I've heard many people over the years name Anne of Windy Poplars as their least favourite book in L.M. Montgomery's Anne series. I run hot and cold on Anne; there are a number of installments in the series that I love, and others that I skip over now on every reread. But I believe I go against the grain in counting Windy Poplars among the loves.
Windy Poplars covers the three years that elapse between Anne and Gilbert's engagement at the end of Anne of the Island and their wedding at the beginning of Anne's House of Dreams. They're apart for these years, with Gilbert at medical school in Kingsport, and Anne serving as Principal of Summerside High School, and the novel is comprised entirely of letters from Anne to Gilbert. They're not love letters⎯whenever Anne is feeling romantic, we get only suggestive ellipses⎯but chatty, thoughtful, and humorous descriptions of this new place and the new people she encounters there.
For those for whom the Anne/Gilbert romance is a central attraction of the series, this is just wasted time. I'm not one of those people. I confess that I've always found Gilbert rather dull⎯truth to tell, the only one of Montgomery's romantic leads that I've got any time for is Barney Snaith in The Blue Castle. But, major caveat here, the tenor of the correspondence in Windy Poplars, even though we get only one side of it, makes me like Gilbert more, because it so clearly conveys the depth of their friendship. It convinces me that Gilbert truly is the one for her.
Because it's a novel in letters, Anne is the narrator of the tale, and this is Anne's voice as we've not heard it before. Anne's over-exuberance in the earlier books can make her a bit exhausting at times. But here, although she's still that spirited Anne, we get her in contemplative moments, and we see her having a sense of humour about herself and those around her. And, we get to witness Anne's facility with her pen first hand. If she had employed these storytelling skills in her public writing rather than ultimately selling herself short, on the eve of her wedding, as one who "can write pretty, fanciful little sketches that children love" but "nothing big," then she might well have had a successful writing career echoing that of her creator.
Finally it's the humour in this book that is the major draw for me. In previous books Montgomery has depicted the adult shenanigans of small communities with the same sharp-eyed insight and wit, but mostly as a backdrop to the doings of precocious children. Here, it's front and centre in a book which therefore strikes me as a very adult one. I relish the depiction of the inner working of Summerside society, in particular the role within it of the ruling family, the Pringles, who initially do their best shut Anne out. And although the cast of characters is large, all are fully realized and altogether loveable or pleasurably hateable or an intriguing in between.
I'm particularly fond of the widows (Aunt Chatty and Aunt Kate) and the inimitable Rebecca Dew with whom Anne boards at Windy Poplars. And so, I leave you with a description of them from near the beginning of the book as Anne is just settling in to her new digs:
"The widows are going to wear well. Every day I like them better. Aunt Kate doesn't believe in reading novels, but informs me that she does not propose to censor my reading-matter. Aunt Chatty loves novels. She has a 'hidy-hole' where she keeps them ... she smuggles them in from the town library ... together with a pack of cards for solitaire and anything else she doesn't want Aunt Kate to see. It is in a chair seat which nobody but Aunt Chatty knows is more than a chair seat. She has shared the secret with me, because, I strongly suspect, she wants me to aid and abet her in the aforesaid smuggling. There shouldn't really be any need for hidy-holes at Windy Poplars, for I never saw a house with so many mysterious cupboards. Though to be sure, Rebecca Dew won't let them be mysterious. She is always cleaning them out ferociously. 'A house can't keep itself clean,' she says sorrowfully when either of the widows protests. I am sure she would make short work of a novel or a pack of cards if she found them. They are both a horror to her orthodox soul. Rebecca Dew says cards are the devil's books and novels even worse. The only things Rebecca ever reads, apart from her Bible, are the society columns of the Montreal Guardian. She loves to pore over the houses and furniture and doings of millionaires.
Are there any other Windy Poplars fans among you?