Archive for the ‘Irene Gammel’ Category

My memories of reading prior to Grade Three are very hazy.  In Grade One, there was a very serious non-fiction treatise on the daily lives of bunnies that introduced me to the wonderful world of independent reading but my recollection trails off after that.  Until Grade Three when I picked up Anne of Green Gables for the first time.  In retrospect, it was a major life event for me.  I had loved reading before that but more for the sense of accomplishment I felt, for the pleasure of being good and quick at something, not out of any particular fascination with my reading material.  After all, when you are seven or eight what is going on in your imagination is often far more interesting that what any adult could think to put down on paper.  But then I had my first encounter with Anne and I fell completely, utterly, and eternally in love with her.  I delighted in her escapades and saved my allowance money for weeks to buy all the other books in the series, reading them over and over again until they fell to pieces.  Anne led, of course, to Emily, and once I’d exhausted all of her works, L.M. Montgomery led to Laura Ingalls Wilder, to Louisa May Alcott, to Roger Lancelyn Green…to everyone I have read since that day, really.  I became not just someone who could read, I became a Reader.   

I read and reread everything I can by and about Montgomery but, until now, I had never touched a volume attempting to analysis the works and their cultural significance but I am so glad I did and that I started with the delightfully wide-ranging Making Avonlea: L.M. Montgomery and Popular Culture edited by Irene Gammel, described in the introduction as” …the first critical book examining the national international popular industry that has emerged in Montgomery’s name.” 

The book is divided into three sections: Mapping Avonlea: Cultural Value and Iconography; Viewing Avonlea: Television, Drama, and Musical; and Touring Avonlea: Landscape, Tourism, and Spin-Off Products.  The tourist mecca that is Cavendish, PEI and the Japanese obsession with the red-haired Anne have very little to do with how I experience the books and, honestly, Anne’s role in Canadian tourism is far too well-documented, even in school books, to be of much interest to me and, for that reason, Touring Avonlea was probably my least favourite section.  It was still interesting, absolutely, particularly the “Day in the Life” provided by a young woman who is ‘Anne’ at a Japanese theme park, but I was far more intrigued by the other sections.

Mapping Avonlea is wonderful.  This is where the literary criticism of the Anne and Emily books (the only works touched on) happens and where Montgomery’s own life and her records of it (her journals, her photography) are discussed. Montgomery’s journals are wonderful and, as is only right given Montgomery’s significance in my reading life, reading them was my first real encounter with primary sources and I can’t think of a more engaging way to be introduced to the research process than uncovering information about a person you’re already so passionate about.  I have lost count of the number of times I have reread the journals since then.  I love Montgomery and appreciated her books even more after gaining insight into her life and her struggles, so Margaret Steffler’s essay on the value of the journals in giving adult readers an even greater connection to Montgomery and her works was particularly resonant:

As our reading of Anne and Emily helped us to construct our girlhood identity, so our reading of L.M. Montgomery in the journals has played a role in confirming our places as women; and few of us have been disappointed in the role she had played.  The reading of the novels and the journals, when viewed as a continuous process, connects girlhood and womanhood in a remarkable manner, accounting to a certain extent for the popularity and attraction of the journals and of the persona of L.M. Montgomery as a woman as well as a writer.  It is a connection that we welcome and crave, as our reading of Maud, developing out of our earlier reading of her characters, continues to be an active process that often recognizes and validates our needs, choices, and decisions as Canadian women at the beginning of the twenty-first century. (‘This has been a day in hell’: Montgomery, Popular Literature, Life Writing by Margaret Steffler, p. 72 – 73)

And I’ll certainly never be able to read the already unsettling Emily books again without thinking of Irene Gammel’s “Safe Pleasures for Girls: L.M. Montgomery’s Erotic Landscapes”.  It definitely made me think more about the books than I had done in years, though I was both delighted and vaguely alarmed by how many of the small details I still remembered.  I loved the Emily books but they scared me as a child and even as an adult I’ve never been comfortable with their gothic overtones and intensity, which is why I rarely reread them.  Emily, with all her darkness and brilliance, her passion and otherworldly ‘spells’, was too extreme for me, at any age.  Her devotion to her writing was too complete, too exhausting.  Dean Priest was the only alluring thing about the novels for me, until he is disappeared in favour of the insubstantial Teddy.  Dean was unsettling in a good way, an exciting and terrifyingly sexual figure in what unsuspecting adults might consider tepid children’s books.  But his desire and passion for Emily pale in comparison to her obsession with her writing. 

