After being enchanted with Anne of Green Gables on my first reading of it last year, I was determined to read my way through the entire series. As it always does, however, life intervened, and I never got around to it. Moving to America gave me the perfect excuse, as the antique copies I wanted to collect are far more widely available second hand here than they are in England, and I swiftly hunted down the first three sequels; Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, and Anne’s House of Dreams. Over the past couple of weeks I have had the most delightful time reading them and watching Anne grow from a schoolgirl teacher to a college student to a wife and young mother, and I am more convinced than ever that Anne Shirley is one of the most wonderful characters ever written.
Anne of Avonlea chronicles Anne’s time teaching at Avonlea school, from when she is 16 to when she is 18. All of the usual suspects are in this sequel, including Marilla, Gilbert, Diana and Mrs Rachel Lynde, as well as some lovely new characters, such as the imaginative and sensitive young pupil of Anne’s, Paul Irving, Miss Lavendar Lewis, a romantic spinster who lives in a hidden glen, Mr Harrison, the mysterious and seemingly cantankerous new neighbour of Green Gables, and, of course, the twins; adorable, irrepressible Davy, and the straight-laced Dora, who end up being adopted by Marilla. Anne remains very much the goodhearted, romantic, fanciful and well meaning child she was in Anne of Green Gables, getting into scrapes and making mistakes and having fun with her friends despite her no longer being a schoolgirl. However, the responsibility of her teaching duties and the little twins do mature her, and she learns that her idealistic notions don’t always translate to success in the real world. As she gets older and gains more experience of life, her friendships change and her priorities develop, and she grows to have ambitions that will take her far beyond the small world of Avonlea and the safe white washed room in Green Gables that contained her girlish dreams.
Anne of the Island develops this theme of growing up and maturing as Anne moves to the big city of Kingsport to attend Redmond College and take her BA in English. Here she meets new friends; the often infuriating Phil, a rich girl who soon turns out to be a ‘kindred spirit’, and sweet old Aunt Jamesina, who keeps house for Anne and her friends when they move into the perfectly beautiful cottage that will be their home throughout their BA. Of the three sequels I have read, I enjoyed Anne of the Island the most, because it is so wonderfully bittersweet and perfectly illustrates the mixed pains and pleasures of growing up. Though she relishes her freedom and autonomy in Kingsport, she still misses Avonlea. However, when Anne returns home for the holidays, she finds it sadly changed; she is no longer the child she was, and everyone is growing older and starting to move on and away with their lives. She experiences the death of friends, the changing of relationships as her friends begin to marry, and the heartache of love, but alongside this are the joy of widened horizons, the pleasure of new ambitions, and the hope of a bright future ahead. Anne learns so much about herself and what she wants from her life in this book, and I loved watching her mature and find her place in the world, and, of course, get that long awaited proposal from Gilbert.
Anne’s House of Dreams is the story of Anne and Gilbert’s first two years of marriage and their life in their ‘House of Dreams’, far from Avonlea on the other side of the Prince Edward Island coast. It’s three years since the events of Anne of the Island, and Anne and Gilbert are now 25. Gilbert is a country doctor and Anne is a housewife, and they take much joy in setting up home in their lovely seaside cottage. Far from Marilla and Diana, Anne is initially lonely, but her neighbours in Four Winds soon rally around. There is the delightful Captain Jim, an old seadog who lives in the lighthouse up the coast, the manhating feminist Miss Cornelia, and the stunningly beautiful, mysterious and tragic Leslie, whose life has dealt her many a cruel blow and who will come to find a new purpose in life through her friendship with Anne. This is the most mature and heartrending of the novels; as in love as Anne and Gilbert are, and as funny and heartwarming their adventures with their new neighbours, there is a lot of sadness, grief and heartache, and one episode in particular made me cry. It surprised me that this was classed as a ‘children’s’ book; the very adult griefs that come to pass in both Anne and Leslie’s lives are far too distressing for children to read about or fully understand. Despite the ultimately happy ending, Anne’s carefree life has been dealt a blow she will never truly recover from, and this pressing weight of adulthood marks the true passing of her girlhood and her advent into a woman. Though her irrepressible imagination and romantic heart remain, they have been brought into check by the experiences of her adult life.
By the time I finished reading these three sequels, I had mixed feelings. As much as I loved the stories and watching Anne grow up, I was also frustrated by the depiction of Anne having given up all of her dreams of teaching and writing to become a housewife. Instead, Anne is supposed to find fulfilment in keeping her house clean and her larder well stocked. Somehow, the ambitious, intelligent, bright eyed Anne of the early books disappears, and in her place is a passive angel in the house figure, whose greatest joy is in having a fire going and a meal on the table for her husband when he gets home. I know many women find genuine fulfilment and satisfaction in creating a comfortable home for their families, but Anne always wanted more than that. I felt like L M Montgomery had sold out to societal expectations of a woman’s place; Anne’s House of Dreams was published in 1917, during WW1; before the suffragettes had won their right to vote and at a time when the image of good, gentle women keeping those hearths burning had special significance for a world at war. Considering the environment Montgomery was writing in, I can understand her choosing to create a life for Anne built around traditional roles and home comforts, but I was disappointed not to see Anne, with her university degree, fierce intelligence and enviable talents, be encouraged to achieve more for herself, rather than just becoming a supporting player in her husband’s successful career.
Feminist concerns aside, these are truly wonderful books, and Anne is a magnificent heroine. I am glad, now I’ve read further in the series, that I waited until adulthood to read them for the first time. The increasingly melancholic tone perfectly exemplifies the first clouds on the horizon of life that appear as we all venture out of adolescence into adulthood, and Anne’s strength, courage and positivity are sorely needed as she negotiates the trials that come with increasing years. L M Montgomery does not make Anne’s life picture-book perfect, and this realistic portrayal is refreshing but also, at times, confusing. I’m not sure what audience Montgomery was writing for; too complex and tragic for children, but often rather simplistic for adults, the books straddle a sort of no-man’s land, genre-wise. The stories they weave are timeless, and powerful, but I really wouldn’t give them to anyone under the age of 13. Despite all of this, they have become great favourites of mine, and I was delighted to find within their pages the comfort, reassurance and inspiration we all need from time to time. If you’ve never read an Anne book, start today. They’ll enrich your soul, I promise!
Edited to add: Do go and listen to this wonderful discussion of the Anne books!