Book Review: Looking for Anne of Green Gables: The Story of L. M. Montgomery and Her Literary Classic

Looking for Anne of Green Gables: The Story of L. M. Montgomery and Her Literary Classic by Irene Gammel is not so much a biography, at least not a full-fledged one, as I had first thought. Concentrating on the years just before, during, and after the writing of Anne of Green Gables, the author mainly looks at Lucy Maud Montgomery’s life and times for clues about how Anne came to be, asserting that Maud’s published comments about Anne’s origins were not the complete story.

The author extensively researched Maud’s published and unpublished journals, scrapbooks, letters, other writings about her life and work as well as the magazines Maud would have had in her home  and other sources about the culture in which she lived.

Many parts of the book were very interesting. There are photos from ads of the time for dresses with puffed sleeves so dear to Anne’s heart, LMM’s home, and various places she names as inspiration for her book. There are literary allusions I had missed in my reading, and the discovery of those enriched my enjoyment of Anne. There is much background detail, such as the search for the face that inspired Anne: Maud had cut out a photo that she liked from a magazine and said later that this was what Anne looked like in her mind, but the author spends what feels to me an inordinate amount of time researching the model’s life and wondering how much Maud knew of her. Diana’s name was first going to be Laura, and then Gertrude (Gertrude?). The author brings up some elements of Anne that appeared in Maud’s earlier short stories.

Anne is not an autobiographical representation of Maud (Emily is said to be), but there are many parallels, among them: Maud’s mother died when she was young and her father was away most of her childhood, and Maud was raised by her grandmother (similar to Elisabeth in Anne of Windy Poplars). When she was writing of Marilla perhaps needing to sell Green Gables after Matthew died, Maud’s grandmother was facing the loss of her home due to a family situation.

Fortunately I had read Carrie‘s reviews of some of Maud’s biographies and journals, so I already knew that she and her husband both suffered from depression and their marriage was not happy. “To read her as a rosy-hued optimist who only wrote romances with happy endings is to misread her profoundly” (p. 125). Maud wrote of another character in a short story titled “A Correspondence and a Climax,” “So I wrote instead of the life I wanted to live — the life I did live in imagination” (p. 51), and that seems to be what Maud herself did as well, righting wrongs and relationships, giving Anne the college degree she never achieved (though she did provide for a close friend to go to college), etc. If you’re not familiar with her personality and personal life, you might end up not liking her as much as you read of her, but she is a very complicated woman with many layers and facets of personality, and it was interesting to learn more of her. As I mentioned when I reread Anne of Green Gables last year, at first having learned of the unhappiness of her life shadowed my enjoyment of the book, but after a while the evident joy she found in writing took over, and I could rejoice that she found at least a measure of happiness there.

However, there were a few things that disturbed me. First, Gammel explains that paganism and the Druids were being widely discussed at the time, one such article appearing in a magazine in which one of Maud’s stories also appeared, and asserts that Diana’s name as well as Anne’s love of nature “belong to the irreverent world of wood nymphs and dryads. This pagan world poked fun at solemn Sunday School decorum” (p.84). I always felt that Anne’s mention of such creatures and her belief that plants had souls was more literary and imaginative than religious or “pagan.” Gammel uses the word a lot, in fact, almost every time nature is discusses, as if only pagans enjoyed nature or brought flowers and ferns into their homes and churches. The author does say that in a letter Maud “shared her pagan spiritualism, her belief that heaven was a rather boring place, and that Christ might have been a willful imposter” (p. 135), but she doesn’t quote the letter directly. I don’t know if paganism truly inspired Maud to a great degree or if this is conjecture on the author’s part.

Secondly, Gammel also asserts that some of Maud’s “bosom friendships” as well as that between Anne and Diana were more than just platonic. Though I’ve not read any of LMM’s other biographies (that I can remember — if I have it’s been decades and I’ve forgotten them), my feeling is that this is conjecture based partly on the fact that Maud’s friendships with women seemed closer and more intense than those with men, and girls and women in that time were “gushier” than we generally are today. I see no reason to read lesbian thought into  any of those friendships.

Third, though there are places where LMM referred to certain things that inspired details of her Anne books, there seems to be a lot of conjecture as well based on what Maud would have been reading and what cultural references she knew. I have a lot of magazines in my home, or that have passed through my home, but it would be a mistake to think that I read everything in them or agreed with everything I did read, and I can’t help but feel the same would have been true with Maud. I think it’s fine to look at those sources and suggest that perhaps they went into Maud’s consciousness and perhaps even influenced her unawares, but I think that’s as far as you can go without a source where she says directly what influenced her. Many times Ms. Gammel does stop just there, but in my opinion many times she goes further.

