Monday, November 23, 2009

Rereading Anne's House of Dreams & Reconciling with the Adult Anne

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…


Wendy said...

Thanks for this intriguing exploration. Not really being a writer myself, I didn't feel particularly betrayed by Anne's relative abandonment of writing (it was simply her MARRIAGE that felt somehow like a betrayal to me; it seemed when I was a kid like she grew up to be ordinary, and that I couldn't forgive her for. Consequently, I didn't make it all the way through House of Dreams until I was an adult). But my sister Kathleen pointed out the same thing to me once--that Anne never really set out to be a writer-writer. She goes to Redmond just to learn and grow, for instance. But it surprised me to have this pointed out, too. I think I always thought of Anne in the same breath with Betsy Ray and Laura Ingalls, and perhaps overidentified her with those two who DID grow up to be big-time writers.

I love Leslie, too, and found her a very satisfying friend for Anne. I always thought (and still think) that Anne was stretching a point when she called Diana a kindred spirit. The Anne-and-Leslie relationship is almost romantic to me in its intensity. And I think Leslie's story has to be one of the most fascinating LMM ever told (which takes in a lot of ground).

A betrayal I do feel in this book, though, is when--is it Captain Jim?--comments on how after Joyce dies, Anne and Leslie can connect on a deeper level because now they've both been through tragedy--apparently Anne's sad, hungry, abused childhood isn't good enough, all of a sudden.

Back on the writing thing. I'm probably reading too much into it, but I kept getting the feeling when I read Anne's thoughts about her writing in this book, like--LMM didn't want Anne competing with HER. We all know about LMM's conflicted feelings about Anne and I wonder if they don't come out in this way.

Jackie Parker said...

Despite all of this, you've made me want to pick these upp again. I haven't revisited them in at least 5 years...

Kelly said...

I didn't read AoGG until I was in college, so she was never a writing role model for me -- I never saw her as a Writer. My view of her was person bursting with creativity that occasionally found its outlet via writing. I remember when Katrine wrote that essay -- I swear it was prompted by some critic who claimed Anne "betrayed the cause of feminism by giving up her writing career for babies." But I always saw Anne's goal as a happy family, as opposed to being some groundbreaking career woman.

Kelly said...

Wendy -- I think it is Leslie herself who tells Anne that the tragedy has brought them closer together. Anne's "perfect happiness" is no longer a barrier.

Kate S. said...

Leslie does say to Anne that her tragedy brings them closer together, but well before that, it's Captain Jim who declares that Anne's happiness is a barrier between them and he explicitly discounts Anne's childhood experience which rankles me as well. The gist of the exchange is Captain Jim first saying that Anne has been too happy all her life to get close to Leslie, Anne replying that her childhood wasn't very happy before Green Gables, and Captain Jim finishing with this: "Mebbe not--but it was just the usual unhappiness of a child who hasn't anyone to look after it properly. There hasn't been any tragedy in your life, Mistress Blythe." To which I reply, what exactly do you know about it, Captain Jim, not knowing all the details of Anne's early life, and having by all accounts yourself been raised in a large, loving family!? Actually, a lot of things that Captain Jim says rankle me!

Wendy, interesting point about LMM's conflicted relationship with Anne. She denied Anne her own writing talent and success, but she made her a perfect mother, a realm in which I think she felt herself wanting. If she couldn't have it all, neither could Anne?

Benjamin said...

I always prefer to read the Anne books in the order in which they were published--that way you go from /Anne's House of Dreams/ to /Rainbow Valley/ and /Rilla of Ingleside/ (which, in my view, are a trilogy of their own, related to war), and then you read the later prequels (or "interquels"), /Anne of Windy Poplars/ and /Anne of Ingleside/. I find /Anne of Ingleside/ more satisfying as evidence of Montgomery's attempt to recreate Anne's world near the end of her life.

And if you're looking for evidence of Anne as writer, look no further than the witty letters she writes to Gilbert throughout /Windy Poplars/. There's no purple prose there, and the more romantic "bits" are cut out by an imaginary editor, to keep them anchored in reality.

Kate said...

What a coincidence - I just finished re-reading Anne's House of Dreams for the n-th time not quite an hour ago, I turn on my computer, and here is your analysis!

