L.M. Montgomery’s iconic red-haired orphan.
(Previously, Part 1: Intro and Part 2: Rambo)
It took an awful lot longer to read Anne of Green Gables than I had originally anticipated, what with all the crying. Nobody told me Matthew died. I couldn’t take it. I tried pleading with the pages, my voice cracking, as though this course wasn’t set to break my heart 108 years ago.
After all of Anne’s romantic fancies and tragic lamentations, the straightforward description and quiet emotional reaction to Matthew’s death was an icy vacuum that knifed me good and proper. Half an hour later, I picked the book up off the floor, pulled myself together, and valiantly marched through to the novel’s provisional conclusion.
The texture of the novel’s prose drew me in like a sucker. All that bombast tricked me into thinking that I was safe, that I could open up and let these odd islanders into my heart and that nothing terrible, nothing untoward, could really happen. Then Lucy Maud Montgomery hoodwinked the fuck out of me.
But she managed to trick pretty much everyone into reading this subversive, feminist novel of hers, and she did so without raising nearly as much controversy as its content could have elicited. That is remarkable, given how these puritans freaked about dances, recitals, and ice cream.
After all of Anne’s romantic fancies and tragic lamentations, the straightforward description and quiet emotional reaction to Matthew’s death was an icy vacuum that knifed me good and proper.
If they had seen into the cold, brilliant heart of Montgomery’s literary criticism of the philosophical undergirding of patriarchy, people would’ve lambasted the book and it would’ve been forgotten to history. Instead, she hid it right under their noses, in the blood and bones of the Bildungsroman, completely remapping the genre to undermine its traditional, sexist scaffolding, and all without ruffling an institutional feather.
Sure, she wasn’t the first. Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters were ripping those doors open almost a century before Montgomery, but she managed to sneak this critique into a children’s novel that stodgy Victorian folk guzzled like raspberry cordial. That’s quite a feat.
Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908, back when Sir Wilfred Laurier was Prime Minister. It was a time when women couldn’t vote, electricity was scarce, alcohol was illegal on Prince Edward Island, and women wouldn’t legally be “persons” in Canada for another two decades. Not exactly the kind of environment for a rip-roaring feminist treatise. You had to sneak that contraband under the radar if you wanted folks to let their kids read it.
You could cut the patriarchy with a knife. Looking back, it was a stench. It even permeates the initial conceit of the novel. A pair of elderly, unwed siblings decide that it’d be a prudent idea to adopt a boy to help out around the farm. To their horror, they get a girl instead, like it’s some great, cosmic prank.
Then she worms her way into their hearts, this little red-haired orphan who radiates raw vitality, her cup overbrimming with imagination and an untrammelled appreciation for existence, not to mention a vocabulary ripe enough to foist her sublime observations upon her hapless audience.
This crusty, withered, god-fearing community is simultaneously seduced and wary of Anne. She brings a scary package of emotions, wonder, and enthusiasm, all things that were anathema to proper behaviour at the time. Plus, she was a smart young woman, which sparked the klaxon howl of rural Victorian respectability.
The texture of the novel’s prose drew me in like a sucker.
To sugar the feminist pill, Montgomery performed some amazing feats of literary acrobatics. For starters, she followed the genre’s ostensible tropes to a T. This lovely iconoclast had to be an orphan. We’re reminded again and again that her moral education was a travesty. Nobody raised her up right. Instead, as a precarious adjunct to previous households, she was used as free labour to raise children in grotesque circumstances. These puritans kept popping kids out, and six-year-old Anne had to take care of them. Three sets of twins! (Cue apocryphal Groucho Marx.)
There was no time for this little orphan to learn how to be a better person, so of course she’s wild. This places the origin of her eccentricities beyond the bounds of regular society, justifying them enough to curb any latent suspicions.
Second, the plot is essentially a Freudian sine wave. Anne’s natural instincts and vibrant reveries bump up against the monolithic super-ego of Victorian mores, hilarity ensues, and a moral lesson is learned. Mix and repeat. Throughout this process, Anne learns how to sand down the burrs in her personality but, importantly, her philosophy also rubs off on everyone around her.
Marilla is the best example of this. Initially, she is utterly driven by decorum, but Anne eventually unlocks Marilla’s capacity to feel after decades of prim and proper interior desolation. In a way, Marilla and Anne go back and forth providing guidance and stewardship for one another. Marilla is Anne’s avenue to social norms, to the basic tenets of respectability and the skills necessary to carve out a life for oneself in pragmatic reality. But at the same time, Anne acts as a midwife for Marilla’s emotional world, her over-the-top sensitivity and expressions battering down the heavy oaken doors of Marilla’s entrenched sublimation.
