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Kinds of Blue: Notes on the Avonlea Village Improvement Society and Teen Girlhood

Have you ever seen a color so “mortifying,” such a “burning shame,” that it prompts “blank dismay,” provokes angry tears and “bitterness of spirit,” galvanizes a community to outrage and “public indignation,” and “becomes a byword to neighboring settlements”? I have not, but I’ve read and long wondered about one. Surprisingly, it’s a shade of blue, a color I think of as soothing, even anodyne. Many blues (navy, denim) read as neutral; other tones of sea and sky, spas and therapist’s office, can be calm or uplifting, melancholy or healing, gentle or quiet. I struggle to picture a blue so loud, brash, scandalous it could throw a small town into uproar.

I write of the (fictional) paint color Morton-Harris 157, a “deep, brilliant” blue typically used for “carts and wheelbarrows,” but, in a mix-up, applied to the town hall of Avonlea in Anne of Avonlea, the second book of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series, set in 1890s Prince Edward Island.  

Anne of Avonlea, in which Anne is 16 and teaching her former schoolmates at the Avonlea school, fits a bit awkwardly in the Green Gables series. It lacks the narrative drive of either a true coming-of-age story or the larger romance plot of the series. Besides her books for children, Montgomery wrote dozens of humorous small-town short stories. In Anne of Avonlea, she stitches together episodic character sketches and Anne’s life story, and sometimes the seams show—nowhere more so than in the plot surrounding the Avonlea Village Improvement Society Anne organizes. Anne and her fellow Village Improvers are old enough to hold important professional positions as schoolteachers, but young enough that their enthusiasms and earnest idealism evoke condescension and skepticism. This paradox may feel familiar to anyone who’s ever been young and, especially, female. 

For a first big project, the A.V.I.S. undertakes to paint the dilapidated community hall with donated funds, and the narrative milks their efforts to wring small contributions from tight-fisted neighbors for humor. The collective funding makes it all the more devastating when the hall is painted the wrong color—a mistake that threatens to sink the entire vexed project of “village improvement.”

The A.V.I.S. is introduced in the very first chapter, when Mrs. Rachel Lynde—the local oracle and busybody who serves a useful expository function for Montgomery’s narrative throughout the series—tells Anne she’s heard about the club. “You’ll get into no end of hot water,” prophesies Mrs. Rachel (it’s impossible to separate her from her honorific). “Better leave it alone, Anne, that’s what. People don’t like being improved.”

Anne concedes part of the point, but her enthusiasm for the larger idea of the society is undimmed: “‘Oh, we are not going to try to improve the people. It is Avonlea itself. There are lots of things that might be done to make it prettier.’” Anne’s always-lively imagination has long painted an idealized picture of Avonlea in her own mind; now she turns to beautifying it in real life.

Anne suggests that they might get a farmer to tear down an eyesore building, and Mrs. Rachel replies with a decidedly mixed message: “If you Improvers can convince Levi Boulton to do anything for the public that he isn’t to be paid for doing, may I to be there to see and hear the process, that’s what.” (The emphatic “that’s what,” Mrs. Rachel’s catch phrase, was my favorite part of reading these books aloud to my daughters.) “I don’t want to discourage you, Anne, for there may be something in your idea, though I suppose you did get it out of some rubbishy Yankee magazine; but you’ll have your hands full with your school and I advise you as a friend not to bother with your improvements, that’s what.”

In one deflating speech, Mrs. Rachel calls Anne unoriginal and casts doubt on both her multitasking ability and the very idea of improvement, while offering the very faint encouragement that “there may be something” in it. I’m now closer to Mrs. Rachel’s age to Anne’s, but in rereading this speech, I cringed in recognition of all the times my own youthful enthusiasms were squelched, all the times I’ve seen passionate, idealistic, blazing-mad teen girls wet-blanketed with faint praise and loud doubts.

They also receive “a good deal of ridicule” mixed with disapproval. “Mr. Elisha Wright was reported to have said that a more appropriate name for the organization would be the Courting Club.” (I confess that I personally volunteered for several high-minded high-school clubs in the vain hope they would be courting clubs.) Other local wags suggest such improvements as making an unkempt citizen trim his whiskers, but “In spite of…or perhaps, human nature being what it is, because of…this, the Society went gamely to work.”

Anne takes a practical approach: “We must do our best and be content to go slowly at first,” she says to her friend Diana Barry. “We can’t expect to improve everything all at once. We’ll have to educate public sentiment first.”

The Improvers start with the hall because it’s so very dilapidated, deciding on “a very pretty green” for the building. Green is the building color in Avonlea; the whole series is named for an architectural feature in that shade. Paired with a red roof, the color scheme would mirror the Avonlea landscape itself—Montgomery describes its trees and red roads—as well as Anne herself, who is often described wearing shades of green to complement her red hair and gray-green eyes. (The whole series is heavily descriptive; the ugly yellow wincey dress Anne wears as an orphan, for instance, contrasts with the “rich brown gloria” of her first pretty dress.)

Unfortunately, the person tasked with picking up the paint writes down the wrong code for the desired shade, getting Morton-Harris 157 instead of the correct 147. (Blame the anxieties of modern commerce; numeric codes lack the personal touch.) Curmudgeonly hired painter Joshua Pye, working alone, says nothing. The hall stands on a road few people pass, and Mrs. Rachel Lynde is the first to check out the new look: “She dropped the reins, held up her hands, and said ‘Gracious Providence!’…Then she laughed almost hysterically.”