I do have to say that House of Dreams is one of my favourite Anne books (along with Anne of the Island and Rilla of Ingleside), mostly for the reasons that you mentioned. First of all, she and Gilbert finally get married; the Leslie thread; Four Winds Harbour, the lighthouse and the sea; and a chance to see Anne as a grown-up before the focus shifts to her children. And there are also some darker threads running through which we don't see in the other Anne books.

The idea of Anne as a dabbler in writing never bothered me (a fellow dabbler) - after all, Emily B. Starr was LMM's writer heroine.

Great summary of the book!

Melissa said...

The writing thing with Anne never bothered me, perhaps because I've known Emily almost as long as Anne. And Emily is the Writer.
But all of this is making me itch to do a reread. I've always thought House of Dreams was extra-special, but it's been ages since I've read it.

sassymonkey said...

Interesting because I never thought of Anne as a writer. A bit of a storyteller maybe, but not a writer.

Anne's House of Dreams has wonderful characters. Though I must confess I spent far too much time trying to figure out where Four Winds was situated in terms of actual PEI geography. lol I never had any success.

Heather said...

Great post Kate. Lots to think about. I have always been and Anne of Green Gables fan...only that one. I haven't read any of the others and I haven't ever wanted to. My imaginings of what happened to Anne and Gilbert were always enough. I'm glad I read this post though because it has certainly reinforced my belief that if I read further then my small happy bubble may burst and I'm not ready for that yet.

Kerry said...

This is fascinating-- enjoying your rereads so very much, so thank you for them. I always liked House of Dreams and Ingleside the best-- the former because it felt like I was reading an adult book and I appreciated that, and the latter because I found it very funny. I'm not sure I would now. And Anne of Avonlea, the Island and Windy Poplers made not an impression on me at all. I will get to rereading too at some point, so I guess I'll see.

Melwyk said...

Fascinating discussion; I haven't reread the whole series for much too long of a time now. Just finished The Blythes are Quoted, though, and now I am desperate to reread them all.

I wonder if Anne's statements about her writing come from LMM's own feelings about her writing on the occasions she was depressed or discouraged. As if by not claiming great things for her writing, Anne could never be disappointed by lack of critical acclaim. Or perhaps it is just a dig at the male writers who acted like they were the only ones who could write anything worthwhile, many of whom LMM had to deal with in her writing career. Interesting point to think about.

Katie said...

What a great post! I often questioned why I wasn't really able to get through the Anne books after Anne of Windy Poplars. I loved the Anne books so much, and I assumed I couldn't get through the last few because I was only 14 and didn't have much in common with Anne Blythe. In fact, after Anne's House of Dreams, I skipped the next two books and went right to Rilla of Ingleside. You've inspired me to go back and read Anne of Ingleside and Rainbow that I'm 28, married and have a child of my own, maybe I'll feel a little more connected to Anne Blythe. By the way, despite loving the Anne and Emily books, my absolute favorite LM Montgomery book is The Blue Castle. I read it the first time when I was 16 and have read it countless times since.

Rebecca Chapman said...

Ive been re-reading the Anne of Green Gables series as well. I really enjoyed them initially - I couldn't wait for Anne and Gilbert to come together at last.

However, I have to admit that by the time that I got to this book I was starting to have trouble remaining interested.

I agree with you about Leslie, she's a fascinating character. I love that her honesty is so harsh and real, and that she can admit things that wouldn't normally be admitted, for example, that Anne's loss of Joyce had the ability to bring them that littl ebit closer because Anne is now considered to have suffered some loss. I think that it doesn't really do credit to Anne's unfortunate upbringing, but its a very honest portrayal of how Leslie feels and I really appreciate that.

Cornelia Bryant didn't really do it for I have to admit, im a much bigger fan of Mrs Lynde.

I really enjoyed reading your review. If you're interested, ive reviewed them all up until Anne's House of Dreams on my blog When I look over them, I think that it gets pretty clear to me that Im losing interest, I have to admit that I havnt been able to finish Ranbow Valley yet.

Anonymous said...

Just wrote my goodreads review of this one, and then read your excellent review and saw that we had the same reaction to LMM's writing about the sea. Makes me want to make an ocean visit right now.