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Archive for the ‘Lucy Maud Montgomery’ Category

After reading Anne of Green Gables in July, I was reminded of an eternal truth about books in a series: you can never read just one.  Or at least I can’t, particularly when it is this series which so dominated my childhood reading.  How could I leave Anne after just one book?  So I read on, quickly progressing through first Anne of Avonlea and then Anne of the Island.

Anne of Avonlea is an odd book or perhaps it is just a very typical second book, written in a rush to capitalise on the extraordinary success of Anne of Green Gables.  Published in 1909, only a year after Anne’s debut, Montgomery seems to have lost her sense of humour – and her sense of characterization.  When the first book ended, Anne was maturing and recognizing (with humour) her tendency towards indulging in overly dramatic flights of fancy.  In this book, she embraces those melodramatic tendencies wholeheartedly, becomes dreamier than ever without ever really coming back down to earth, and is insufferably condescending to her more prosaic friends.  She has relapsed to a stage which readers of the first book thought she had outgrown and no one benefits from it.  (There is a very good discussion of this in The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass by Elizabeth Rollins Epperly.)

The book still has its moments but Montgomery, desperately short of plot ideas, covers by introducing new characters at every turn.  We meet Mr Harrison, a grouchy farmer with a foul-mouthed parrot; Davy and Dora, twin relatives who Marilla takes in after they are orphaned; Paul Irving, the most sickeningly sweet child ever written; and Miss Lavendar, who is even more prone to silly fantasies than Anne.  None of these count as improvements to Avonlea society, as far as I’m concerned.

As usual, it is Anne’s humblest adventures that are the most entertaining.  Montgomery writing about ethereal fantasies and really anything involving Paul Irving is insufferable.  Montgomery writing about village gossip is delightful.  The disastrous repainting of the church is one of the book’s greatest moments and Anne’s horror at having to strap one of her misbehaving students – and then find he respects her more for it, thereby crushing all her high ideals – is marvellous.  And these moments are made better because they offer not just Anne’s perspective but a whole array of them, from besotted but still level-headed Gilbert Blythe, from sharp tongued Rachel Lynde, and from quietly amused Marilla.

If Anne of Avonlea is both frustrating and disappointing, Anne of the Island, happily, is an entirely different experience.

Published in 1915, Montgomery has several years to figure out how to next approach Anne’s story (and to write many sentimental stories and novels to expunge her overly dramatic tendencies).  The result is the 2nd best book in the series and one of the most important books of my childhood.

The novel covers Anne’s four years of college, which takes her away from Avonlea and from Prince Edward Island entirely, over to Redmond College in Kingsport, Nova Scotia (a fictionalised version of Dalhousie University in Halifax, where Montgomery studied).  She is accompanied by some familiar faces, Charlie Sloane and Gilbert Blythe, and joins up with friends Priscilla Grant and Stella Maynard, who she met at teacher’s school in Anne of Green Gables.  And, most importantly, she makes two very important new friends over her four years: Philippa Gordon and Roy Gardner.

Roy Gardner enters Anne’s life during her third year of college, an answer to all of her romantic fantasies.  Having by this point survived – and rebuffed – multiple marriage proposals (most very easily, with due horror, but one with great pain) since none of the men matched her vision of a future husband, it is almost too perfect when Roy appears in the midst of a rainstorm, perfection made flesh:

Tall and handsome and distinguished-looking – dark, melancholy, inscrutable eyes – melting, musical, sympathetic voice – yes, the very hero of her dreams stood before her in the flesh. He could not have more closely resembled her ideal if he had been made to order.

But ideal men aren’t very interesting – a fact the reader recognizes long before Anne.  Roy is clearly a red herring but it is easy to understand why a wealthy, worldly, handsome man who adores her has so much appeal.  He is so far removed from the Avonlea boys she’s grown up with, although the Redmond girls seem to think the Avonlea boys have a certain appeal, especially handsome, intelligent, and determined Gilbert Blythe, now studying to become a doctor.  Really, there is no doubt that Anne and Gilbert will end up together but my god does Montgomery put her readers through an emotional rollercoaster before that happy ending comes.

The other character of note is the marvellous Philippa Gordon.  I loved everything about this book as a child but it has only been on rereading it as an adult that I’ve recognized how much Philippa enriches the story.  Philippa is a contradiction from her very first introduction: a beauty from a wealthy Nova Scotian family, she could have married well (to her choice of suitor – both Alec and Alonzo are waiting for her still) but chose instead to come and study mathematics at university.  Despite an active social schedule through all four years, Philippa handles her academics with aplomb and sits at the top of the class.  And, perhaps most importantly, she can do what Anne cannot do: acknowledge when she is wrong, recognize a chance at happiness, and go after it with all her considerable energy and determination.

