Eternally Anne

"Eternally Anne," The Globe and Mail, 22 March 2008The Globe and Mail, 22 March 2008, D1, D9.

IMAGINING ANNE. The Island Scrapbooks of L.M. Montgomery. By Elizabeth Rollins Epperly. Penguin Canada, 170 pages, $39.

BEFORE GREEN GABLES. By Budge Wilson. Penguin Canada, 447 pages, $25.

LOOKING FOR ANNE. How Lucy Maud Montgomery Dreamed Up a Literary Classic. By Irene Gammel. Key Porter, 312 pages, $32.95.

Anne of Green Gables is worth a thousand of the problem stories with which the bookshelves are crowded today, and we venture the opinion that this simple story of rural life in Canada will be read and reread when many of the more pretentious stories are all forgotten. There is not a dull page in the whole volume …”

So proclaimed The Toronto Globe in 1908. A century later, this prediction continues to prove true: Despite the immeasurable changes that have swept over the world in the past 100 years, the life and work of Lucy Maud Montgomery continue to appeal to readers of all ages, genders and backgrounds. Although literary fads have likewise changed since Anne of Green Gables first appeared on the scene, today’s readers of Montgomery’s debut novel still agree with Mark Twain’s public endorsement, in which he declared, “In Anne of Green Gables, you will find the dearest and most moving and delightful child since the immortal Alice.”

Montgomery’s appealing

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story of a redheaded orphan from away who transforms the lives of the inhabitants of a P.E.I. settlement is available to readers not only in its original form, but also through adaptations and spin-offs such as films, television series, musicals, abridgments, tourist sites and commodities. On my dresser at home, I proudly display all my Anne kitsch, which includes shot glass, ashtray, thimble, commemorative spoon, keychain, matching pencils with Anne and Diana heads, toenail clippers and potato chips (“sliced extra thin and crunchy for a more distinctive potato taste”).

It may seem perplexing to the uninitiated that these bizarre items can be at all related to a classic literary text that I keep rereading, but together they make for a unique form of Canadian culture. Montgomery wrote numerous sequels to Anne (the exact number depends on how devoted a reader you are), but none of these comes close to matching the appeal of this first book. In a way, these derivative texts and things become ways to keep the story going, to delay its inevitable end.

Coinciding with the novel’s centennial anniversary are three books that likewise serve to extend the original story. While at least four reissues of Montgomery’s novel will appear this year in Canada alone (all of Montgomery’s work published in her lifetime has been in the public domain since 1993), each of these books finds a distinctive way to solve the puzzle of how Montgomery’s appealing character came into being.

Imagining Anne, prepared by internationally renowned Montgomery scholar Elizabeth Rollins Epperly, reproduces more than 100 pages from two of Montgomery’s personal scrapbooks from 1893 to 1910. Supplemented by Epperly’s introduction and careful annotations, these neglected scrapbooks are crucial to our understanding of the ways in which Montgomery pieced together her bestselling fiction.

The pieces that form the individual pages – newspaper and magazine clippings, calling cards, invitations, photographs and programs – are all of interest by themselves, but what proves especially fascinating is how these items work together in their selection and arrangement. As Epperly shows, each page of Montgomery’s scrapbooks implies a story, about womanhood, about relationships, about writing. And while Montgomery viewed her journals as a container for emotions she trained herself to suppress in public, these scrapbook pages keep sorrows and disappointments hidden beneath the surface.

Perhaps the most controversial of the three books here is Before Green Gables, a prequel that was fully authorized by Montgomery’s heirs. Written by Budge Wilson, the author of more than 30 novels for children (including the Governor-General’s Award-nominated Friendships and four titles in the Our Canadian Girl series), this prequel attempts to account for Anne’s early life by expanding upon the few “bald facts” that the 11-year-old offers Marilla Cuthbert on her arrival at Green Gables. Wilson does not attempt to mimic Montgomery’s writing style – the novel contains no wordplay or parody, no literary allusions to the canonical British and American texts that would have been known to readers of Montgomery’s background – but what she offers instead is a story that humanizes characters who appear on the fringes of Montgomery’s text. We see Walter and Bertha Shirley exhibiting many of the qualities that Anne would inherit – love, harmony and the ability to transform the lives of those around them.

Under Wilson’s pen, Anne’s foster parents become more complex people, who are well-intentioned despite the narrowness brought upon them by years of poverty and restricted options, and Anne’s life is rounded out by supporting characters who are kind and sympathetic to her, including two schoolteachers and several neighbours.

Wilson’s novel refuses to sugarcoat the neglect and abuse that Anne endures in two households in which she is literally a servant; adding these humanizing elements is necessary to soften the blow, but it does create problems when we view the novel as a precursor of Montgomery’s own work. It implies that Anne tells Marilla a very selective version of her past, which is troubling due to the fact that it is on the basis of Marilla’s pity for Anne’s “starved, unloved life” that she allows the orphan to stay.

These detractions aside, what is most appealing about Wilson’s book is Anne herself: her ability to make the best of her circumstances, her love of learning, her keen appreciation of the natural world and her delight in Montgomery’s favourite natural image in her series, “the bend in the road.”

Wilson does not mine all of Montgomery’s hints for her work: Her Anne expresses no anxiety about the plainness of her name, and her refuge in alter egos named Cordelia and Geraldine is not part of the story. But while the links to Montgomery’s series are not always seamless, Before Green Gables is nevertheless a captivating story in its own right.

While Wilson’s novel will appeal to readers searching for a new Anne story, Irene Gammel’s Looking for Anne (to be published in April) will captivate those interested in the behind-the-scenes of Montgomery’s breakthrough novel. Gammel, a Canada Research Chair in Modern Literature and Culture at Toronto’s Ryerson University, takes her readers on a tour of Montgomery’s life and influences, sifting through the layers of Montgomery’s hints and contradictory statements to recreate the process of “brooding up” and writing Anne of Green Gables.

Drawing on a vast array of neglected and unknown sources, this groundbreaking study establishes new connections between Montgomery’s isolated life in Cavendish, P.E.I., and the metropolitan existence that she consumed vicariously through magazines published in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. As I read extracts from unpublished journal entries, from neglected periodical pieces and from secondary sources I had been unaware of, I was struck again and again by how many connections I had not yet considered. Looking for Anne is a highly readable, top-rate study that will provide a new spin on Montgomery’s text.

Taken together, these three books demonstrate that as far as Anne of Green Gables is concerned, there is so much more to enjoy, so much more to discover, so much more to appreciate about a character who continues to appeal to readers all around the world.

Benjamin Lefebvre, co-chairman of the L. M. Montgomery Research Group (http://lmmresearch.org), is preparing Montgomery’s unpublished final novel, The Blythes are Quoted, for publication.

[ © 2008 Benjamin Lefebvre ]