In troubling times, I find comfort in old favorites, the books I read when I was a child, when life was simpler. One of those novels is Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery, a Canadian writer who authored dozens of books and hundreds of short stories in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.
Lately, when I’ve wanted something “new” (as in new-to-me) to read, I’ve turned to KindredSpaces, an online database of the LM Montgomery Institute Research Collections at the University of Prince Edward Island. (I wrote about this free online tool in No Ordinary Girl in 2016, which feels like a lifetime ago).
One of the short stories in the database is The Quarantine of Alexander Abraham, which was published in Everybody’s Magazine in April 1907. The word “quarantine” caught my eye. My family is currently under a stay-at-home order as my state’s governor (along with other governors) tries to stop the spread of Covid-19, a deadly respiratory virus, in the absence of federal leadership in the United States.
We are not allowed to leave our homes except under very narrow conditions. My kids’ school district closed on March 10th, and I’ve been working remotely since then, trying to adjust to mounting emails and endless Zoom meetings. I am lucky I get to work from home. Many people have lost their jobs, many people are in homes where they are not safe or do not have reliable access to food, and many people in my area are sick with this new illness.
This is the first time I’ve ever been forced to stay in my home for public health reasons, but stay-at-home orders were more common in my country in the past. L.M. Montgomery’s short story, which takes place in a neighboring country, provides a little taste of what it used to be like.
The story is told from the perspective of Peter MacNicol, a person who identifies as a woman but has chosen a traditionally masculine name for herself instead of the traditionally feminine one her parents gave her. She doesn’t like men, saying in the beginning of the story:
I had always disliked men. It must have been born in me, because, as far back as I can remember, an antipathy to men and dogs was one of my strongest characteristics. My experiences through life only serve to deepen it. The more I saw of men, the more I cared for cats (pg. 495).
She believes that the problem with men stems largely from the way they are raised, and so she accepts an opportunity to teach a Sunday-school class for boys, saying, “if they are taken in hand young enough they may not grow up to be such nuisances as they otherwise would (pg. 496).”
The class is a success, but Peter begins to wonder why one of the boys, a farmhand named Jimmy, stopped coming. She heads to his place of work, the farm of Alexander Abraham Bennet, a reputed “woman-hater who threatens that if a woman comes into his yard, he’ll chase her out with a pitchfork (pg. 496).”
Peter sees Alexander Abraham as a challenge, saying, “well… he won’t chase me out!”
With gusto, and her cat, Peter ventures to Alexander Abraham’s farm, and finds her way into his house, only to learn that it’s under a quarantine order. Alexander Abraham has been exposed to smallpox, and now Peter must stay quarantined with him! Thankfully, despite his reputation, he does not turn out to be a dangerous person.
The story unfolds like a typical romantic comedy, except that it’s much heavier on the comedy than the romance. It’s genuinely amusing, despite being a reminder that a woman from the turn of the last century can only challenge traditional stereotypes so much.
Peter and Alexander Abraham decide to “make the best of [the quarantine] like sensible people,” (pg. 500), which is good advice for all of us finding ourselves stuck inside as we mitigate the spread of Covid-19.
Stay safe, everyone.
*The illustration at the top of this post is by Rollin Kirby. It appeared with LM Montgomery’s story in Everybody’s Magazine (April 1907).