The Original One

“Monet was the first great artist to stuff a bunch of recently cut sunflowers into a vase and paint it, . . . starting a condition that had its climax when van Gogh painted his first group of sunflowers in the summer of 1888.”

Van Gogh, in turn, inspired Gauguin, who planted a garden in remote Tahiti in 1898 from which he harvested sunflowers to paint the most complex floral still life paintings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.’ (quote from the website Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and Dr. Richard Brettell )

No one would ever suggest that Van Gogh, with his vase of sunflowers, was a copycat. If he had admired Monet’s vision—that of being the first to stuff some flowers in a vase and then paint it—we would not be critical of Van Gogh for thinking, ‘I want to try that; I think I could do pretty well with yellow sunflowers’. Well, he did do pretty well. His vase of sunflowers is more famous than the ‘original’ Renoir version.

Beyond the shared worlds of canvas, paint, brushes, and a subject matter as ordinary as flowers…what is original? For the artist, these are frameworks, and from this accepted matrix springs the originality—or its potential—of the individual artist.

What about the writer’s world? Our currency is theme and variations; love story, action, adventure, crime drama. One can sit down to write a love story, and not fear being called a copycat. It’s the same story, retold over and over, but through different eyes, heart, mind, perspective. There are formulas, for the most part, even for stories that regale with the most epic adventures.

Writers fear the very idea of plagiarism, though. We all want to be ‘original’, but know it is easy to subconsciously absorb an idea, infuse it into our own thoughts and tastes, regurgitate it (as it were) and be unaware that it has passed, little changed, through our own meditative process.

To do that deliberately, though, is deadly to a reputation. (usually…. one thinks of Maurice Maeterlinck, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, later was well known to have plagiarized an author so blatantly that the author committed suicide, yet Maeterlinck is still praised for his ‘many-sided literary activities‘. )

We all know where the ‘mad woman in the attic’ story came from. Or the ‘plain girl with strong mind wins the master of the house’ story. The genre was set, after this the imitation; but nothing since has quite come up to the success of Jane Eyre.

One famous example of an ‘original’ that was imitated, is The Blue Castle, by Lucy Maud Montgomery. (excellent review here by Jane at her reader’s blog)

from the delightful review by Jane. click picture for link

from the delightful review by Jane. click picture for link

‘If it had not rained on a certain May morning Valancy Stirling’s whole life would have been entirely different. She would have gone, with the rest of her clan, to Aunt Wellington’s engagement picnic and Dr. Trent would have gone to Montreal. But it did rain and you shall hear what happened to her because of it.’  — The Blue Castle

Take one lonely, plain spinster. Need we add she longs for love? Add unpleasant mother, and unsympathetic relations. Stir in one beautiful cousin who is everyone’s darling. Beautiful cousin is getting married, marrying well, and everyone is delighted with her in addition to all her other delights. Add lovely natural setting. Add a mysterious stranger who appears just enough to make everyone wonder about him.

Doesn’t sound too original? Now add a terminal illness, and see what this does to the mind and heart of the timid spinster.

Written by Lucy Maud Montgomery, this sweet fairy tale of a love story has many charms, and quite a few interesting plot distinctions. It’s a classic love story with a clever twist, you could say. The Blue Castle never achieved the fame of Anne of Green Gables, but became beloved in its own right. The heroine, Valancy Stirling, is appealing both to those who like a strong heroine, and those who root for the underdog.

‘Since there would be no picnic, Valancy made up her mind that, if the rain held up in the afternoon, she would go up to the library and get another of John Foster’s books. Valancy was never allowed
to read novels, but John Foster’s books were not novels.

They were “nature books”–so the librarian told Mrs. Frederick Stirling–“all about the woods and birds and bugs and things like that, you know.”

So Valancy was allowed to read them–under protest, for it was only too evident that she enjoyed them too much. It was permissible,
even laudable, to read to improve your mind and your religion, but a book that was enjoyable was dangerous.

Valancy did not know whether her mind was being improved or not; but she felt vaguely that if she had come across John Foster’s books years ago life might have been a different thing for her. They seemed to her to yield glimpses of a world into which she might once have entered, though the door was forever barred to her now.

It was only within the last year that John Foster’s books had been in the Deerwood library, though the librarian told Valancy that he had been a well-
known writer for several years.

“Where does he live?” Valancy had asked.

“Nobody knows. From his books he must be a Canadian, but no more information can be had. His publishers won’t say a word. Quite likely John Foster is a nom de plume. His books are so popular we can’t keep them in at all, though I really can’t see what people find in them to rave over.”

“I think they’re wonderful,” said Valancy timidly.  — The Blue Castle

Perhaps modern author Colleen McCullough was counting on the fact of this books’ relative obscurity, and on a certain ignorance of Montgomery’s publishing history, when McCullough wrote The Ladies of Missalonghi in 1987.

Devotees of Montgomery’s work, however, soon noticed, and raised a cry of protest.

The similarities are striking. From the general storyline, and its unusual particulars of an unlovely heroine who uses a ‘terminal health condition’ to strike out in independence and live the kind of life she longs for; to a seeming borrowing of such terms as the ‘snuff brown’ dress she wears, to characters such as a mother who is domineering, an uncle who is a tease and a cousin who is beautiful, to motifs such as sleeping in a cold bedroom with a framed motto on the wall…it is the same story retold in 1987.

Feminists today may be unsatisfied with the results of Valancy taking her own destiny into her own capable hands—the inclusion of a ‘nurturing male safety net’ is always frowned on and considered ‘not real life’—but for the time period Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote from, this was quite an astonishingly independent heroine. Not only that, but the end of all her strivings far exceeded anything her family would have dreamed her capable of.

Some would say McCullough’s is a copycat version, a modern re-telling from a more feminist, spunky point of view. The trouble is, in the process of re-telling this particular story, and crafting a more modern, less scrupulous heroine, the story lost its heart.

The same basic stories are out there, circulating. If you write one straight from your heart, you stand a chance of being original.

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