Phil and Anne approach their romances from very different perspectives.  Anne has dreamed of her ideal man for years.  She knows just what he will look like, has devoted considerable time to composing his perfect speeches, and can envision an idyllic future spent staring into one another’s eyes.  For her, the idea that Roy Gardner, her fantasy made flesh, won’t be as satisfying a life partner as Gilbert Blythe, her intellectual equal who would rather work beside her than worship her, is one she fights against.  She has a fixed vision and it is one that she sticks to.  When she finally consults her heart, it is almost too late.

Phil, on the other hand, never believed in romance.  She believed in marriage, certainly, and expected that one day she would marry one of the rich young men from her social circle and settle down to a life like the one she’d always lived.  Her time at Redmond is her way of postponing – at least for four years – having to decide which of the interchangeable eligible young men she will accept.  She throws herself into university life and has a marvellous time.  But then something changes.  She meets Jonas Blake, an awkward young minister, and that’s it.  Jonas is exactly the sort of man Phil has always joked about not being tempted by – ugly, poor, and far from at ease in company – but she falls in love almost immediately.  And when Jonas doesn’t dare to think she could be interested in him, she makes it very clear that she is.  Phil, knowing what she wants, is not going to let her chance at happiness slip away.

Nor is she about to let Anne do the same.  Marilla and Rachel Lynde may want to tell Anne that she is making a mistake by rejecting Gilbert, but they don’t.  Phil, on the other hand, is more than ready to do so.  Repeatedly.  For years.  Phil is not afraid of a little blunt talking and I love her for it.  As a child who found Anne too whimsical and Diana too timid, Phil was the first Montgomery character – and one of the first literary characters – I ever truly identified with.  And that hasn’t change remotely in the 23 years that have passed since I first encountered her.

Anne of the Island isn’t quite as good as Anne of Green Gables but it is close.  I could write about it endlessly but I’ll save that for another day.  I’ve read it countless times already and I shall certainly return to it again.  And again.  And again…

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A few quick reviews from my less interesting reading encounters:

Graustark by George Barr McCutcheon (1901) – I loved Brewster’s Millions (despite its many quirks and frankly bizarre plot twists) so was determined to read more by McCutcheon.  When I learned he’d written a series of Ruritanian novels, starting with Graustark, it was clear where I would start.  I love a good Ruritanian romance.  However, it turns out this is not good.  It starts well enough, yes, with our young hero meeting a beautiful, mysterious girl on the train as they travel across America.  By the time they reach Washington, DC, he is in love but she must depart for home, a small European principality he has never heard of.  Naturally, it isn’t too long before he finds his way there and ridiculous adventures involving hidden identities, dastardly aristocrats, and national debt ensue.  The saving grace was our hero’s stalwart friend and travel companion, who provided a bit of levity and a merciful dose of common sense when everyone else lost theirs.  A ridiculous book – yet I’m still strangely tempted to try the next book in the series…

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather (1923) – this novella by Cather was a lovely reminder of just what a beautiful writer she was.  As usual, her characters are a bit flat (particularly the lady at the center of the tale) but Cather’s passion for her setting – a small Western town of fading importance – and the simple elegance of her writing made this a pleasure to read.  That said, the memory of it is already fading from my mind, unlike her best works which remain vivid even years later.

A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle (1972) – This is the first volume of L’Engle’s Crosswick Journals and, as usual, I approached them all out of order.  I read the last one first (Two-Part Invention – still one of my favourite bookish discoveries), then the third (The Summer of the Great-Grandmother), and now jumped back to the start.  The problem with that is that L’Engle rose to such heights with her later books that this first one can’t compare.  Those later books are deeply personal and she shares her memories and emotions in a way she probably hadn’t imagine when she wrote this first book.  This is an interesting look at her life and some of her thoughts, particularly around the communities she belongs to, but it lacks a compelling focus and I missed the sense of L’Engle herself that was so strong in the other books.  I still have An Irrational Season, the second book, left to read and will be interested to see how it compares to the others.

