This post is rather long because it addresses nine books rather than just one or two. I trust you will be bear with it.
I expect someone has already done the computation of just how much the Green Gables Industry has contributed to the economy of Prince Edward Island, or how much the Anne of Green Gables and Avonlea TV series are still making for the CBC; can it actually be nearly thirty years since that first television mini-series aired? One supposes it must.
I would hazard a guess that more people are aware of the fictional Anne Shirley than of the Charlottetown Conference (1864) that led three years later to the existence of Canada as an independent dominion, or of the failed Charlottetown Accord that aimed in 1992 to obtain Quebec’s agreement to the Constitution Act of 1982. Anne Shirley has international fame. Canadian Constitutional history doesn’t seem to have quite the attraction as an orphan girl with red hair, freckles, and a vivid imagination.
I suspect most girls are given Anne of Green Gables as a gift at some point in childhood. Some may receive a boxed set of four or even eight of the Anne stories. I met Anne for the first time some time around the same time as I met Katy Carr of the What Katy Did books and the Marches of Little Women. These are the sort of books that grandmothers, godmothers, and aunts deem suitable gifts for girls aged around nine or ten. I didn’t meet Anne again until she was on the reading list for an undergraduate course in children’s literature. I’ve come back to her from time to time ever since. Why?
Is it because despite the distance of time and space, we recognise the humanity of Montgomery’s characters? The world of the schoolroom with its petty jealousies, its sudden crazes, its fervid choosing of friends and just as fervid making of enemies is utterly recognisable even if today lessons are done with tablet computers not on slates.
No matter our age, don’t we recognise ourselves in the idealistic, romantic young Anne Shirley who so wants to do things right but in striving to make a beautiful tea party ends up with the disaster of getting her bosom friend drunk on unlabelled cordial? Or is it because even in childhood we know that one day we will have to accept that the Lake of Shining Waters will become just a pond?
There is, indeed, something about Anne that draws readers to Montgomery’s books generation after generation. And, yes, one can certainly see the early books’ attraction to both young and more mature readers, but is the child reader as interested in the later books that follow Anne into her middle and early old age? I’m not so sure about those later books particularly The Blythes are Quoted, which did not appear in full until 2009 edited by Benjamin Lefebvre although parts of it were published earlier.
A little research courtesy of Google will bring a fund of material on Anne and on Montgomery. There, if you didn’t already know, you will discover that while for the most part the Anne books were published chronologically following Anne as she grows up, Anne of Windy Poplars set before Anne marries Gilbert was not published until 1936, and Anne of Ingleside was not published until 1939. If one is trying to read Anne’s story chronologically, then one must read it before Rilla of Ingleside, published in 1921. The books written in the thirties are subtly different from those written earlier even though one feels in familiar Montgomery territory.
If, as I did, you sit down to read all the books at once, one begins to sense something formulaic about them. The curmudgeon with a heart of gold whether male or female is ubiquitous throughout the series, as is true love long put off, almost lost and then recovered. Independent minded but utterly devoted servants also appear. Most important perhaps is the motif of the imaginative child. Montgomery’s sympathies appear very strongly to be with the person in search of “a kindred spirit,” and much is made in some to the middle books of the series of those who belong “to the race of Joseph,” those who have an inner sensibility and understanding. It is tempting at times to wonder if Montgomery herself was often in need of a kindred spirit. Certainly, her early life has some parallels with Anne’s. Montgomery was given into the custody of grandparents when her mother died. By no means the same as being in an orphanage, but one can’t help but feel that a child in such a situation might feel rejected. Montgomery’s experience is similar to Little Elizabeth’s in Anne of Windy Poplars. Further, one cannot help but wonder to what extent Montgomery’s writing allowed her an imaginative escape from life in a Presbyterian manse and from marriage to a husband who suffered from what was then called religious mania.
Anne of Windy Poplars is, as I said earlier, one of the later books in terms of publication, and one observes a shift in Montgomery’s style from the earlier books. The children in the later books are perhaps more idealised; the writing, somewhat more what I might call literary. Anne of Windy Poplars relies heavily on Anne’s letters to Gilbert while they wait to marry until he is established as a doctor. In terms of writerliness, the most interesting work is probably The Blythes are Quoted since it is primarily a compilation of poems written by Anne and also by her second son Walter. We are given brief scenes where Anne is reading aloud either her own or Walter’s verses, and here Montgomery gives us pastiche in the Victorian and Georgian style. At the end of the poem, Gilbert or one of the children and/or Susan the Ingleside housekeeper comment. Susan’s comments are often personal asides revealing a different point of view on and understanding of the poem’s context. Then there are short stories in which the Blythes make but minimal appearance but they are referred to or “quoted.”
