I count myself among the L.M. Montgomery fans who feel a great sense of kinship with Anne Shirley but little or no affinity for Anne Blythe. Yet Anne's House of Dreams, which marks the transition from one to the other, has long been one of my favourite books in the series. It was the first one that I owned a copy of, a chunky Canadian Favourites paperback edition that I received for Christmas at age eleven, and its battered state is a testament to the number of times I've read it in the intervening years. Thus I've always fancied it wasn't until the next book, Anne of Ingleside, that Anne and I parted ways. On my latest reread though, it became clear to me that while there are a multitude of reasons that I love Anne's House of Dreams, it was within its pages that my estrangement from Anne occurred. But perhaps along with that realization comes the perspective necessary for reconciliation.
I'll begin with the positive. What is it that makes Anne's House of Dreams one of my favourites?
The Sea: I've often wondered why Anne, who seems to thrill to every other aspect of the natural world, scarcely seems to notice the sea in Avonlea despite living within spitting distance of it. No matter, that lack is more than made up for by its pervasive presence in this book, once Anne and Gilbert arrive in Four Winds. Indeed, in a passage that I had forgotten, Anne muses on this shift:
There was a certain tang of romance and adventure in the atmosphere of their new home which Anne had never found in Avonlea. There, although she had lived within sight of the sea, it had not entered intimately into her life. In Four Winds it surrounded her and called to her constantly. From every window of her new home she saw some varying aspect of it. Its haunting murmur was ever in her ears. Vessels sailed up the harbour every day to the wharf at the Glen, or sailed out again through the sunset, bound for ports that might be half way round the globe. Fishing boats went white-winged down the channel in the mornings, and returned laden in the evenings. Sailors and fisher-folk traveled the red, winding harbour roads, light-hearted and content. There was always a sense of things going to happen⎯of adventures and farings-forth. The ways of Four Winds were less staid and settled and grooved than those of Avonlea; winds of change blew over them; the sea called ever to the dwellers on shore, and even those who might not answer its call felt the thrill and unrest and mystery and possibilities of it.
I'm the sort of impatient reader who usually skips past descriptions of nature, but I linger over and delight in every mention of the sea in this book⎯yes, "the thrill and unrest and mystery and possibilities of it." I'm quite sure that it was thanks to Anne's House of Dreams that I first fell in love with the landscape of Prince Edward Island.
Leslie Moore: I'm ducking as I write this, but I've always found Diana Barry to be an awfully bland character. She's a loyal and good-hearted person, and she certainly provides a rapt audience for Anne's imaginings and escapades. But Anne and Diana have never struck me as having much in common and I've never understood the source of their enduring connection. Whereas, I have no trouble understanding why Anne is drawn to the vivid and complicated Leslie Moore. At one point it's noted: "There was a certain tang and savour to the conversation when Leslie was present that they missed when she was absent." Exactly. She gives that tang and savour to the whole book.
Miss Cornelia: Another of my favourite characters in the series, Miss Cornelia Bryant, is introduced in this book. Like Mrs. Lynde in the earlier books, she's a reliable provider of comic relief (and given the tragedy that threads through the plot, that comic relief has perhaps never been more necessary). But she's no pale imitation of Mrs. Lynde; she's her own woman⎯a true original and an altogether delightful character.
The Plot: Many of Montgomery's books tend toward the episodic but not this one. It's one of her most tightly plotted and suspenseful novels. Admittedly aspects of the plot are melodramatic and there are moments when it's difficult, especially as an adult reader, to maintain one's suspension of disbelief. Nevertheless, I relish the shift and the demonstration of Montgomery's writerly range that it represents.
With so much to recommend it, what is it in this book that caused the rift between the once beloved Anne and me?
Exhibit A: Anne in reply to Paul Irving's mention of seeing some of her work in magazines:
"No. I know what I can do. I can write pretty fanciful little sketches that children love and editors send welcome cheques for. But I can do nothing big. My only chance for earthly immortality is a corner in your Memoirs."
Exhibit B: Anne in response to Gilbert's suggestion that she try her hand at writing up Captain Jim's life-book:
"No. I only wish I could. But it's not in the power of my gift. You know what my forte is, Gilbert⎯the fanciful, the fairylike, the pretty. To write Captain Jim's life-book as it should be written one should be a master of vigorous yet subtle style, a keen psychologist, a born humourist and a born tragedian. A rare combination of gifts is needed. Paul might do it if he were older."
Exhibit C: Anne in response to Owen Ford's mention that he'd been told she's a fellow writer:
"Oh, I do little things for children. I haven't done much since I was married. And I have no designs on the great Canadian novel," laughed Anne. "That is quite beyond me."
Not just a belittling of her own talents, but an assumption on each occasion that a male writer is better suited than she is to the task of writing something substantial and important. Anne was my first writing role model, and this has always felt like betrayal times three. But is it really?
The foregoing statements would be a betrayal of Anne's writing ambitions only if she has writing ambitions. Perhaps she doesn't. Perhaps Anne isn't a writer at all. I found this idea startling when Katrine Poe posited it in an essay on Anne in Nancy Drew and Company: Culture, Gender, and Girls' Series (edited by Sherrie A. Inness). But the more I thought about it, the more I agreed with her. Anne writes stories in Anne of Green Gables as part of the story club that she starts with Diana, Jane, and Ruby. She attempts to write a magazine-worthy story in Anne of Avonlea but, diligently though she works at it, the endeavour doesn't seem to move her much beyond the melodramatic plots and purple prose of her story club efforts. And thereafter, she confines herself to occasional sketches such as the dialogue between flowers that she composes while awaiting rescue from the Copp girls' hen house on the Tory Road. Each instance seems to represent a momentary enthusiasm, not a driving passion to write. Think of the grit and determination with which Anne pursues and achieves the things she really wants: an education, a home, a family. If she had a passion to write, she would write. Her imaginative life is of continuing importance to her, but putting any of it down on paper seems more or less incidental.
If this is true, then the source of the sense of betrayal that this book generates in me is not identification with Anne, but misidentification with Anne. In which case, I ought to be able to let it go, or rather, to let Anne let it go without taking it personally. (And, after all, it's not as if losing Anne as a writing role model in my youth left me bereft. I still had Jo March, and Emily Byrd Starr, and Betsy Ray to sustain me.) So I leave this rereading of Anne's House of Dreams prepared to let Anne be herself, rather than who I wanted her to be when I was a twelve-year-old aspiring writer. Can I maintain this live-and-let-live attitude through Anne of Ingleside, hands down the Anne book I like least, and the rest of the series, and on into the newly published The Blythes Are Quoted? We'll see…