I also disagreed with the quote that “It may be the ludicrous escapades of Anne that render the book so attractive to children, but it is the struggles of Marilla that give it resonance for adults” (pp. 188-189). Through Carrie’s LMM reading challenges, it seems several women “discovered” Anne when they were adults, as I did, and were attracted not only by her “escapades” but by her growth. Though understanding Marilla more than a child would, I think most readers still identify with and read for Anne. I disagreed as well that it was “the edgy and tempestuous Anne” readers fell in love with, “an Anne they did not want to grow up and become a polite society lady” (p. 126). Again, I enjoyed seeing her grow into maturity while keeping a lively spirit, learning control and socially acceptable ways to deal with others while still standing firm to her own convictions.

I’ve spent a little more time with what I’ve disagreed with mainly because people have told me they trust my judgment in reviews, and I wouldn’t want to let some of these things pass without comment. I have to defer to Ms. Gammel’s expertise and research, yet I do disagree with her conclusions in these areas where I believe conjecture is involved. Maybe some of you who have read more of LMM’s biography or journals can speak to some of these issues.

This book may be a bit academic for some, and those wanting a full biography may want to find another source (this book ends with the writing of Anne of Ingleside). But a dedicated Anne or LMM fan who wants to read most everything they can find on them might be interested.

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

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9 thoughts on “Book Review: Looking for Anne of Green Gables: The Story of L. M. Montgomery and Her Literary Classic

  1. I’m trying to remember if Gammel is the expert responsible for the scholarly website I stumbled upon during this year’s LMM challenge. (I’m on my iPod now and it’s a pAin for me to try to link on, so I’ll try to remember to come back and leave a link if I find it again.). As far as the paganism goes, I do think it was probably more present in LMM’s mind than I’d like to sit, based ony growing conviction (after re-reading many of her works as a mature adult-ha!) that she wasn’t too sold on Christianity. (Please excuse the typos!)

    • Thanks, Amy. I had gotten the impression some time back that LMM probably was not a Christian. When this author attributed her bringing ferns into church as a pagan act, that seemed to me to go a little too far, but, like you, it may have been more of an influence than I’d thought as well. The author didn’t really quote LMM on it, though, so I am not sure how much is conjecture.

  2. This sounds like a book that really engaged you. I tend to enjoy biographies like this — ones that leave me feeling enthused and skeptical by turns. It sounds like you went into this one with the best possible context — with some knowledge of the subject already in place.

  3. I’ve had this post open for days, waiting for a completely uninterrupted moment to read it. (Hello 10 p.m.!)

    Fascinating. I haven’t read this one, as I’ve mentioned, and I thought your review was very interesting.

    As for the pagan acts – I haven’t read all of Montgomery’s journals so something may pop up. I do know that she really thought very little of the Christian faith and seemed to dismiss it very quickly. (I actually have a post addressing her faith issues, somewhat, coming up tomorrow morning.) I don’t think I would go so far as to say that she was consciously engaging in pagan acts of creation worship or anything like that. I think she was just fed internally by beauty and she was a nature enthusiast. Not in a bad way. I’ve never gotten the feeling from her journals that she worshiped nature in a way that I might call unhealthy. She was keenly aware of beauty in the world around here and I’d leave it at that myself. We decorate our church sanctuary’s with flowers today. I wouldn’t say we’re involved in pagan practices but that we like to make places look pretty and welcoming.

    As for lesbian leanings – bosh. I don’t buy that at all. She did have deep friendships – like her cousin Frede in particular. But she never gives even an INKLING of a suspicion of it being anything more than a deep and caring friendship. I’ve had some of those myself. And it’s not lesbianism. It’s genuine heart caring for another person. They just “clicked” as we might say.

    Lastly, in the second volume of Montgomery’s journals she does devote a good long passage to talking about what aspects of Anne were influenced by real life people, places and things. It’s been a month since I’ve read it and I’m a LITTLE fuzzy but as for the puffed sleeves -she did talk about those. I remember reading that when Montgomery grew up she desperately wanted to “cut a bang” but her grandparents were staunchly opposed. Montgomery didn’t care if bangs were ridiculous or a fad -she wanted a bang because it was the thing to do. So she wrote about Anne wanting puffed sleeves with the same desires that Montgomery felt about wanting to cut a bang but not being allowed to.

    She also wrote that she was horrified that anyone would think that she based Anne on any one particular person. Anne did “exist” in Montgomery’s mind. She talked about how she wouldn’t have been surprised to look over her shoulder and see Anne there. She was very much a part of Montgomery’s world and so I think that’s to be expected. She’s a real character! (Hey, even *I* am inclined to think so!) But in truth, she wasn’t based on one particular person or another.

    I guess that would be my response to all of that, based on Montgomery’s journals. I WOULD be curious to read this book at some point. I’m glad you reviewed it and, again, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your thoughts! Thank you for sharing!

  4. YAY! You found my comment. I tried leaving it a few times because I noticed it wasn’t showing up but kept getting the “duplicate comment” response. So I had copied and saved my comment and was going to check again this morning to see if you’d gotten it! Good to know.

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