JUNE 12, 2017
IN L. M. MONTGOMERY’S 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables, heroine Anne Shirley has the following exchange with her sarcastic caretaker Marilla Cuthbert:
“My life is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes. That’s a sentence I read in a book once, and I say it over to comfort myself whenever I’m disappointed in anything.”
“I don’t see where the comforting comes in myself.”
What Anne meant, however, is that there’s a certain romance in What Might Have Been, in dreams forsaken in the name of sacrifice or circumstance.
It’s important for young women in literature (or any art form) to possess and express their ambitions. Vicky Austin, protagonist of Madeleine L’Engle’s Meet the Austins series (1960–’94) — lesser known than the Wrinkle in Time quintet (1962–’89) but every bit as wonderful — develops into a worthwhile poet, encouraged by several artistic family members. The eponymous heroine of Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy (1964) is a full-fledged correspondent at age 11, collecting details from the lives of unsuspecting New Yorkers and school pals to fill her notebooks. And tomboy Jo March of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868–’69) notably leaves home to pursue a writing career in New York, first selling salacious stories and later penning a serious book about her family. (In the sequels Little Men  and Jo’s Boys , Jo runs a school with her husband and seems to have shed her literary inclinations.)
Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables portrays another aspiring intellectual and artist: Anne, of the famous red braids and fiery disposition, 11 years old when she’s introduced. But Montgomery’s later books (there are six in total starring Anne) guide the heroine down a surprisingly conventional adult path. Despite ambition, a hint of genius, and a wellspring of imagination unusual for women of her era, Anne never becomes a writer or career woman. She marries her college sweetheart, raises six children, and hosts quilting parties.
The successive Anne books are less beloved and well read than the first one. Even Margaret Atwood, ruminating fondly on Anne’s 100th anniversary for the Guardian, admitted she was disappointed about where Anne ended up. “The grown-up Anne is not the same, and neither is Avonlea after the outbreak of the first world war,” Atwood wrote. “As a child reader, I felt about these later books much as I felt about Wendy growing up at the end of Peter Pan I didn’t want to know.”
The latest onscreen Anne adaptation, Anne with an E (2017), was produced by CBC in Canada and can now be viewed streaming on Netflix. The seven-episode arc follows our 13-year-old prima donna through all the familiar scrapes, though she navigates a considerably bleaker Avonlea than Montgomery’s Anne experienced. While Anne’s isolation and her lingering PTSD stemming from childhood neglect are the series’s primary concerns, we do see one Story Club session, wherein chums Ruby Gillis, Diana Barry, and Anne write flowery compositions and read them aloud to each other.
Two other popular, girl-centric TV shows — the Gilmore Girls revival on Netflix (2016) and HBO’s Girls (2012–’17) — recently concluded with female protagonists abandoning burgeoning writing careers to become mothers. Many viewers were outraged, considering the choice of young motherhood over professional pursuits either regressive or irresponsible. Perhaps readers are similarly disheartened by Anne’s resolution, at least those who know about it — exempting fans who cut their teeth on the wildly successful Canadian Anne miniseries in 1985. That four-hour version was followed by a 1987 sequel Anne of Avonlea, shamelessly zeroing in on the love story between Anne and schoolmate Gilbert Blythe, a romance ignited by Montgomery only toward the very end of her third book in the series, Anne of the Island (1915). A tumultuous will-they-or-won’t-they affair was apparently deemed more watchable than an actress scribbling faithfully away at a desk as a bona fide “writer.”
It’s not that Anne didn’t give education a fair shout. In the books, caretakers Matthew and Marilla award her brains due credit and send their charge to Queens College (though Marilla makes sure to instill practical and domestic wisdom in her first). Surrounded by natural resplendence, Anne flourishes when she arrives as an orphan at Green Gables; as described by Montgomery, the quiet town of Avonlea is a veritable heaven on earth, all blooming cherry trees and flowers. Anne considers the natural world a beloved friend. But vivid daydreams are only permissible once basic needs are met, and Anne’s never were before she reached the Cuthberts’ home.
Soon after her arrival, Anne assigns poetic names to prosy lakes and trees (“The White Way of Delight,” “Lover’s Lane,” Bonnie the geranium), forms a writing club with her friends and critiques their contributions (“Ruby Gillis is rather sentimental. She puts too much love-making into her stories and you know too much is worse than too little”), and writes the best compositions in school. She quotes Tennyson and Robert Browning in casual conversation. Loverboy Gilbert Blythe discovers his intellectual equal (and rival) in Anne. Though she’s over-fond of fairies and romantic tales, she has the stirrings of greatness, plus a willingness to improve. Toward the end of Green Gables, Anne explains to Marilla why her story club has disbanded: “It was silly to be writing about love and murder and elopements and mysteries. […] I never thought my compositions had so many faults until I began to look for them myself.”
Then — a dropped bomb. In the final chapters of the book, after Anne’s exam scores beat out everyone else on the Island (she tied with Gilbert), and she assumes she’ll be headed to Redmond in the fall, Matthew dies. This leaves Marilla alone, unable to afford upkeep on the farm, and steadily going blind. So Anne forgoes her schooling to stay and care for her surrogate mother. “She had looked her duty courageously in the face and found it a friend — as duty ever is when we meet it frankly,” Montgomery wrote of Anne’s decision.
