Monday 5 December 2011


As ever with any book that you're a bit unsure about, I wasn't expecting to fall in love with Pollyanna. I should have known better! As with any enduring classic, Pollyanna has a lot to teach us about our modern lives from almost 100 years ago. Pollyanna was published in 1913, just before the start of the First World War. Of course it reflects a simpler time in some ways. Every house seems to have a porte-cochere. And Pollyanna spends much of her free time in the summer walking to visit various invalid neighbours to take them calf's foot jelly. 

Pollyanna like many famous children's book characters before her has been recently orphaned. She is looked after briefly by the local Ladies Aid Society, but is then sent to live with her Aunt Polly. Of course Aunt Polly is not thrilled to have her ordered life disturbed by the presence of an unruly child. Even if that child is very well mannered, and awfully glad. Pollyanna joins other plucky, optimistic orphans such as Heidi and Anne of Green Gables in changing the lives of their new carers. 

Miss Polly is introduced to us by her young maid Nancy on page 2:

She knew Miss Polly now as a stern, severe-faced woman who frowned if a knife clattered to the floor, or if a door banged- but who never thought to smile even when knives and doors were still. 

Pollyanna is an enthusiastic child with a sunny disposition who wants to get the most out of life. 

"Just breathing isn't living!"

She began playing her famous "glad game" with her minister father after a disappointment. Pollyanna's family were poor and reliant on missionary barrels sent to them with supplies. Once Pollyanna asked for a doll, but received crutches instead. Pollyanna's father invented the game with her to help counter her disappointment. The game was to find something about everything to be glad about. Of course Pollyanna could be glad that she didn't need the crutches. Rather a hollow feeling at that point I'm sure. 

Pollyanna makes the game her own, and shares it with the adults around her who all need it in some way. Apparently after the novel was released Glad Clubs were set up, and a Glad board game was on sale until the late 1960s. In some ways, Pollyanna seems to be a forerunner of more modern endeavours such as The Happiness Project. A very interesting audio exploration of Pollyanna from America's NPR reminds us that even though Pollyanna's message to rejoice may come from the Bible, and her minister father, gladness doesn't require religious faith.

Superb Fairy Wrens make me glad.

I hope modern girls are still reading Pollyanna. I hope some other modern adults get to read Pollyanna too, after all, it's not every character that enters the lexicon as a noun. But Pollyanna isn't a Pollyanna in the modern sense that the word has taken on. She is not "foolishly or blindly optimistic". Indeed, after Pollyanna has a serious accident she can't feel glad about anything. She becomes so distressed that she needs to be given a quieting powder! What was this mysterious quieting powder? Google is surprisingly circumspect, and keeping secrets hidden. Although I did find one reference to nutmeg being used in small doses to quieten irritable children. Perhaps Pollyanna was enjoying some nutmeg?

After her accident the townsfolk all come to help Pollyanna, to show her their gladness for the help she has given them. One particular passage appealed greatly, and stood out from the generally more sedate nature of the rest of the book.

Not long after Mrs Tarbell's visit the climax came. It came in the shape of a call from a certain young woman with unnaturally pink cheeks and abnormally yellow hair; a young woman who wore high heels and cheap jewellery; a young woman whom Miss Polly knew very well by reputation- but whom she was angrily amazed to meet beneath the roof of the Harrington homestead. 


Anonymous said...

I read the whole series of Pollyanna books when I was a child ... my mum had them all ... and of course I loved them.

I don't remember "quieting powder" though.

Oh, and our house in Sydney had a porte-cochère, and very nice it was too on rainy days. It doubled as a carport when we bought a second car.

Kath Lockett said...

I've never read them - must add to the list...