As much as I enjoyed Making Avonlea, a volume of essays about Lucy Maud Montgomery and popular culture, it left me longing for a deeper discussion of Montgomery’s writing. As far as I’m concerned, there can never be too much discussion of her books, too much time devoted to thinking about the characters, the settings, the allusions…what bliss! So, primed from reading Making Avonlea, I picked up The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass: L.M. Montgomery’s Heroines and the Pursuit of Romance by Elizabeth Rollins Epperly, a “full length critical study of all L.M. Montgomery’s fiction.” Epperly considers all of the novels, devoting significant time to the Anne and Emily books, examining the romantic traditions (in poetry, in nature, in the male-female relationship, etc) at play in each and considering each heroine’s personal journey to find herself:
For each of Montgomery’s heroines a recognition of her own distinctive voice is a crucial step to self-awareness; talking back is sometimes a measure of self-confidence or self-worth; love of place is a way of celebrating the centred, whole personality. For Montgomery’s heroines ‘home’ includes an awareness of the centred self; ‘home’ is an attitude as well as a place. Through ingenious – and perhaps often necessarily unconscious – subversions of the various systems and codes around them, Montgomery’s heroines learn to hold their own in a culture that will give them a very limited framework in which to live respectably and comfortably. Not a single one of Montgomery’s heroines loses respectability.
Epperly won me over quite early on when, in her discussion of Anne of Avonlea, she complains “Anne sounds like a romantic guiding spirit rather than a flesh-and-blood adolescent” and that there is no character development over the course of the novel. Yes! I find it difficult to reread Anne of Avonlea for just that reason. For the most part, it presents Anne as a dreamy, condescending bore (though there are flashes of the funny, normal girl every so often). Thankfully, that dreary girl disappears by the time Anne of the Island begins. Again, Epperly perfectly describes what it is that makes the university-aged Anne so appealing by the time the third novel begins:
Anne’s voice in this novel seldom lapses into the dreamy sentimentality of Anne of Avonlea; instead, this Anne shows herself sometimes sarcastic, sometimes ironic, sometimes outraged, embarrassed, or downright angry. She can stoop to sparring with Mrs Harmon Andrews; she can write sentimental trash; she can mistake infatuation for love; she can get depressed and fell alienated from home and spiritual kinship. Even if the genre Montgomery chose (domestic romance) and the audience for which she wrote predetermined that the novel would be preoccupied with marriage and fully exploring the right man rather than finding the individual self, Anne Shirley is frequently here a believable and fairly independent person. (p. 57)
Grown up Anne is, as we all know, far less interesting than young Anne but Epperly’s comments about the later books are quite fascinating, particularly her thoughts on the romantic, sea-based imagery used in Anne’s House of Dreams and the impact of Montgomery’s attitude towards the war on the strong moral tone of Rainbow Valley (published in 1919). The focus of the later Anne novels shifts to just about any woman other than Anne, a decision that Epperly unfortunately doesn’t truly delve into. The last book Montgomery wrote in the series, Anne of Ingleside (published in 1939) is the only one where Anne Blythe really feels like a person rather than a paragon of womanhood. Until then, she is (as Epperly notes when discussing Rainbow Valley):
…only a reminder of her earlier self. She is not a real person. She speaks to defend the manse children and to remind us of their similarities with her, bust she is no longer an active individual. This Anne is a dreamy woman (maybe the Anne of Anne of Avonlea grown up?) in whom everyone wants to confide – Faith, Mr Meredith, her own sons and daughters, Miss Cornelia. We take everyone’s word for it that Anne is alive and well, for she seems most often to have just left.
(Side note: What I wouldn’t have given for a deeper analysis of Miss Cornelia!)
The analysis of all the books was interesting but I was particularly impressed with Epperly’s take on the Emily novels, looking at the numerous literary influences on both the character and the story (most obviously, Jane Eyre, ‘Aurora Leigh’, The Story of an African Farm) and dissecting the many romantic conventions presented in the character of Dean Priest (who, fond as I am of him, I had never thought about in quite this level of detail). I will never prefer the Emily books to the admittedly paler, more temperate Anne books, but I appreciate them more now, even Emily’s irritatingly over-the-top psychic spells that drove me wild with frustration as a child.
