Tuesday, 18 September 2018
#CBR10 Book 83: "Kilmeny of the Orchard" by L.M. Montgomery
Rating: 1 star
#CBR10Bingo: This Old Thing (published in 1910)
Spoiler warning! There will be a number of spoilers for the plot of this book, because the only way I will be able to fully vent my spleen on this atrocious piece of writing is by going into minute detail about the MANY things I found dumb, objectionable or downright offensive in this book. You might as well allow yourself to be spoiled, this book is bad and you don't actually want to waste time reading it.
Eric Marshall has just graduated college and knows that his future is secure. He is going to work for his wealthy father, but before he starts in the family business, he agrees to help out an old school friend for a while. Substituting as a teacher on Prince Edward Island for a season, Eric settles in nicely, popular among the locals.
One day, wandering in an overgrown and abandoned orchard, Eric comes across a beautiful young woman playing the violin. Kilmeny Gordon is mute and has lived an extremely sheltered life on the farm belonging to her aunt and uncle. There was a scandal surrounding her birth and until Kilmeny's mother died a few years ago, the girl was barely allowed outside the house. At first, she's scared of Eric, but they begin to get to know one another, and it doesn't take too long for Eric to realise he wants to make Kilmeny his wife.
When one of the squares for CBR10Bingo required me to read a book published before 1918, I pondered for a while. Then, inspired by my love for L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables books, her Emily books, and The Blue Castle, I decided to see if she'd written any other books I could try. This one fit the bill, being published in 1910. When I recently mentioned to my BFF Lydia that I'd read a more obscure Montgomery novel, she exclaimed: "It wasn't Kilmeny of the Orchard, was it? That book is awful!" How I wish I'd spoken to her BEFORE I read this book.
Let's start by listing the positives. It wasn't very long, so I was able to finish it rather quickly, even though I deeply regretted my choice from early on. I'm pretty sure I've found my "Worst book of 2018". I desperately hope that nothing I read for the rest of the year is worse than this book. It will also allow me to really get my vitriol on in my review, which tends to make for amusing reading for others, and an easier time writing for me. That's about it. I can't think of anything else positive. No, wait, there are two pretty decent female supporting characters in the book. Marshall's landlady and Kilmeny's aunt are both good (no, I'm not going back to check their names - I've wasted enough time on this book already).
So why was this such an awful reading experience? To begin with, my expectations of L.M. Montgomery's work, based on the books mentioned above, had not prepared me for something quite this dismal. I loved the Anne and Emily books growing up, and was utterly delighted by The Blue Castle. There is NOTHING delightful in this book.
Eric Marshall is a rich, privileged dude bro, utterly convinced of his own greatness and superiority. He comes across a young woman (who he keeps referring to as "a child", even though it's established early on that she's 18 and he's 24, certainly not a terrible age difference back in the early 20th Century) who is initially scared of him, and keeps meeting her in secret, unbeknownst to her family, and has to be lectured by his landlady about why this is an inappropriate and dishonourable thing.
Kilmeny Gordon is an orphan. Her mother, the apple of her father's eye, married a man her family disapproved of and then discovered that he was probably a bigamist. She had no idea about this when she married him, but there was a scandal nonetheless. Returning to her family, she gave her father the silent treatment for months after she felt judged by him, refusing to speak even when he made himself more sick on his own death bed to plead with her to forgive him. Kilmeny's family believe that is why she's been mute her entire life. Despite being apparently completely exquisitely beautiful (this seems to be the first thing everyone is struck by upon first seeing her), Kilmeny believes herself to be ugly, because her angry, bitter mother always told her so, and made sure there were no mirrors in the house so the girl could see her reflection. Living an extremely sheltered life, Kilmeny uses a little slate to write on, and otherwise "expresses herself through her violin". Not that she's ever been tutored in playing it, you understand, but she nevertheless plays it wonderfully and makes up beautiful little tunes that spellbind Eric.
Eric, who keeps thinking of Kilmeny as a "darling child" is of course extremely taken with her beauty and grace and general awesomeness, and keeps meeting with her in the abandoned orchard near her aunt and uncle's farm. After a stern talking to by his landlady, he realises that he has to do the right thing and go speak to her relatives, as consorting with a young unmarried lady every evening is deeply inappropriate and creepy. Of course, he kisses her (entirely without her consent) before he ever gets to that point.
Of course, by the time he goes to see Kilmeny's guardians, their cranky foster son ("of Italian descent" and therefore clearly seen as terribly volatile and almost a bit sub-human), who's been spying on Kilmeny and Eric's meetings (because of course he too has a creepy crush on her, that she's entirely unaware of), has tattled and they've locked her in her room and are none too happy to see Eric. Once he exclaims that he wants to marry Kilmeny (despite her terribly inconvenient muteness, he's such a champ!), they are pretty much mollified. However, Kilmeny, for all that she claims to return Eric's feelings, refuses his proposal, as he couldn't possibly be saddled with a mute woman for a wife.
Oh noes, how could this book ever get a "happy" ending, I hear you ask. Well, don't fret. Of course one of Eric's best friends is an amazing doctor who specialises in vocal maladies. He comes to examine Kilmeny (again being utterly transfixed by her beauty), and claims there is nothing actually wrong with her, but that she will need some sort of sharp shock to be induced into speaking. When her cousin/foster brother/creepy stalker gets overcome with jealousy and is about to bludgeon Eric to death with an axe, Kilmeny fears for him enough that she shouts out a warning. The dastardly Italian is overpowered (and flees town in the night shortly after, never to be heart from again), and Kilmeny, who has never spoken a single solitary word before in her life, can miraculously speak. Fluently and with no difficulty, because of course she can.
There is one last hurdle in the way of our young couple's happiness. Eric's father believes him to have fallen for some country temptress only interested in his fortune. He comes to the town to dissuade his son from what he believes to be an inappropriate match - but it's ok! He has only to lay eyes on the comely Kilmeny (seriously, he doesn't even SPEAK to her) before he welcomes her to the family.
Seriously, this book is utter dreck. It's sexist, racist, patronising, it weirdly fetishises Kilmeny's muteness, innocence and ability to play violin. The whole backstory about Kilmeny's parentage and childhood is bonkers and then there's her cousin/foster brother, apparently abandoned on her aunt and uncle's farm by itinerant Italians when he was a baby. So he's been raised by them, alongside her, but creepily believes that he will be able to marry her, and becomes crazy jealous when he realises she loves someone else. His sullen behaviour is written off as due to his unfortunate background and no one seems to concerned that he was about to axe murder someone. This book is extremely bad, yet somehow has an average rating of 3.69 on Goodreads (with nearly 6000 ratings).
I did just remember one more positive thing - I didn't have to pay a penny for the book. It's available free from Project Gutenberg. Even free, it's not worth your time. Stay away from it, if you value your time, even a little bit.
Judging a book by its cover: This book has had a number of covers over the years, this is the one that was attached to the free edition I downloaded. Some things seem accurate - Kilmeny is female and has dark hair. She loves flowers and picks a lot of them. Apart from that, this woman looks WAY too old to be Kilmeny, she's got a strange buxom matronly thing going with what she's wearing - generally I dislike this cover. But it's ok, because I very much dislike the book it's attached to as well.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.