The Doctor’s Sweetheart and Other Stories by L.M. Montgomery (1979) – what a throw back to my childhood.  After I discovered Anne of Green Gables, I spent the next few years obsessively reading anything by or about Montgomery, including all the collections of her short stories.  This was one of many volumes that was put together drawing on pieces she’d had published in magazines (both before and after Anne, her breakthrough novel, was published), most of which had some sort of linking theme – here it is lovers who are parted.   I remembered them as repetitive and melodramatic, and was a bit embarrassed that anyone had wanted to draw attention to them by republishing them.  Twenty-two years later, that is still how I feel about them.  Well done ten-year old Claire for being such an astute literary judge.  From a scholarship point of view, this collection does have some interest – you can see Montgomery playing around with plots she would eventually use in her novels – but on their own they are best forgotten.

Salt-Water Moon by David French (1984) – part of a cycle of plays about the Mercers, a Newfoundland family, this focuses on the parents’ story, looking back to their youth.  It is just one-act, set on a moonlit summer night in 1926 when Jacob Mercer reappears in his small Newfoundland hometown a year after having left for Toronto.  He’s come to see Mary, his girl, and learn why she’s become engaged to the town schoolteacher.  Jacob is a chatty fellow and the two bicker back and forth all evening in enjoyable interplay.  By the end, of course, they have decided to face the future together, even though for Mary it might not be as practical as the future she had talked herself into with the hapless schoolteacher.  This wasn’t particularly special on its own but I’m intrigued enough to want to read more about the Mercers in French’s other plays.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

 

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I don’t have any particularly strong memories of learning to read.  I read Lucy Mangan’s wonderful Bookworm earlier this year and marvelled at how well she can recall the books that made up her childhood.  For me, those memories are murkier.  I remember reading my first book by myself in Grade One (it was a very informative picture book about rabbits, cementing early my love of non-fiction) but things become hazy for a few years after that.  The Babysitter Club books were definitely involved and lots of fairy tales but the rest have been lost to time.  I don’t mind – it makes what came next stand out all the better.

When I was eight, I picked up Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery for the first time.  I had loved books before but reading hadn’t come to form part of my identity yet.  But I couldn’t put this book down.  I read it once, twice, three times and then went on to the sequels, which I read with equal intensity.  I spent the next two years reading and rereading everything Montgomery had every written – her novels, her short stories, and her diaries.  I fought with librarians in order to borrow books from the adult section of the library.  Any time I needed to do a presentation for school, she was my go-to subject.  I am not sure I have ever been as expert on any topic as I once was on Montgomery.

More than twenty years later, I am on my third or fourth editions of the books, having read my initial copies so often they fell apart (partially Anne of Green Gables and Anne of the Island).  But it had been a few years since I last read anything by her (the only book I’ve reviewed here is The Blue Castle, notable for the fact that every single person who commented on my review loves what I consider to be one of her more mediocre outputs) so, feeling like I’d been ignoring an old friend, I recently picked up Anne of Green Gables, her first and best book.

Published in 1908 but set thirty years earlier, the story of the orphaned Anne Shirley and her enthusiastic (and mistake-prone) approach to life was an immediate bestseller.  Though its heroine is an adolescent girl, the book was loved by its adult readers as much as by its youthful ones.  Young readers could delight in Anne’s imaginative whims and the scraps she got herself into; adults could enjoy Montgomery’s humorous treatment of her young heroine and the bemused exasperation of the adults who surround her.  And everyone could enjoy the happy story at the heart of the book.

For those not familiar with the story (who are you?  What is wrong with you?  Stop reading this immediately and go get a copy), the book begins with Matthew Cuthbert setting off from the home he shares with his sister, Marilla, wearing his good suit.  Their busy-body neighbour, Rachel Lynde, is immediately intrigued by this unusual behaviour and, upon investigation, is shocked to learn from Marilla that Matthew is off to pick up the orphaned boy they’re adopting to help out on the farm.  But Mrs Lynde is not half as surprised as Matthew and eventually Marilla when they discover a girl has been sent to them by mistake.  And not even a useful sort of girl but a thin, dreamy one who can’t seem to stop talking.  They have no use for a girl – especially one like Anne – but there’s something awfully winsome about her, despite her odd ways, and they find themselves keeping her.

