Friday, October 09, 2009

The Charms of Anne of Windy Poplars

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?


sassymonkey said...

I'll admit, it's not one of my favourite Anne books, even though it has some fantastic characters. And it is possibly because I'm a Gilbert fan, though I'm right there with you on Snaith (Blue Castle may be my favourite LMM novel).

Deva Fagan said...

I am a Windy Polars fan! I love all the little vignettes and Anne's housemates particularly. I agree that Anne's voice is particularly strong and interesting in this book. Just reading your post has brought back all these memories of the book -- the buttermilk face washings, Dusty Miller, the preserved pumpkin, the poor little boy who gets photographed. And isn't this book the one with Katherine-with-a-K? Thank you for the reminder of a wonderful book!

Also, I will join you and sassymonkey in the Barney Snaith fan club. Definitely my favorite leading man in a LMM book (and one of my favorite LMM books)!

Dorte H said...

My daughter is a fan, but Montgomery´s books never found their way to my childhood library (Danish) so they were out of reach for me.

Katie Edwards said...

I'm glad to find another person who sees more to the Anne series than just the romance with Gilbert - I love Gilbert very much, and love the soppy bits, but the story is so much more than that! Yes, I am very fond of this title in the series, especially the Pringle Politics and how Anne finally won them over. As well, of course, Katherine-spelled-with-a-K. (I'm Katherine Ann, so win her approval of one spelling of the two at any rate.)

Anonymous said...

The cast of characters is this book can barely be beat. They're all quirky, but their quirks seem real. And it just feels different from the other Anne books.
It's been a very long time since I've done a complete reread. It's probably time. I think I need a reading vacation!

jenclair said...

My very favorite! Loved the house, the aunts, Rebecca Dew, and Katherine-with-a-K and her transformation. The girl with the student crush who turned vicious still feels current.

raidergirl3 said...

I've never really thought of which book I liked or didn't - they are all one big mash up for me of Anne love, I confess.
Wonderful review here, which brought back all the wonderfulness of Windy Poplars. I can't drive down Summerside streets without picturing Anne living in one of the old big houses.

You did a great analysis of what works well in this novel, and I agree that we really get to hear Anne's voice and the story from her perspective.

And as dated as it is, I love the cover - it makes me feel like a teenager again.

Eva said...

Ok, I'm not with you on the Gilbert thing. :p I love him.

But I do love Windy Poplars! It's definitely one of my faves. :)

Belle said...

When I was young, Windy Poplars definitely wasn't one of my favorites. But I've discovered that, now that I'm older (okay, much older), I enjoy all of the Anne books almost equally. Of course, I'll always have a special place in my heart for Anne of Green Gables, but I really enjoy spending time with the grown up Anne, too.

Kerry said...

I don't love Gilbert as much as I love Jonathan Crombie.


You've made me want to revisit this one, though. I have probably only read it once and years ago. So I will do so!

I just finished Before Green Gables and will be blogging about my thoughts on it soon.

Kailana said...

I would have to reread the series again to remember which ones I hate and love. It's been too long at this point!

Melanie said...

I'm a little bored by Gilbert (and Jonathan Crombie) but I do like these letters. I enjoy this book a lot, actually; love the epistolary format and also enjoy Anne's independence in this one.

sisyphus said...

I loved 'Anne of Windy Poplars', which I knew as 'Anne of Windy Willows' in its UK and Ireland edition. What I enjoyed most was the stories and vignettes Anne accumulated from the local community, especially in her walk around the graveyard and, in another chapter, her overnight stay in a much-haunted house. Reading the 'Chronicles of Avonlea' as an adult, I probably felt the pathos of Montgomery's writing more acutely than I did as a child, but back then it was 'Windy Poplars / Willows' that showed me how well she understood humour.

Janet said...

Oh I so love all things Ann. But yes it is one my favorites. I adore Rebeca Dew...I challenge anyone to try and just call her Rebeca (so not happening). and Little Elizabeth and her search for tomorrow. I always cry when I read the story of the little fellow who passes away but am thrilled that the nefew finds family at the end of it and the father gets a picture. It is one book but is many stories each one so very interesting.