This summer, I spent some time re-reading Anne of Green Gables, a book that I turned to frequently in my childhood. It was easy to fall into it, but it also made me think of the lessons we learn—the habits we form—when we are young readers.
In Lucy Maud Montgomery’s beloved classic, middle-aged siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert decide to adopt a boy to help them with their Prince Edward Island farm. But as the result of a miscommunication, instead of a sturdy boy the Cuthberts end up with red-headed Anne Shirley, whose unself-conscious chatter and vivid imagination soon win over shy Matthew and uptight Marilla.
The novel follows Anne as she befriends “kindred spirits,” including her bosom friend the neighbor girl Diana Barry, attends classes at Avonlea village’s one-room schoolhouse (and breaks a slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head for calling her carrots), accidentally puts salt in a cake instead of sugar, dyes her hair green, dreams of dresses with puffed sleeves, and excels when she attends teacher’s college.
Anne is a daydreamer, but intelligent and hard working. Throughout, Anne learns and matures, but the book also charts her progress from mistrusted stranger in town—an orphan—to being a member of the community of Avonlea.
Anne of Green Gables, published in 1908, was Canadian writer Lucy Maud Montgomery’s debut. It met with instant success, and Montgomery went on to write nineteen more novels, including five more in the Anne series, a few books that focus on Anne’s friends and children, and the Emily books.
In many ways, Anne of Green Gables is about the commonplace—village life and growing up. But it is also about the power of imagination and storytelling. Anne’s parents die when she is a baby and she is taken in by a Mrs. Thomas, who, according to Anne, is “poor and ha[s] a drunken husband.” Young Anne helps raise the Thomases’ four children, and when the husband dies after falling under a train, she goes to Mrs. Hammond, who has eight children. Of Mrs. Hammond’s family, Anne says, “I’m sure I could never have lived there if I hadn’t had an imagination.”
Anne takes refuge from the real danger of her early life in stories, and it is through making stories that she gains friends in Avonlea. After an absence from school, for instance, Montgomery writes:
Anne was welcomed back to school with open arms. Her imagination had been sorely missed in games, her voice in the singing and her dramatic ability in the perusal aloud of books at dinner time.
(By the way, one of the pleasures of re-reading Anne of Green Gables comes from appreciating the things that the girls do to entertain themselves in the early 1900s.)
But there is clearly tension between the everyday and the imaginative. Marilla constantly disapproves of Anne’s “heathenish” thoughts, and when Anne and Diana dream up a Haunted Wood including a ghostly child who lays its cold fingers on people, both Marilla and Diana’s mother object.
Indeed, what Montgomery calls a sign of Anne’s maturity involves favoring more realistic literature—a movement encouraged and endorsed by Anne’s beloved teacher, Miss Stacy. Anne tells Marilla:
She found me reading a book one day called The Lurid Mystery of the Haunted Hall. It was one Ruby Gillis had lent me, and, oh, Marilla, it was so fascinating and creepy. It just curdled the blood in my veins. But Miss Stacy said it was a very silly, unwholesome book, and she asked me not to read any more of it or any like it.
As for her own writing, Anne says, “[Miss Stacy] won’t let us write anything but what might happen in Avonlea in our own lives, and she criticizes it very sharply and makes us criticize our own, too.”
Anne is told again and again to turn her imagination to less sensational channels: to favor realism over the gothic or fanciful—that there is a moral superiority to the more realistic even when it comes to imaginative play.
I read Anne when I was maybe in fourth or fifth grade, and distracted by the other delights of the book, I didn’t give a lot of thought to Miss Stacy’s edicts on literature.
But I probably absorbed them, because they were aimed at me—at young women readers. Later in life, Miss Stacy’s message was reinforced by similar sentiments in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. In Alcott’s classic, it is Professor Bhaer who is horrified by the “blood and thunder” tales that Jo March writes, causing her to change the direction of her work. And in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (a book that I love and on which I wrote my undergraduate thesis), Henry Tilney lectures avid novel-reader Catherine Morland after she imagines his father (and her holiday host) to be guilty of all manner of gothic horrors.
Within these classic, realistic novels about young women by Western, Christian women writers, the idea that realism is somehow fitter—somehow morally and aesthetically superior—is a refrain. And sure, part of this is to defend the work that these women are already doing; it is in the lady novelist’s interests to claim that her own works can be harmless—even beneficial to her readers. Fiction is, after all, a “pack of lies,” and creating a world inside a book is tantamount to challenging God. And accepting money for these labors sure doesn’t help the woman writer’s cause.
Realism, on the other hand, doesn’t appear to build a world—it seems less like an untruth. Realism, then, looks to the unschooled eye more genteel, less subversive, less deceptive, more ladylike, more socially acceptable.
But it is also interesting how drawn both Anne and her author, Lucy Maud Montgomery, are to the “fascinating and creepy”—which itself hints to the reading habits that Montgomery formed as a young reader. Montgomery’s most famous books after Anne, the Emily series, contain light supernatural elements. (For that matter, Louisa May Alcott also wrote sensational stories under her pen name A. M. Barnard.)The title of the first Emily book likely intentionally follows the naming scheme of the Anne books: Emily of New Moon. Like Anne, Emily is also an orphan raised by dour, older people. It’s Anne! But with dark hair and violet eyes! And, as it turns out, psychic visions.
For young me, reading about Emily after Anne—to read a similar narrative about a similar character by the same author only to have the book veer into the supernatural made me uneasy. And that was both because, well, ghosts and seances and any hint of the unknown, and also because it put my relationship with Montgomery’s “wholesome,” realistic books on unstable ground.
But it didn’t disturb enough for me to stop reading the rest of the trilogy or Montgomery’s other (sometimes disturbing) books. Because even though I was unsettled by Emily, I found it fascinating. The capacity was in me to enjoy these books—and in Montgomery to pen them.
I wonder what would happen if women weren’t told so often what to write; if they weren’t faulted for imagining the fantastic and the supernatural.
Now, I think about what would have happened to my outlook—to my reading habits—had I read Emily before Anne, if my expectations for Montgomery’s work had been different. Would it have made me more open to reading more frightening, more sensational, more “thrilling” books? Or maybe I am seduced by the idea of another me who is somehow braver because she can enjoy things that frighten her; a me who enjoys fewer limits on her reading on her imagination who lets her mind go farther, if even in a small way.