Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Last Victorian Proto-Feminist Heroine

From Oct 23-26, at the L. M. Montgomery Research Center, scholars and Anne aficionados will convene to explore the cultural influence of Lucy Maud Montgomery's books. They will also celebrate the centenary of her first and most popular novel, Anne of Green Gables. And if you've never read Anne, this is a good year to begin, because there are innumerable articles about the centenary.

The Anne of Green Gables books are not only girls' novels, but also "cult" books: readers, especially women like me, who have not read Anne in many years, will be amused and amazed to rediscover Anne's wit, charm, romantic imagination, and humorous adventures.

Montgomery, who wrote 24 books between 1908 and 1939, was not an Anne: she was a complex, energetic woman, whose idealized Anne reflected her optimism, but who had a darker, anomalous adult self, which had to cope with depressions and the loss of a son. Unhappy at 30, she wrote in her diary : " Only lonely people write diaries." After involvements with two men, one of whom she was briefly engaged to, she eventually married a minister (as does Phil, a character in Anne of the Island, who, also ditches two men to marry a minster). After marriage, Montgomery indefatigably played the role of the minister's wife, cared for her husband during his frequent depressions, raised children, and wrote and wrote and wrote.

Montgomery is undoubtedly the Louisa May Alcott of Canada. Anne, the heroine of an eight-novel series, is a more feminine, whimsical equivalent of tomboy Jo. Both are covertly feminist, though they certainly make no speeches about it, and both unfortunately become more boring after marriage: that marks the end of the best adventures of Anne and Jo, though Montgomery and Alcott desperately introduce charming new characters and sometimes tragic situations. Anne is less shy than Jo--she has the gift of gab--and is more socially adroit: she would never accidentally burn someone's hair with the curling tongs, because she would know how to use them. Hair, however, is an issue in both books: Anne has red hair, which is a trial to her, and Jo's one beauty is her hair, which she cuts off to support her father in the Civil War. Different as their personalities are, they both cope with poverty, are extremely strong-willed and competitive, get into scrapes, are high achievers in the workplace, and inhabit a moral but not stuffy atmosphere. Jo is awkward despite her brilliance, but the more sociable Anne brings sunshine to others by genuine curiosity and by coaxing cranky old women, bachelors, "old maids," and troublesome students into surrendering some of their power for the greater good.

Are the Anne books as good as I remembered them? Yes, in fact , they are: lively, all-ages books. The first novel, Anne of Green Gables chronicles her childhood, when she arrives as an imaginative orphan on Prince Edwards Island, where her new guardians, Marilla and Matthew, are expecting a boy;; Anne of Avonlea describes her experiences as a teacher in a one-room-schoolhouse; Anne of the Island her university years; Anne of Windy Poplars, an epistolary novel, delineates her three years as principal of a high school; and Anne's House of Dreams is the story of her marriage. (I have yet to finish the rest of them,, and I certainly never read all of them in childhood. ) Anne is a role model but she is not a prude: she loves good clothes, organizes a civic improvement society in Avonlea, turns down a proposal from a man who sends his sister to propose by proxy (she is insulted but then she sees the humor), enjoys matchmaking and meddling (even advising elopement on one occasion), and befriends classmates and waifs, at Avonlea's school, a stand-offish schoolteacher, crankly neighbors in Avonlea who eventually become proud of her, college roomates who include an intellectual beauty who prefers to flirt and dither than show off her brains, darling widows who run a boarding house, a lighthouse keeper, and, of course, Mr. Right comes along, more or less in the guise of Jo's Lauriey (WHAT was Jo thinking when she turned him down?)

There is even a scholarly Norton's edition of Anne of Green Gables, if you don't want to get caught reading Bantams. And you can buy the complete set of Anne books: I believe there are 8, though more if you cound the Chronicles of Avonlea and Further Chronicales of Avonlea.

She also wrote many other series, including the autobiographical Emly books, with which I am less familiar.

By the way, the Montgomery conference url is:

And here is an url to a radio podcast:

1 comment:

Ellen said...

I've never read any Anne of Green Gables but the parallel with _Little Women_ illuminated the books for me. I know more about them now from reading what you wrote than I've known before. Also the writer's life.

I hope your conference won't be marred by too much idolatry :).

Leslie Robertson on the three lists we share loved these books. She is Canadian.