Continuing books in the series maintained Anne’s literary interests, though these dwindled in time. In Anne of Avonlea (1909), our heroine is over the moon about hosting a famous female novelist, Charlotte E. Morgan, for supper at Green Gables. Morgan is author of The Rosebud Garden — a twee title, obviously — but the author proves a clever and witty conversationalist and mentor. Anne of the Island sees Anne finally make it to Redmond on her own dime, with the help of scholarships and inherited money from Mrs. Barry, Diana’s dead aunt. She wins high honors in English and earns a BA, but faces her toughest literary ordeal to date when her prowess at the written word is called into bitter question. Midway through college, Anne slaves over a piece of fiction and submits it to several women’s magazines; but “Averil’s Atonement” is overblown and humorless, with soap opera characters who groan out page-long speeches, and her work is rejected by editors. “This is the end of my literary ambitions,” declares Anne — that is, until Diana submits the same story to the Rollings Reliable Baking Powder Company contest, and it wins the top prize. Well-meaning Diana altered the tale a bit. “You know the scene where Averil makes the cake?” she asks Anne. “Well I just stated that she used the Rollings Reliable in it, and that was why it turned out so well.” Anne is horrified to see her lofty literary ideals corrupted into a baking powder advertisement, but Gilbert convinces her it’s merely an honest way to make a quick buck, nothing disgraceful.
Anne publishes a few more whimsical works during college, receiving small checks in the mail (one is a “little dialogue between asters and sweet-peas, wild canaries in the lilac bush, and the guardian spirit of the garden”). Post-graduation, she works happily as a schoolteacher for three years until it’s time to marry Gilbert and settle in the coastal town of Glen St. Mary, as depicted in Anne’s House of Dreams (1917). Anne finds lavish joy in putting her first home together, lovingly keeping her bridal tryst with Gilbert. She doesn’t write — there isn’t time — though she is always making new friends and prying stories out of them, ever the eager confidante. She even facilitates the publication of a biography by pairing another writer, Owen Ford, with her close chum Captain Jim. When Gilbert asks Anne why she doesn’t try her hand at the book, she claims the task requires keen psychology and humor, qualities she does not possess: “[I]t’s not in the power of my gift. You know what my forte is, Gilbert — the fanciful, the fairylike, the pretty.” Anne sees her limitations.
In Anne of Ingleside (1939), Anne comes dangerously close to regretting her choices, fearing Gilbert no longer loves her after 15 years of marriage. She frets over looking matronly (a mother of six!) and missing out on adventures. Gilbert’s college beau Christine invites the pair for dinner, snidely asking Anne whether she’s still writing. “I’m writing living epistles now,” Anne fires back, thinking of her kids. For a brief evening, Anne feels foolish for having such a big family, while Christine is childless and free to travel the globe. But when Anne and Gilbert reconcile and reconfirm their mutual affection, she is content once more with her little community. She listens to Gilbert snore and her children breathing in their sleep, and thinks of “[p]oor childless Christine, shooting her little arrows of mockery.” Anne envisions her own years stretching out ahead, with “all the little sweetnesses of life sprinkling the road.”
Author Montgomery had much in common with Anne. The author was also a semi-orphan: her mother died when she was almost two and her father left her with her strict, religious grandparents on Prince Edward Island. Both Anne and Montgomery rejected romance for some years in order to pursue their educations. But unlike Anne, Montgomery suffered from depression for much of her life (her Presbyterian minister husband Ewan Macdonald was mentally ill, as well). Montgomery’s granddaughter has revealed that the author killed herself with a drug overdose at the age of 67. She did not find happiness in family life, though she was vastly successful on the page. From the longing in her prose, I suspect Montgomery craved the sort of familial love Anne achieved, and her literary legacy was small consolation. It’s possible she lived vicariously through Anne’s cheery perspective and comforting escapades. “[T]he presiding genius of Anne is not the gritty grey Angel of Realism, but the rainbow-coloured, dove-winged Godlet of the Heart’s Desire,” Margaret Atwood observed.
Montgomery’s Anne is hardly a victim of blighted dreams. Ideals change; before she realized her passion for Gilbert, Anne stubbornly insisted on holding out for a melancholy, inscrutable lover, and rejected several proposals. When she fell for the good-natured, honorable Blythe, pursuing a noble career as a doctor, her desires reconfigured. “[T]hese choices look a lot like the fraught and difficult compromises of adulthood, in which you might put aside personal desires to care for your mother or modify your career goals to accommodate children,” Willa Paskin wrote in The New York Times. “We would flatter ourselves to think that there is anything particularly old-fashioned about Anne’s trajectory. She is a thoroughly modern girl.”
I’m not sure Anne would’ve made a good writer. Writing necessitates an unhealthy amount of solitude — and while Anne relishes time spent alone cavorting through woods or strolling along the seashore, her true love is people: charming them, getting them to see the truth about themselves, cajoling them to take risks they’d previously shied away from. Anne would have made an impressive social worker or therapist, if it came to that. But her circle of friends benefits from her talents, if nameless strangers do not. Ever high-strung and sensitive, Anne could probably not handle her author’s perpetual sting of rejection. Imagine her existing in the era of internet comments. She couldn’t even tolerate her hair being called “red.”
There were thousands of real-life women like the fictional Anne: bright and filled with potential but whose names have disappeared from the annals of history because they became mothers and wives and little else. Thankfully, Anne had a choice. “[T]he Anne books offer up the daily experiences of rural women — baking a cake, hosting a tea, gossiping with a friend — as worthy subjects of our best language and closest attention,” wrote Sarah Mesle for LARB. “[T]hey are profoundly feminist texts, even if they don’t comply with a standard narrative of ‘empowerment,’ because they insist that the lived experience of women matters, across class and geography and age.” Indeed, there’s vim and vigor enough in gentle domestic duty. Though her heroine’s fate is traditional, Montgomery doesn’t paint Anne’s housewifehood as tragedy or prison sentence. Her daily dramas only seem prosaic, for she must contend with keeping house and tending an enormous garden, raising children, soothing illnesses and heartbreak, and coming to brave terms with death. How ever did she stay amused?