Friday, November 30, 2018

Birthday Review: Novels of Lucy Maud Montgomery

Birthday Review: Novels of Lucy Maud Montgomery

a review by Rich Horton

Lucy Maud Montgomery was born November 30, 1874, on Prince Edward Island, and died in 1942. She is of course best known for her series of novels about Anne Shirley, an orphan girl living on Prince Edward Island, which follow her through her life. (Montgomery herself was almost an orphan.) I read those aloud to my daughter starting in 1998, and in memory of Montgomery's birth date I have posted the very brief capsule reviews I did of most of the Anne of Green Gables stories back then, as well as of one other short novel, Kilmeny of the Orchard.

Via Wikipedia, I just learned something interesting about the genesis of Anne in Lucy Montgomery's mind. She saw a particular photograph of the model/actress Evelyn Nesbit, and used that photograph for her conception of Anne Shirley's looks, and of her "youthful idealism and spirituality". Let's just say that, if you look up Evelyn Nesbit's rather sad (and shocking) personal life (which has come up before on this blog), I think you'll be surprised at her association with a character like Anne Shirly.

As a teen I never read the Green Gables stories of Lucy Montgomery.  The reason is obvious enough: they are "girl" stories.  But I did feel, somehow, that I ought to be familiar with them.  Lately [in 1998] I've been reading long books aloud to my 9-year old daughter, Melissa.  This month I decided to try Anne of Green Gables.  As many of you no doubt know, it's about Anne Shirley, an 11-year old orphan, who is adopted by the sixtyish brother and sister pair of Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, who wanted a boy to help on the farm but got a girl by mistake.  They live at the farm of Green Gables, in Avonlea on the North Coast of Canada's tiny province Prince Edward Island.  Anne is extremely talkative, extremely imaginative, extremely smart, and somewhat prone to getting in trouble.  (But not too much trouble.)  The story follows about 5 years of her life, from arrival at Green Gables to graduation from an Academy which certifies one as ready for college (if you can afford it), or teaching.  Teaching at the age of 16!  Plotwise the book is a bit episodic, and a bit manipulative, as Anne basically goes from scrape to remarkable triumph, again and again, until just at the end a couple of terrible blows are guaranteed to bring the reader to tears.  And Anne is in some ways just too much of a paragon.  But it's still a very enjoyable book, and even if I felt manipulated at times, it was very moving.  In addition, I thought the character and voices of Anne and her stepmother Marilla were extremely well done.  I felt particular empathy with Marilla, and by the end, when her love for Anne became clear even to her gruff self, I could hardly read any of Marilla's lines aloud for the lump in my throat.  A good book, and it's easy to see why it's an enduring classic.

The second Anne of Green Gables book is Anne of Avonlea.  This covers Anne's life from 16 to 18, as she is the schoolteacher at Avonlea.  She meets a young, rather cloying, American-born boy, who takes a fancy to her, and gets involved in the boy's widowed father's love life.  She tries to push the good folk of Avonlea into improving the village, along with her friends, especially, of course, Gilbert Blythe.  (It's been obvious to everybody: the readers, the other folks in Avonlea, Anne's friends, maybe even Gilbert, that Anne and he will marry, but Anne seems oblivious.  I'm not sure to what degree I buy this.)  She and her stepmother Marilla adopt orphaned twins, Davy and Dora, and the wild Davy becomes very attached to Anne as well.  And Anne befriends the mysterious, cranky, newcomer, Mr. Harrison. At the end, Anne is suddenly presented with an unexpected opportunity she had not thought to have.

These are enjoyable books.  I'm reading them aloud to my daughter.  (And I will say that Montgomery's prose holds up well to the stress of reading aloud.)  There is a certain lack of suspense, though Montgomery does spring a few surprises.  And to some considerable extent this book reveals its genesis as a serial.  (It is very episodic.)  The biggest weakness, I think, is that Montgomery doesn't seem to get men, at all.  I believed in Matthew Cuthbert, Anne's adoptive father, and Gilbert Blythe comes through OK, mostly because he is kept somewhat at a distance.  But characters like cloying young Paul Irving ("You know, Teacher."), his father Stephen, even the enjoyable Mr. Harrison, even minor characters like Thomas Lynde, don't convince at all.  Some of this may be cultural differences, some may be literary conventions, but I do think that Montgomery falls short in this area.  I still find the books worthwhile, though.