However, the take-home is that Anne grows up, learns lessons, and becomes a proper lady despite her raging poetic perspective. She’s finds balance between passion and practicality, which curbs her more gregarious tendencies, because the plot would raise too many red flags otherwise.
Third, and here’s where things get actinic, the text itself is secretly overthrowing the divisive, patriarchal framing of the world, all with an eye for naturalizing the subversive elements of the novel. This is really apparent in The Annotated Anne of Green Gables, an Oxford University Press edition replete with essays, textual notes, and the manuscript’s revisions from draft to draft.
While re-writing Anne, Montgomery explicitly retooled the many descriptions of nature to eliminate neutral or masculine terms and replaced them with feminine ones. “Jewelweed” becomes “ladies’ eardrops” in the narration, while Anne renames the plants around the house “Snow Queen” and “Bonny.” The creative re-interpretation doesn’t stop there.
Anne doesn’t reject patriarchal society; she creatively reinterprets it.
The entire landscape surrounding Avonlea is shucked of prosaic monikers and delivered into the realm of poetry as Anne goes around, coming up with new names for things. “Barry’s Pond” is elevated to “The Lake of Shining Waters” and pretty soon the land becomes suffused with new meaning. Anne bestows anonymous patches of land with titles like Idlewild, Willowmere, Dryad’s Bubble, and the Haunted Wood to create meaning, and she demands that her name be spelled with an “e” to assert some control over how she’s seen by others. Names are powerful things. They act like conceptual cubbies, limiting referential scope and establishing interpretive might.
Anne comes right out and says so, pushing Shakespeare up against the wall and tweaking his beard. “I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose would be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.”
The transformation doesn’t stop there. Montgomery went out of her way to use the symbolically feminine elements of gemstones and plants to describe the sky. Between manuscripts, the “saffron” sky becomes “marigold,” or bedecked with amethysts and rubies. Symbolically, this ties the traditionally masculine, rarefied, spiritual heavens with the feminine accoutrements of the earth goddess. In a sense, the classic deus otiosus is replaced with an immanent, Spinozist concept of divine essence moving through Nature. Only here, it is explicitly Mother Nature.
Now Montgomery’s subtext begins to take shape. Anne doesn’t reject patriarchal society; she creatively reinterprets it. She gives it a shot of life. Orthodox Victorian spirituality is not jettisoned, but transformed into something with a beating heart. Earth and sky become one.
At the same time, Victorian culture is not abandoned but accommodated and revivified. Anne is portrayed as a wild girl who grows up into a mature, but still passionate young woman. She develops along multiple dimensions simultaneously, physically, emotionally, socially, but also, importantly, intellectually and spiritually. Normally the realm of men, especially in Victorian Bildungsroman, Anne provides a portrait of a woman who has a complete inner life and an impact on those around her.
She’s a full human being, which, as sad as it is to say, was a revolutionary expression at the time.
By weaving together text, character, and plot, Montgomery provides an alternative human perspective to the ghoulish correctness of rural Canadian Victorian society, without ever tipping her hand that this novel was critical or subversive. Like Matthew’s subtle injunctions to Marilla’s strict decorum, Montgomery crafted a novel that exposes the hollow foundation of Victorian mores without ever rocking the boat.
Montgomery went out of her way to use the symbolically feminine elements of gemstones and plants to describe the sky.
Victorian patriarchy was a sick culture, obsessed with quiet death that lingers throughout the days, living in a perpetual gloom of strict etiquette oppression. Anne acts as an embodied counterpoint, punching through this ghastly chill via bright observations of the beauties of pastoral Canada and connecting natural reality to the transcendent with the power of poetry and a life lived in passionate appreciation. Instead of binding spiritual observance to a metaphysical rift, Anne reminds us, again and again, that what is holy is the present moment and the everyday beauty, the suchness, of conscious human existence.
But, jeez, I wish she didn’t have to kill Matthew.
Our last set of writers dig into the issues of identity that crop up when considering popular literature. This week Sarah Feldbloom outlines the ongoing process of finding oneself in the act of interpersonal communication at the heart of reading and writing, and Naben Ruthnum explores the history of pseudonyms in crime thrillers and the many reasons why someone might want to hide themselves in their art. Next week, Chuck Tingle rounds out the month with an essay on the difficult balance between personal expression and popular appeal.
Cian Cruise lives in Toronto. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Playboy, Hazlitt, Maisonneuve, Broken Pencil, THIS Magazine, and Little Brother, among others. More can be found on his website ciancruise.com