As a California-raised child of the 1970s, I may be jaded by a lifetime of exposure to Brutalist architecture, whimsically rainbow-painted houses, and yurts. Still I don’t think I’ve ever been as shocked by a building as the Avonlea community is by their hall. There’s a house in my neighborhood painted a light cyan—or maybe Caribbean, or Capri, or electric blue?—that recently stopped me in my tracks. I wondered if that could be the tone of the Avonlea hall, but Anne of Avonlea describes the hall paint color as “deep.”

I image-searched blue wheelbarrows, which are pretty much the inoffensive color of medium-wash jeans, with a greenish undertone. (Sadly, I do not have access to a 125-year-old Canadian wheelbarrow or cart, which in any case might well have faded.) Late 19th-century paint cards I found online are, generally, light on blues, and particularly weak in bright blues, though I did spot a saturated, mid-tone Sky Blue from the brand Martin-Senour that I suspect would not meet with favor in Avonlea.

The horror the hall inspires is all the stranger because, as Michel Pastoureau’s fascinating (if heavily Eurocentric) Blue: The History of a Color traces, by about the eighteenth century, blue had become by far the favorite color of Western culture. Pastoureau, a medieval historian and symbologist, focuses on color in fashion and art, arguing that blue, in all its shades, went from being “little valued by the cultures of antiquity” to a “complete reversal of values” that led to blue’s “triumph in modern times.” Pastoureau pinpoints the Romantic period of the early nineteenth century—well before Avonlea’s hall—as the moment “that blue attained the lasting rank of the West’s favorite color,” since then seeming even to have “increased its dominance over other colors.”

Avonlea seems to revile blue precisely for this dominance; richness, luxury, pleasure, and exuberant brightness must all be anathema to a small-culture that looks askance at difference and cuts down tall poppies. The modest townsfolk of Avonlea would no doubt consider the hall’s flashy brightness in bad taste. As Pastoureau writes, it took humanity a long time to learn to make attractive and color-fast blues, whether in such dyes as woad and indigo or in paints. In particular, brilliant blue tones—lapis lazuli, ultramarine, sapphire, royal blue—have long been relatively rare, making them signs not of bad taste but of luxury. The hall’s description as a very bright, deep blue evokes for me such rarefied tones as Yves Klein or the recently discovered YInMn Blue (the first new inorganic blue in over 200 years)—neither available, presumably, from Morton-Harris.

Once Mrs. Rachel Lynde spots the hall, the news of its ugliness carries “like wildfire.” Anne and her friends, devastated, are sure that the mistake will tank their already fragile improvement efforts and put an end to their fledgling society. The reactions include plenty of mockery, but the people of Avonlea are surprisingly sympathetic: “People thought the eager, enthusiastic little band who worked so hard for their object had been badly used.”

In the more than three decades since I first read this book, the blue hall incident has stuck with me not just because it is “the most hideous color for a building” that the Avonlea-ites “ever saw or imagined,” but because it crystallizes so poignantly the cultural position of girls like Anne, like me and my friends thirty years ago, like my daughters today: burning to change things, dismissed as somehow both frivolous and too officious, and often thwarted. As Anne wails, while “looking like the muse of tragedy… ‘What is the use of trying to improve anything?’”

Swinging between dramatic sorrow and sleeves-rolled-up enthusiasm may be the province of the young. I thought, rereading Anne, of my own 16-year-old daughter and her friends getting together recently to make shiny signs for their high school’s Club Rush day, hoping to attract new students to their causes. Their program focuses on international studies, and the girls have founded and joined clubs with lofty ambitions in promoting global understanding, intersectional feminism and equity, and climate solutions.

These global village improvement societies are perhaps aiming higher than sprucing up a town hall, but their materials are similar: paint and boards, determination and a touch of defiance at being advised not to bother with improvements, sociability and a need to have fun while attempting something serious. From what I’ve seen in my daughters and their friends, these young women are often learning and thinking more deeply and more innovatively about the change we need than most of us adults weighed down by the daily grind. I was taken aback recently, and then moved, when my daughter handed me her most recent reading: a slim but potent jeremiad on climate change called Learning to Die in the Anthropocene.

Teen girls, their tastes, and their ideals are so often dismissed, but they are drivers of culture popular and serious, and often idealist who push for change, successfully and not: think Greta Thunberg, Mari Copeny, Emma Gonzalez, Malala Yousafzai. Look to the profound challenges Gen Z is facing—and listen to the way they talk about them. Their ideas for village improvements are worth hearing and encouraging.

The Anne books, in the end, show us that. The blue hall continues to be a byword to surrounding towns—but the roof is usefully reshingled, the paint (however ugly) does refresh the building, and the A.V.I.S. lives to fight another day. In a later book, Diana tells Anne that the A.V.I.S. has brought in telephone lines, despite opposition: “You did a splendid thing for Avonlea when you founded that society, Anne. What fun we did have at our meetings! Will you ever forget the blue hall?”

Anne doesn’t answer the question, but I can. I may always be left speculating about its azure shade’s peculiar depth and brilliance, but what I’ll truly remember how Morton-Harris 157, as hideous as it may be, casts a poignant blue light on the sweet, stubborn hopes of young women trying to improve a resisting world.

Kate Washington is a writer based in Northern California and the author oAlready Toast: Caregiving and Burnout in America.

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