The Blythes are Quoted feels almost post-modern in comparison with the others. It is certainly more political in some ways, taking a stance against war. Rilla of Ingleside, set during the 1914-18 War and published in 1921, takes a far more “the sacrifice of a generation of young men was noble and necessary” point of view than the The Blythes are Quoted. Indeed, one of the reasons why the manuscript was not published in full in 1942 may be because its stance was seen by the publishers as incongruent with the national agenda.
What ultimately fascinates me about the books most, however, is not so much how Montgomery’s style evolved over the years but what they do and do not reveal about Canada. One would know nothing of the Mi’kmaq presence in PEI from Montgomery. French Canadians are mentioned rarely; one would also be tempted to think there was no Catholic presence on the island. Much of Anne’s world is bounded by Presbyterianism, and the ethic espoused by many of Montgomery’s characters is rooted in a strict Calvinism, yet there are moments when one senses that Montgomery allows for some questioning: in the confused theological questions asked by children trying to understand their Catechism, for example, and in the answers some of the more enlightened adults give. In the later books, there are references to Episcopalians. The use of the term Episcopalian, a Scottish and American usage, interests me. Until 1955, the Anglican Church in Canada was known as The Church of England in the Dominion of Canada. The use of the more American term suggests that despite Confederation, PEI and the Maritimes are still more linked with the old American Colonies of New England than with Canada as a whole. There is mention of Methodists and the apparent rivalry felt by some congregations between the Presbyterians and the Methodists. I was actually rather surprised that given that Union between Presbyterians and Methodists in Canada had actually been under discussion in Canada since 1908 that Montgomery hadn’t made more of it. Surely Mr. Meredith might have talked about it even if Methodist distrusting Cornelia Bryant would not? The United Church of Canada came into being in 1925.
One senses, then, that the world of Anne Shirley-Blythe is a world of Protestant immigrants probably with Scottish or Protestant Irish roots. Society is still small enough that people know each other’s family histories, and feuds may well exist. The focus of life is for the most part parochial, and anything unusual or foreign such as red hair, imagination, or Yankees is viewed with suspicion. For the most, Montgomery’s characters appear to be Tory except for Marshall Elliott (met first in Anne’s House of Dreams) whose beard is so long because he refuses to shave until the Liberals get in. He has shaved it by the end of the book, so it looks as though the election referred to is the 1896 election that brought Wilfred Laurier to power.
Of further interest to me is the way in which the books portray opportunities for women. Anne is able to go to take a degree at Redmond, (based on Dalhousie that first admitted women in 1881) so Anne while not quite part of the first intake would have been one of the first generation of women students. However, it appears that teaching is still the only profession really open to her and she must give it up when she marries. Unmarried women are aware of the diminished social status conferred by their single state. Further, despite the fact that Anne does have some work published, after her marriage her life is focussed on home and children. Any poetry is written only for herself and family. A writer herself, why did Montgomery deprive her creation Anne of a larger public? An unanswerable question, I suppose, but interesting to me nonetheless.
All in all, I don’t know to what extent I’d recommend reading all the books together. One can be a little overwhelmed, but doing so certainly sensitizes one to the changes in Montgomery’s tone, mood, and focus over the thirty-four years between the first and last books. The latter books are in some ways both weaker and more interesting than Anne of Green Gables perhaps because they are not so obviously written with the child audience primarily in mind. I cannot help comparing the series to Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, but Galsworthy’s focus is both in terms of social critique and moral enquiry ultimately broader. This is not to negate the power of Montgomery’s work, only to suggest that Montgomery’s canvas is smaller than Galsworthy’s. A portrait whether a miniature or larger than life is still a portrait. In her introduction to The Blythes are Quoted, Elizabeth Rollins asserts, “Montgomery is at pains to show there is seldom one truth only” (Penguin Canada xiv): an apt assessment and an appropriate conclusion to my post.