The book follows the next few years of Anne’s life, as she makes friends in the small village of Avonlea, adjusts to life at the Cuthberts’ farm, Green Gables, and gets carried away by her imagination time and time again.  There is nothing very spectacular about the goings on; even the most dramatic moments – a deathly ill child, a sinking boat, a heart attack – are entirely plausible.  Which is part of how Montgomery creates the humour that fills the book – the juxtaposition of Anne’s romantic fantasies with the work-a-day world of Avonlea is even more amusing as an adult reader than it was as a child.  And what is particularly marvellous are the hysterics that Anne can (unintentionally) send adults into with her entirely earnest but extraordinarily dramatic pronouncements.  Thankfully, she has Marilla to help bind her to the earth, as she does when Anne is happily prophesizing her early death in the wake of being parted from her best friend, Diana:

“Diana and I had such an affecting farewell down by the spring.  It will be sacred in my memory forever.  I used the most pathetic language I could think of and said ‘thou’ and ‘thee.’  ‘Thou’ and ‘thee’ seem so much more romantic than ‘you.’  Diana gave me a lock of her hair and I’m going to sew it up in a little bag and wear it around my neck all my life.  Please see that it is buried with me, for I don’t believe I’ll live very long.  Perhaps when she sees me lying cold and dead before her Mrs Barry may feel remorse for what she has done and will let Diana come to my funeral.”

“I don’t think there is much fear of your dying of grief as long as you can talk, Anne,” said Marilla unsympathetically.

Anne is a redoubtable girl and, even when things go wrong (as they constantly do), her optimism cannot be extinguished:

“Marilla, isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?”

“I’ll warrant you’ll make plenty in it,” said Marilla.  “I never saw your beat for making mistakes, Anne.”

“Yes, and well I know it,” admitted Anne mournfully.  “But have you ever noticed one encouraging thing about me, Marilla?  I never make the same mistake twice.”

“I don’t know as that’s much benefit when you’re always making new ones.”

“Oh, don’t you see, Marilla?  There must be a limit to the mistakes one person can make, and when I get to the end of them, then I’ll be through with them.  That’s a very comforting thought.”

Montgomery was an extraordinarily uneven writer and, to my way of thinking, there are only a few other of her books where she gets the balance of humour and sentiment exactly right (Anne of the Island being the only other one in the series where she manages this).  But here, she does.  And it’s wonderful.  Anne can have her flights of fancy but she is also able to be entirely practical, when needs must.  She knows, from her varied life prior to Green Gables, how to save an ailing baby’s life, how to work hard, and how to go after what she wants.

And what she wants, she decides early, is to be good at school and go on to teacher’s college and eventually university.  It’s a goal that finds her going up against her rival, Gilbert Blythe, over and over again in the fight for top marks but that is the only conflict.  Everyone else views her intelligence and scholarly ambitions as something to be extraordinarily proud of and, looking back, I think that was probably one of the most important things I took away from the series.  Education is an important and unquestioned part of Anne’s life throughout the early books.  It probably would have been just as important in mine regardless but it helped to have a literary idol who shared my love of school (and of being at the top of the class).

Rereading this as an adult, it’s also interesting to notice how vivid the adult female characters are compared to the male ones.  Matthew is lovely but he is quiet and retiring.  He adores Anne and all her energy but has none of his own.  Marilla, who is left to do the heavy lifting in raising Anne, is clearly the more dominant personality.  And Rachel Lynde, their neighbour and friend-of-sorts, is hardly a meek and obedient wife.  Her husband is mentioned only rarely and is generally being directed around by his very able wife, such as when Mrs Lynde decides to go to a political rally in town:

Mrs Rachel Lynde was a red-hot politician and couldn’t have believed that the political rally could be carried through without her, although she was on the opposite side of politics.  So she went to town and took her husband – Thomas would be useful in looking after the horse – and Marilla Cuthbert with her.

And even among Anne and her friends, the desirability of men is discussed skeptically from a young age.  Anne dreams of an exotic, mysterious stranger to whisk her away one day; her friend Jane has a more realistic view of marriage:

“Jane says she will devote her whole life to teaching, and never, never marry, because you are paid a salary for teaching, but a husband won’t pay you anything, and growls if you ask for a share in the egg and butter money.”

Sounds like Jane’s mother could do with some assertiveness training from Rachel Lynde.

Anne’s own early dealing with romantic gestures aren’t particularly positive.  After teasing her about her red hair, Gilbert Blythe, Avonlea’s favourite son, spends the next few years trying to get back into Anne’s good books.  He eventually manages it but has to endure years of snubs, including this particularly harsh one after the initial insult:

Once, when nobody was looking, Gilbert took from his desk a little pink candy heart with a gold motto on it, “You are sweet,” and slipped it under the curve of Anne’s arm.  Whereupon Anne arose, took the pink heart gingery between the tips of her fingers, dropped it on the floor, ground it to powder beneath her heel, and resumed her position without deigning to bestow a glance on Gilbert.

