The Enduring Appeal of Anne of Green Gables and L M Montgomery

Anne had brought her slate down on Gilbert’s head and cracked it – slate not head – clear across.

Gilbert Blythe was my first literary crush.  I said this recently to a group of women, and got more than one nod of agreement.  I first read Anne of Green Gables (1908) by L M Montgomery (1874-1942) because it was my mother’s favourite childhood book – she described her best times at school as the rare afternoons of ‘quiet reading’.  When at about the age of ten, I found the ‘Anne book’ in my local library, I fell upon it.  Over the next few years I probably borrowed it more than any other book.  (It helped that, like Anne, I had red hair.  I hated geometry too, although my mother suspected, unfairly, that I was just imitating Anne and could learn to love it if I tried.  And then, of course, there was Gilbert.)

Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne Of Green Gables (Credit: Library and Archives Canada / C-011299)

Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne Of Green Gables (Credit: Library and Archives Canada / C-011299)

I am not alone in my fondness for this book.  Some of the Reading Sheffield interviewees remember it well.  Dorothy (b. 1931) recalled:

My absolute passion was Anne of Green Gables…I adored all the series.  If I had had a daughter…she would have been called Anne.

The hold of this remarkable book is as strong as ever.  It is easily Maud Montgomery’s most popular story and remains in print after a century, with millions of copies sold in many languages.  Prince Edward Island has a healthy Anne/L M Montgomery tourism industry.  There have been around 20 film and television adaptations and related productions (the star of the 1934 movie, Dawn O’Day, even changed her name to Anne Shirley) and a new version is due in 2016, with no less than Martin Sheen playing the role of Matthew Cuthbert.  The adventures of an orphan in rural, late 19c Canada apparently remain as enjoyable as ever, and Anne has retained her gift for friendship over the years.

For those who don’t know, Anne of Green Gables is the story of a young girl given a home by a brother and sister living on a farm on Prince Edward Island.  What no-one knows as she arrives on the Island is that the orphanage made a mistake.  The request was for a strong boy to help with farmwork, not an imaginative, sensitive, lonely chatterbox of a girl.  Miss Marilla Cuthbert, who does not like her plans overset, intends to return her but is persuaded not to, and so Anne gets the home she needs and spinster Marilla and bachelor Matthew the child neither expected.  Her adventures last for a further five books, well into adulthood, and include the incident quoted above, in which Gilbert, on first meeting Anne, unwisely pulls her hair and calls her ‘Carrots!’  She is, you see, very sensitive about the colour and longs for it to be a ‘handsome auburn’:

Oh I could endure anything if only I thought my hair would be a handsome auburn when I grew up.  It would be so much easier to be good if one’s hair was a handsome auburn, don’t you think?

L M Montgomery, it is said, based her novel in part on a newspaper story about an orphan girl sent in error to a couple who wanted a boy.  (Does anyone know what happened to the girl?  I long to know.)  But she also clearly drew on her own difficult childhood and later life.  Unlike Anne, she was not orphaned as a baby, but did lose her mother very early and afterwards saw little of her father.  She was brought up in a community like Avonlea by her maternal grandparents in an austere household.  The Cuthberts and their Green Gables farmhouse were probably based on relatives living nearby (you can visit their house still).  Maud had little money and worked as a teacher to fund university, although unlike Anne she did not complete her studies.  Both married and lost children.

The real Green Gables (copyright Pam Gibson)

The real Green Gables (copyright Pam Gibson)

On the strength of this, it is easy to over-estimate the autobiographical element of Anne of Green Gables.  I certainly assumed this as a child.  But Anne Shirley and Maud Montgomery are not the same.  Anne knows sadness but has, through Gilbert and her family, the security to help her overcome tragedy.  Maud’s journals, published long after her death but with her permission, apparently show a troubled woman who had a difficult marriage with a depressive man, who lost a child and did not always get along with her surviving sons, all while living a very public life.  It comes as a huge shock to the reader of the Anne books to learn that their author may have committed suicide in despair and weariness.