This month I finished reading L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Windy Poplars to my daughter.  This is the 4th in the series in internal chronology, but it's very late in order of writing.  (It was published in 1936, while the fourth book actually written comes from 1919 or so.)  The book shows the strain of being interpolated into the series: it's very episodic (I believe much of it was published as short stories), and there is no real tension in the plot, nor much development in Anne.  It tells of the three years after Anne and Gilbert became engaged, in which Gilbert was in medical school, and Anne was principal of the high school in Summerside, PEI.  There is a potted crisis for Anne to resolve in each year: in the first year she must win over the unfriendly Pringles, who dominated the town socially; in the second year she must win over the talented but bitter and unfriendly Katherine Brooke, one of her teachers at the high school; and in the third year she must save her little neighbor Elizabeth from the overly strict women who are raising her, and restore her to her father.  Still and all, the book remains enjoyable and worth reading.  Interestingly, this book was published in a longer version in England as Anne of Windy Willows.  Apparently, some of the incidents of which Anne hears (town history concerning some gruesome ancestors) were considered too intense for American kids. (The Willows/Poplars change was for another reason, I can't recall what.  I confess I think Windy Poplars (the name of the home in which Anne lives in Summerside) a much better name than Windy Willows.)

I've also finished reading the fifth novel in the Anne of Green Gables series to my daughter.  (Fifth in internal chronology, fourth in publication order.)  Anne's House of Dreams concerns the first few years of Anne and Gilbert's life in Glen St. Marys.  Gilbert sets up his practice, and Anne settles in as a housewife and has her first children.  The main conflicts concern a mysterious tragic young woman living close by.  The key new characters are this woman, Leslie Moore, and an old sailor named Captain Jim.  This book is still enjoyable, but Anne is in many ways less central, and a bit less interesting, than in earlier books, now that she's settled into her role as Gilbert's wife.   It's also extremely annoying in that LMM developed a late tic in her writing ... the constant ... unending ... use of ellipses.)

And, finally, I finished reading L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Ingleside to Melissa.  This is the last Anne novel LMM wrote, perhaps her last novel, period, written in 1939.  It's set at the turn of the century, pretty much, thus it's sixth of the eight Anne books in internal chronology.  It's also a good example of why internal chronology isn't always best.  For instance, there is one direct, and rather horrible, spoiler for a bad event from, I'm guessing, Rilla of Ingleside.  In addition, the story shows a lot of signs of struggling to squeeze in incidents without distorting the existing books.  For example, there are a couple of chapters about Jem's unsuccessful attempts to get a dog.  It's obvious that in an upcoming book, he will get a dog, and that in this book LMM needs to work around that.  It's very episodic, but then so are most of the Anne books.  Still, though, it's a fairly enjoyable read, with some nice touches. (It's also often annoying in that LMM developed a late tic in her writing ... the constant ... unending ... use of ellipses.)

Rainbow Valley is #7 in L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables series.  This book is set in, I suppose, 1905 or so.  Anne Blythe, Gilbert, and their children are really only side characters.  The book is mostly about the new minister of Anne's church, and his four children.  The minister, John Meredith, is a widower, and he is a very unworldly man.  As a result, though he loves his children dearly, he is not raising them very well.  Clearly, he must marry.  But complications ensue, of course, as we follow the escapades of the children, and the bumpy course of John Meredith's romance.  All works out in the end, naturally.  I liked this installment quite a lot, really.  I was convinced and moved by the central romance, and I liked the new kids.  Pretty good.

The other Montgomery book I read was Kilmeny of the Orchard, a very short novel, not one of her Anne of Green Gables books.  This story concerns a young man, heir to a well-off shopkeeper, who decides to spend a year after college in a remote Prince Edward Island town.  While there, he meets a beautiful young woman, who cannot speak.  In all ways she appears perfectly healthy, she can hear just fine, plays an excellent violin, but can't speak.  The story is quite melodramatic, as first we are told the story of her mother, who got married to a man who turned out, through no fault of his own (!), to already be married.  Then the young woman, Kilmeny, and the young man fall in love, but Kilmeny feels herself unworthy of marriage, because of her "defect".  The resolution involves Kilmeny's step-brother, an Italian orphan, who had also been in love with Kilmeny.  This feature reveals one of the more distasteful features of Montgomery's books: her racism (and classism). In the Anne books the racist bits are very minor, involving occasional remarks about the "French".  Apparently the French community of New Brunswick (the original Acadians -- many of whom moved to Louisiana and became the Cajuns (Acadian = 'cadian = Cajun)) were not highly regarded by the Scots and English inhabitants of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.  They seem to have been mostly employed as farmhands.  In Kilmeny of the Orchard it is made clear from the beginning that Neil, of Southern European birth, somewhat dark-skinned, and an orphan, is a lesser being, prone to emotional outbursts despite having been brought up from birth by Kilmeny's dour Scots Aunt and Uncle. Anyway, though Kilmeny of the Orchard has significant flaws, it is still an involving and enjoyable read.

2 comments:

  1. Recently I've started reading through Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie books, which I never read as a child for much the same reason you never read Montgomery. I'm finding them to be really extraordinary, though they make me feel like a schlub - my God, there's so many things these people knew how to do!

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  2. I read Anne of Green Gables after watching Anne with an E on Netflix. It was intended for young girls long ago, but it held up well for an old guy off 66 in the 21st century. I've been hesitant to try the others in the series since I don't like sequels, but I think I might after reading your review. If you haven't seen Anne with an E, I highly recommend it.

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