Viewing Avonlea is simply fun.  It is hard for me to take the miniseries and television shows based on Montgomery’s works all that seriously (and, honestly, if you’ve seen even an episode of “Emily of New Moon” you should be able to understand this) but I loved both “It’s all mine: The Modern Woman as Writer in Sullivan’s Anne of Green Gables films” by Eleanor Hersey and “Who’s Got the Power?  Montgomery, Sullivan, and the Unsuspecting Viewer” by K.L. Poe, which discuss Kevin Sullivan’s alterations to Montgomery’s plots in his television adaptations and the late twentieth-century feminist agenda imposed on the character of Anne, vastly exaggerating her interest and seriousness about writing.  There is also a wonderful discussion of Sullivan’s decision to use “The Lady of Shallot” in the first adaptation rather than “Lancelot and Elaine”, which is the Tennyson poem Montgomery’s references, and the implications of that change.  I am a firm believer in loyal adaptations and have never forgiven Sullivan for his many liberties so I was in full sympathy with K.L. Poe’s argument against the modernization of my most beloved literary heroine:

…what is the value of books written in the past if we perpetually modernize them?  First, if we insist on wiping away any contextual traces under the misconception that modern audiences won’t ‘get’ what is going on, we risk pushing the past farther and farther out of sight.  Second, if we continually privilege the present over the past, there is little way we can educate ‘unsuspecting’ younger generations, and girls in particular, about how far people (especially women) have come in the intervening years.  The homogenizing effect creates a world in which no one is able to understand that other live(d) and believe(d) differently than they do; it emphasizes not the internal elements that can bridge the gaps of ages but rather the superficial aspects that are ultimately meaningless without the contextual situation.  The extreme devotion of the Japanese to Montgomery’s Anne should be evidence enough that a work must not reproduce its readers’ world exactly to be loved and respected.  (“Who’s Got the Power?  Montgomery, Sullivan and the Unsuspecting Viewer” by K.L. Poe, p. 152)

The essays are written primarily by scholars yet most are highly readable and entertaining (yes, this betrays my expectation that academics are only capable of dull writing but I am always happy to be proven wrong).  Carole Gerson’s “Anne of Green Gables Goes to University: L.M. Montgomery and Academic Culture” may be the exception, though Gerson’s tracking of Montgomery’s popularity as a research subject over the twentieth century and her explosion in popularity as a ‘serious’ subject after the airing of the miniseries in the 1980s in quite intriguing.  Still, its tone is rather dry compared to the other essays.  As always, the most personal contributions were the most interesting ones.  Brenda R. Weber’s “Confessions of a Kindred Spirit with an Academic Bent” is a delight from start to finish, recalling how she bonded over the books with her grandmother during summer vacations and how, as an adult, she was able to reflect on how much of her personality was influenced by Anne Shirley.  She also captures what it is, at least for me, that made the Anne books so special, so different from the countless other children’s novels about young girls:

Yet the figure of Anne is unlike other orphans in literature…predominantly because the reader is encouraged to laugh at Anne even while admiring her.  This is an interesting writerly device on Montgomery’s part, for it pulls the reader not through common devices of sentimental fiction (for instance, tears, pious lessons, and innate goodness, though certainly the Anne books have those too), but through a shared field of humour.  The result is a re-imagination of what a childhood heroine might look like…She can be a girl both ardent and ridiculous, trying and talented.  (“Confessions of a Kindred Spirit with an Academic Bent” by Brenda R. Weber, p. 49)

I had a delightful time reading this.  Growing up, I tried endlessly, pathetically, to get my friends to read the Anne books with me.  I just wanted to share the reading experience with someone, to have someone at least understand what a kindred spirit was.  Anne of Green Gables is the most famous children’s book Canada has ever produced and yet I was surrounded by people who had never read it!  I suspect my paternal grandmother read the books as a child and, given our similar tastes in reading, probably loved them, but we lived too far apart to be familiar enough with one another for such conversations.  Instead, I grew up surrounded by my mother’s family, a trio of women who had never read, had never even heard of the English-language classics I was raised on.  My maternal grandmother was a great reader but there was no common literary heritage between us – indeed, at one point she insisted that I abandon what she was certain were trashy light romances (the cover art on those editions did not help my argument that they were in fact classic Canadian novels) and move on to ‘real’ literature.  Given that, I suppose it is not surprising that to finally read an entire book devoted to Montgomery, full of the kind of discussions and analysis I love best, made me irrationally happy.  I loved reading this, both because it engaged me on an intellectual level and because, finally, I felt I had found other readers who connected withMontgomery on the same emotional level that I did.

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