Anne is then not so much the real as the might-have-been-Maud, just as her other characters like Emily of New Moon and Jane of Lantern Hill appear to explore aspects of Maud’s life.  Emily develops her writing talents and Jane eventually re-unites her estranged parents in a way Maud never could and is secure in their love.

Maud's bedroom (copyright Pam Gibson)

Maud’s bedroom (copyright Pam Gibson)

For Maud, there was a long period in the critical wilderness (all those happy endings, all that folksiness and whimsy, all those adjectives…) but ordinary readers apparently always appreciated her.  She created a secure, rural world based on the one in which she grew up (and possibly warmer and funnier than the real thing), which is enormously attractive. As are her spirited heroines, who are unusual, as heroines should be, but not so much so that we cannot identify with them.  Thousands of girls probably wanted to be Anne and/or one of the others.  I certainly did.

Maud Montgomery is not alone in this type of literature: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Jo March and her sisters, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Pollyanna and Katy Carr are all cousins of Anne (some more distant than others).  But I think Anne has the edge over these others, even Jo and Laura.  Through Anne, Maud remains more popular than other writers of her period and type, no matter what the critics thought or think.  If you read them in childhood, there seems a good chance that you will remember them with affection in adulthood.  As Reading Sheffield interviewee Florence Cowood (b. 1923) said: ‘I just liked the story and the struggle in [it].’

Did you read Anne of Green Gables or other books by L M Montgomery?  Why do you think they remain popular?

By Val Hewson

Note: Anyone wanting to know more about L M Montgomery should read Mary H Rubio’s excellent biography, Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings (Anchor Canada, 2008), which made me think about the woman who created Anne Shirley.  And the Lucy Maud Montgomery Research Centre at the University of Guelph is well worth visiting.

Dorothy Latham’s Reading Journey

Dorothy was born in 1931 in Catcliffe, between Rotherham and Sheffield, and grew up there, attending Woodhouse Grammar School.  Dorothy became a civil servant, working in careers guidance and employment.  She married Derek, who ran his own plumbing and heating business and they had two sons.

dorothy-latham-3

Even now I’m always reading, you know…

Always a passionate reader, Dorothy talked of reading in bed from childhood, on the bus to and from work and in the evenings while her husband pursued practical hobbies like joinery and repairing machinery.

I’d often, to be quite honest, read on the buses.  I mean you had a long journey sometimes…I still try half an hour in the evenings before I go to sleep in bed. It relaxes me.

But she was conscious of her reading tastes and interests changing over time. ‘I think you alter as you get older on what you like.’

Dorothy’s reading habit was inherited from her mother.  She recalled being told Rupert the Bear bedtime stories and then reading for herself: ‘…once I could read, you know, I just didn’t put them down’.  This included, you sense, reading to cope with the disruption of the Second World War, when Dorothy remembered standing in her garden and watching Sheffield being bombed in the middle of the night.

The first book Dorothy really loved was the ever-popular Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery.

My absolute passion was Anne of Green Gables…I adored all the series. If I’d have had a daughter – which I didn’t. I had two sons – she would have been called Anne…I adored it, and I – I was just absorbed with it.

Within her family, books seemed to be a means of both enjoyment and self-improvement.  ‘You know my mother was always encouraging me…in that kind of life.’  Dorothy was unusual in her village in winning a scholarship to Woodhouse Grammar School.  There she was introduced, as children usually are, to Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and other classics.  ‘It was always the English that I was good at.’  Meanwhile the war made buying books and much else difficult, and so Dorothy and her mother often borrowed from the private Red Circle library: ‘…I was brought up in an ordinary household but somehow I got the best’.

As she grew older, the reading habit grew stronger.  Dorothy’s father was very protective of her, and she spent many evenings reading at home rather than going out.

It may sound strange but I was encouraged in…erm…I mean I never went out. I suppose I was too young in the war but I’d meet some people and they were out dancing and doing all that. Well my father wouldn’t have, he – he was very protective. You could say I missed it really.

