” Miss Dearborn answered hesitatingly, never very sure of herself under Rebecca’s fire; “but though we often speak of a baby, a chicken, or a kitten as `it,’ they are really masculine or feminine gender, not neuter.”
Rebecca reflected a long moment and then asked, “Is a hollyhock neuter?”
“Oh yes, of course it is, Rebecca.”
“Well, couldn’t we say, `The hollyhock might have been glad to see the rain, but there was a weak little hollyhock bud growing out of its stalk and it was afraid that that might be hurt by the storm; so the big hollyhock was kind of afraid, instead of being real glad’?”
Miss Dearborn looked puzzled as she answered, “Of course, Rebecca, hollyhocks could not be sorry, or glad, or afraid, really.”
“We can’t tell, I s’pose,” replied the child; “but I think they are, anyway.”
27 September – 28 September