That is stone cold, Anne Shirley.  But mightily amusing.

Oh, I love it all so much.  I love how Anne’s schemes fly over the head of her very tolerant but not particularly imaginative best friend, Diana; how humorously Montgomery contrasts Anne’s romanticized language with the plainspokenness of everyone else in Avonlea; and how the universe always grants Anne a suitably unglamorous end when her imagination gets the best of her.  I love how Matthew and Marilla change and soften because of her, how Anne becomes calmer and more practical under their steady influence, and how everyone proves they are deserving of a second chance.  Most of all, I love its humour, I love its heart, and I love that I can very clearly see parts of it in the person I became.

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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.

 

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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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One of the strangest discoveries I’ve made since I started blogging is just how many people adore The Blue Castle by Lucy Maud Montgomery.  For years, I’ve discarded The Blue Castle as one of Montgomery’s ‘other’ novels.  Like everything Montgomery wrote, I’ve read it a few times and mentally classed it somewhere above the endless volumes of repetitive short stories but far, far below the more memorable Anne and Emily books – on par with the forgettable Kilmeny of the Orchard, really.  But with both Eva and Rachel counting themselves as fans, I knew I had to reread it again as an adult and give it another chance.

The Blue Castle is the story of twenty-nine year old spinster Valancy Stirling, who has spent her entire life living under her family’s thumb in ruralOntario until, after visiting the doctor after experiencing chest pains, she receives word that she has only a year to live.  Her unexpected death sentence gives Valancy the confidence to rebel against her family.  She shocks them all by talking back, standing up for herself, and finally moving out to go and care for an ill neighbour, the daughter of the town drunk who herself had been ostracized for bearing an illegitimate child.  From there, Valancy’s acts of rebellion only increase, culminating in her proposing marriage to Barney Snaith, another unconventional local, hoping to grasp at least some happiness in her remaining months.  Living with him on his Muskoka island, she finally finds her dream home, theBlueCastle she spent all those long, lonely years building up in her head.      

To be completely honest, I opened this half hoping to fall in love with it, half hoping to find it exactly as I remembered.  My actual reaction to it fell somewhere in between.  The first part of the novel where we are introduced to Valancy, learn of her diagnosis and witness her rebellion is quite wonderful.  Sharp and funny, it is entertaining and ageless, some ofMontgomery’s best work.  But it also vividly captures Valancy’s sense of captivity and isolation, the smallness of her life and her world:

Reality pressed on her too hardly, barking at her heels like a maddening little dog.  She was twenty-nine, lonely, undesired, ill-favoured – the only homely girl in a handsome clan, with no past and no future.  As far as she could look back, life was drab and colourless, with not one single crimson or purple spot anywhere.  As far as she could look forward it seemed certain to be just the same until she was nothing but a solitary, little withered leaf clinging to a wintry bough.  The moment when a woman realises that she has nothing to live for – neither love, duty, purpose nor hope – holds for her the bitterness of death. 

And then she marries Barney (who was clearly John Foster so why even bother to pretend otherwise for so much of the novel and, yes, he really should be ashamed of those awful descriptive passages and edicts) and moves into her Blue Castle and that is where the book looses me.  Blissful happy endings are fine, to be encouraged even, but devoting so much time to domestic details (and in, it must be said, a rather sappy manner – Barney’s pet name for Valancy is ‘Moonlight’, need I really say more?) rather does away with any sympathy I might once have felt for the couple.  Things become a little too formulaic, too much like one of the magazine stories a teenaged Anne or Emily might have written.  For a book that had been so promisingly original at the beginning, it was a let-down. 

Rereading this definitely gave me a greater appreciation for it, particularly now that I’m of an age where I can identify with Valancy’s situation at the beginning of the novel, but it certainly has not become one of my true favourites.  Worth recommending, without a doubt, but not about to join in my annual rereading cycle of some of Montgomery’s other works.  I must also admit that I had to borrow this from the library since my own childhood copy is languishing in storage.  The cover illustration (not pictured here – I couldn’t find it anywhere online) was particularly vile, portraying Valancy as a sort-of undernourished, puckish ingenue.  Oh the indignity of it!  It did have some entertaining illustrations within the book though, which, in retrospect, I should have probably photographed to share with you all before I returned it to the library.  Sorry for that oversight!

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