I am intrigued by the number of readers who complain that Anne disappointed them by choosing a family rather than a career, unlike Emily who pursued her passion at the expense of her happiness for many years. It seems a strange argument, given how casually both Anne and the narrator always treated her attempts at writing. The Anne books were always about family, abut feeling loved and accepted, but there is none of that safety or cosiness about the far more autobiographical Emily novels. Emily is passionate and driven, loving her writing far more than any man she ever crossed paths with. The great tension comes from Emily’s relationship with Dean Priest, who wants Emily the woman, not Emily the writer:
…Emily’s real threat and temptation as woman and artist come from the needy, sexually powerful, consummate art critic, Dean Priest. In Montgomery’s happy-ending series, the struggles with Dean eventually bring out Emily’s powers as woman and writer and actually enable her to free herself from his stifling romanticism, but her escape is narrow and she turns from one man to another. Teddy may seem a pale rival for Dean, but at least with him Emily is free to pursue her own work. Teddy, who becomes a famous painter, accepts Emily as his equal without questions – and that, Montgomery’s story slyly encourages us to see, is fairy tale. (p. 147)
Emily, despite her eventual marriage, is the most autonomous of Montgomery’s heroines and when she does marry it is once she has achieved success as a writer, has made her own way for more than a decade, and it is to another artist who can understand that he will always come second (and is so terrifically boring that he probably doesn’t even mind):
Their ‘late’ joining is not merely a sap to romantic convention, however, nor a denial of feminist principles, nor a pandering to audience taste. Montgomery does not let Teddy and Emily wed in their first youth perhaps because both still have so much to learn about their respective gifts. Through their separation Montgomery shows how a strong woman can live without conventional (or unconventional) romance if she once recognizes the power of her inner voice…With so many years of sorrow and loneliness behind her, Emily’s eventual marriage to Teddy is a relief rather than a positive joy. A more conventional book and story would not have risked so much. Montgomery has her way with the story and thus makes her points about the writer and the woman. (p. 190)
The other novels are dealt with quickly and in no great detail, which suited me perfectly. When I recently reread The Blue Castle, one of Montgomery’s adult novels, I was quite enjoying it up until Valancy married Barney and she lost all of the sharpness that had made her interesting. It is always gratifying to find people who agree with you so I was very pleased with Epperly’s remarks on the book:
As a person Valancy ceases to be really interesting once she is married to Barney – she becomes his other self and an almost mute appreciation of the enchanted world of Mistawis. She sheds every spark of bitterness or anger or piercing irony that made her initial break from her clan both entertaining and meaningful.
Epperly also had some very interesting thoughts on A Tangled Web, Montgomery’s other adult novel, which I’d almost forgotten about. Doesn’t she make it sound intriguing, as she compliments Montgomery’s balanced approached to her male and female characters and their romantic entanglements?
There is no single heroine in A Tangled Web, though the novel does focus on females, as do all Montgomery’s novels. But the focus here is different from the focus in Montgomery’s other stories in that the men and women really do seem to play equal parts in the fabrication, destruction, and reconstruction of romance. We may see through the eyes of Donna and Gay and Margaret and Jocelyn, but we also see clearly what Peter and Roger and Penny and Hugh think. Everyone suffers; everyone changes; everyone gives up some secret dream or delusion and then recovers something of it. For the first time, perhaps because it was an adult novel, but more probably because it came later in her career, Montgomery tries to show women and men as similarly deluded and self-deluding and as equally entangled in a great pattern of events over which they have, paradoxically, both ultimate and little control.
I do wish the focus of the book had been expanded to touch on Montgomery’s supporting characters and their interpretations of romance. Part of Anne’s development is learning to recognize the romantic possibilities of the world around her, reality over idealised fantasy, but her best friend Diana realises far sooner than Anne that real love is worth sacrificing romantic dreams for, choosing dependable Fred not as a compromise, not out of a lack of imagination or hope but because she has matured enough to know that love can come in many forms (and faces). And let us not forget the fascinating Ilse! Emily’s best friend (though the strength of Emily’s attachments to others can and should be questioned at all times) is magnificently inconsiderate and is nothing if not bold in her romantic maneuverings.
And then there’s Phil Gordon, Anne’s magnificent Redmond friend. Rich, spoiled, brilliant and utterly immune to the idea of romance (she is thoughtfully pondering the merits of the equally dull Alec and Alonzo when we meet her, neither of whom she feels the least love for), Phil ends up making the most unconventional match, marrying Jonas Blake, a poor, homely, serious young minister – outwardly Phil’s exact opposite. But Phil is determined to have him, once she realises what she wants, and her practical, purposeful side earns her her man. Other women have to learn to see the romance in their everyday lives as preferable to their fairy tale imaginings. Phil just has to embrace the mere fact that romance exists and is achievable for her. Once she realises that, she determinedly hangs on. Phil is not blinded by visions of what love should look like and so is the character quickest to spot it in real life. Of course, I shall also always adore Phil because she is Gilbert’s greatest ally in his campaign for Anne. I secretly suspect that, even without the happy conclusion of Anne of the Island that sees Anne and Gilbert engaged, I would love it best of all the series simply because it introduced me to Phil.
I had great fun reading this, nodding my head alongside most of Epperly’s arguments, disagreeing with others, and generally being fascinated by the analysis of things I had certainly never picked up on as young, uncritical reader. The discussion of the influence of poetry and Victorian romantic sentiment in the Anne books was most intriguing. The modern feminist viewpoint is very clear and a concern with each character’s claiming of their ‘voice’, the evolution of their distinct, adult, female self, runs throughout the book. On the other hand, I was bored to tears by most of the discussions of the romance of place and the importance of landscape imagery. All in all, it was a very interesting, very readable, very thorough analysis of all Montgomery’s novels.