Marriage did not stop Dorothy’s reading: ‘…when I got married I had to limit myself to what I did but I’ve always, always loved the reading’.  Her husband and mother-in-law were not much interested in books (indeed she thinks her husband was dyslexic), but her father-in-law was, to borrow a phrase from Anne of Green Gables, a ‘kindred spirit’.  He told her, for example, about finding a ‘wonderful book’ which she must read: Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

And you know, I’d discuss books with him and all sorts and you see my eldest son, his first memory of being taken to a library was being taken by his grandpa.

dorothy-latham-1

Dorothy sometimes made compromises between reading and looking after home and family:

…you know I thought I could just be a bit of a monkey and sit down and read and not get on with what I was doing. I mean my husband never bothered, I could have done what I wanted really. I mean you have to look after the children and things and I tried to look after my parents. So you’ve got to fit things in, haven’t you?’

 

dorothy-latham-2

Warwick Deeping’s Sorrell and Son was an example: ‘Oh, yes! Oh I thought that was fantastic. I found it…it absorbed me, yes it did. I didn’t want to put it down.’

By now L M Montgomery had been replaced in Dorothy’s favour by Emily and Charlotte Bronte.  She liked Jane Eyre but her favourite was Wuthering Heights. ‘Soooo romantic and now I just think: “oh, not so much”.’  The past was always interesting.  Dorothy liked history and so looked for classics like Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope and also lighter, historical novels by writers like Georgette Heyer, Margaret Irwin, Baroness Orczy and Jean Plaidy.  But her reading was very wide.  She happily quoted: Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Margaret Mitchell, Catherine Cookson, Rosamund Pilcher, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, P D James, Ellis Peters, Edgar Wallace, Anthony Hope, Nicholas Monsarrat, Dennis Wheatley, Betty Neels, Arnold Bennett, A J Cronin, Nevil Shute, J B Priestley, Somerset Maugham and Howard Spring.

When it came to books vs television and/or film, Dorothy preferred books:

If I’ve read a book and it’s made into a film, I’m disappointed because your mind works with the book and when I read them, they don’t, they’re not the same…I’ve always felt let down… [Filmmakers] don’t go into the detail and I don’t think they realise that when you read your brain is working out and in your brain visually you are imagining the positions and the circumstances…

(Not that Dorothy disliked all adaptations: Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice and The Forsyte Saga all gave her a lot of enjoyment.)

Dorothy’s sight, hearing and mobility deteriorated as she got older and over time she relied more and more on the home library service and audiobooks.  ‘I’ve been very grateful for that, very grateful.’  She let others choose her books but she would give feedback: ‘…sometimes I say “oh I did like that” and then they send me a lot, you know. Because I’m, I’m very choosey and they know exactly what I like’.  This did get her into trouble once when a friend picked up a book from the library, which turned out to be more explicit than she usually read.  ‘Phft do you like this stuff then?’ he said.  Dorothy had to explain how the book had been chosen without her looking at it.  Sadly she couldn’t recall the title or author, but she remembered it as ‘very, very embarrassing’.

This reliance on libraries throughout her life gave Dorothy strong views about their value.

‘I was so annoyed when I came here that they sold the library… I thought it was disgusting…and they said “Well, you can go into town” and I thought I’d come here because I was disabled and I thought no library! I thought that was a shame. I hope we don’t lose the libraries.’

After years and years of reading, did Dorothy re-read the favourite books of her youth?

I don’t know about Anne of Green Gables. I absolutely was besotted with it…and I mean now I don’t want to read it. Also I though Wuthering Heights was so romantic, I don’t anymore now, I don’t know, I think it’s a bit over the top.  It doesn’t seem quite real.  But as young person I was telling everyone that’s my favourite book. I must have been about 20, I don’t know. Yeah, that was my favourite and I don’t think it is anymore. I think you alter as you get older on what you like.

Asked if reading changed her life, Dorothy agreed.

…as I’ve got disabled, I have to say I’d be quite lost without my books because I have to fight against getting depressed. I’m not but…because of how I am, I’m not one for just needlessly sitting about like this.  I like to be occupied…I’ve switched off from what I can’t do because I’m filling my life with things that I can and that may sound strange but it’s no good…I’ve reached a good age.  I’m 80 in a month and, and I think “well, I’ve done quite well really”.

 

By Val Hewson

Access Dorothy’s transcript and audio here