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The author extensively researched Maud’s published and unpublished journals, scrapbooks, letters, other writings about her life and work as well as the magazines Maud would have had in her home and other sources about the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