Originally published in The Mark, 23 October 2009.
Montgomery didn’t just write about the cheerful life of Anne. Her books were full of unhappy characters and gothic plots.
Ever since I decided to dedicate a fair proportion of my time to the work of L.M. Montgomery, the author of the Anne of Green Gables series of books, at graduate school a decade ago, I’ve often been asked what it is I find so compelling about a set of books that are supposed to appeal primarily to women and children. These questions are asked by colleagues and acquaintances who either see no value in books for women and children, or who, at the opposite end of the spectrum, have identified strongly with Montgomery’s protagonists—Anne, Emily, Sara, Pat, Rilla, and Jane—since early childhood and have nurtured that attachment throughout their lives.
My interest in Montgomery’s work is at times perplexing to even me, since I’m not able to identify with her characters in this way. As a male reader of French Canadian and Catholic heritage, I’ve often felt like an outsider to the Scots-Presbyterian communities that Montgomery depicts. In fact, when I first read Anne of Green Gables at the age of sixteen, I’m fairly sure I only half-understood what the term “Presbyterian” meant. If I had to choose a character in Anne of Green Gables with whom I could identify based on gender and background, I suppose the best I could come up with is one of the “stupid, half-grown little French boys” who are too lazy and unreliable to be of any use on the Cuthbert farm.
Perhaps because I’m more distanced from Montgomery’s characters and communities, the elements that I enjoy most in her work are not the romance (which I don’t find that believable), or her elaborate nature descriptions (which I tend to skip). What I find most compelling and fascinating about the Anne books are the counterstories that Montgomery inserts alongside the primarily happy story of Anne Shirley Blythe. Whether comic or tragic, these counterstories primarily concern secondary characters or anecdotes about stock characters who never actually appear. These include lonely or bitter spinsters in Anne of Avonlea, odd and mismatched couples in Anne of the Island, and abused and neglected children in Rainbow Valley. In Anne’s House of Dreams, ostensibly centred on Anne’s newlywed phase with Gilbert, the most compelling story concerns neighbour Leslie Moore, trapped in a loveless marriage to a brutish man who was rendered a simpleton in a bar fight. The “solution” to this subplot is totally farfetched, but Leslie’s suffering certainly is not. These elements may seem surprising for a children’s book, but then, Montgomery never saw herself as a writer for children.
In Anne of Windy Poplars, a 1936 addition to the original series of six books, Montgomery backtracked to Anne as a high school principal in the years of her engagement to Gilbert. Anne meets two identical spinsters who are proud of the range of bizarre ways in which their relatives died. Montgomery was asked by her American editor to cut some of the more gruesome anecdotes, but these were retained for the British edition, published as Anne of Windy Willows. Among the anecdotes that didn’t make it into the North American editions were two suicides, an accidental shooting, an unintentional self-poisoning by a man who took the wrong medication in the dark, a cousin who may have been buried alive, a man who was buried with his eyes open, and a family legend that Satan appeared at a dance party. Perhaps not surprisingly, Montgomery was “pleasantly amazed” when the Daily Mirror chose Anne of Windy Willows for its romantic book of the month.
My edition of Montgomery’s final book, The Blythes Are Quoted (which will be released on October 27), is of interest to readers not only because Montgomery submitted it to her publisher the very day of her death, reportedly by suicide, but because of the way Montgomery rewrote earlier short stories and added vignettes to feature Anne and Gilbert. In this final book, the counterstories become the story, while Anne and her family become the counterstory: they appear, but as Montgomery’s title indicates, mostly they are spoken about.
While the subject matter may surprise some readers who know Montgomery as a writer of sunny romances for children—the book contains three elaborate deathbed scenes as well as brief mentions of sixty-odd characters who have died—the purpose of its publication is not to ruin a beloved Canadian icon, but to appreciate more the darker elements that she has offered us all along in the margins of her beloved books. In her final contribution to literature, Montgomery provides for her international community of readers a new way of reading her beloved heroine Anne.
[© 2009 by Benjamin Lefebvre.]