Anne’s House of Dreams and the “great Canadian novel”


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“Young Dr. Blythe” is a very busy man and he’s often away from the little white house he and Anne share near Four Winds Harbour at the start of their married life, but at least we do get to hear more about him in Anne’s House of Dreams. Anne says Gilbert is “hardly ever home except for a few hours in the wee sma’s. He’s really working himself to death. So many of the over-harbour people send for him now” (Chapter 22). His medical practice gets a great deal of attention in the second half of the novel, when he suggests to Anne that surgery might cure their neighbour Dick Moore’s “memory and faculties” (Chapter 29). I don’t know much about the procedure he recommends (and I’d be interested to read more about this aspect of the novel – let me know if you have any suggestions about essays on neurosurgery and the novels of L.M. Montgomery), but I have to say I did like the chapter in which “Gilbert and Anne Disagree,” because it brought back the antagonism that we first encountered in the infamous “Carrots” scene in Anne of Green Gables.

Anne's House of Dreams and the "great Canadian novel"

Back in May, I wrote about how disappointed I was that Gilbert was almost entirely absent from the story in Anne of Windy Poplars, the fourth book in L.M. Montgomery’s “Anne” series. I didn’t do a great job of keeping up with all the books in the “Green Gables Readalong” that Lindsey Reeder hosted from January to August this year, but I did read Anne’s House of Dreams in the late spring – and here I am now, writing about it in late September….

Here are just a few of the many other things I liked about Anne’s House of Dreams, in addition to the disagreement between Anne and Gilbert. I liked the way Montgomery explores Anne’s response to the sorrow that comes to her as a young wife and mother, and the way Anne’s marriage is contrasted with her neighbour Leslie’s in such a way that Anne realizes, even in the midst of that sorrow, just how fortunate she is. I liked the chapter (21) in which Leslie confesses to Anne that “there have been times this past winter and spring when I have hated you” and the two of them become close friends after they discuss the reasons for this hatred.

I liked the conversation Anne and Miss Cornelia have about obituaries: Miss Cornelia asks, “Have you ever noticed what heaps of good people die, Anne, dearie? It’s kind of pitiful. Here’s ten obituaries, and every one of them saints and models, even the men. Here’s old Peter Stimson, who has ‘left a large circle of friends to mourn his untimely loss.’ Lord, Anne, dearie, that man was eighty, and everybody who knew him had been wishing him dead these thirty years.” (This passage makes me think of what Jane Austen says to her sister Cassandra about their neighbour Mrs. Holder: “Only think of Mrs. Holder’s being dead! – Poor woman, she has done the only thing in the World she could possibly do, to make one cease to abuse her” [October 14, 1813].) Miss Cornelia thinks “obituary” is an ugly word. “There’s only one uglier word that I know of, and that’s relict. Lord, Anne, dearie, I may be an old maid, but there’s this comfort in it – I’ll never be any man’s ‘relict’” (Chapter 28).

Anne's House of Dreams and the "great Canadian novel"

Covehead Lighthouse, PEI

I did find it a bit hard to believe that in this small community, almost everyone Anne meets turns out to be a kindred spirit: Leslie (eventually), Miss Cornelia, the lighthouse keeper Captain Jim, and Owen Ford, the writer who comes to board at Leslie’s house for the summer. And while I remembered that Anne treasures her friendship with Captain Jim, I had forgotten the details of what he says about women writers. He’s pleased to find that Owen is “what he called a ‘real writing man’” and he’s quite ready to regard him as “a superior being” – superior, that is, to women who dare to write: he “knew that Anne wrote, but he had never taken that fact very seriously. Captain Jim thought women were delightful creatures, who ought to have the vote, and everything else they wanted, bless their hearts; but he did not believe they could write.” The reason he gives is that “A writing woman never knows when to stop; that’s the trouble. The p’int of good writing is to know when to stop.”

I agree with him about that very last bit. Good writing has as much to do with what you leave out and when you stop as with where you begin and what you put in. But I was disappointed to find that this so-called “kindred spirit” is so dismissive of Anne’s writing. And I was disappointed that Anne’s only response to what Captain Jim says here is to invite him to tell a story: “‘Mr. Ford wants to hear some of your stories, Captain Jim,’ said Anne. ‘Tell him the one about the captain who went crazy and imagined he was the Flying Dutchman’” (Chapter 24).

I had forgotten that in this book Anne herself is dismissive of her writing. Here’s the conversation she has with Owen when he first arrives and tells her he’s so impressed with the beauty of his temporary home that “if inspiration comes from beauty, I should certainly be able to begin my great Canadian novel here” (Chapter 23).

“You haven’t begun it yet?” asked Anne.

“Alack-a-day, no. I’ve never been able to get the right central idea for it. It lurks beyond me – it allures – and beckons – and recedes – I almost grasp it and it is gone. Perhaps amid this peace and loveliness, I shall be able to capture it. Miss Bryant tells me that you write.”

“Oh, I do little things for children. I haven’t done much since I was married. And I have no designs on a great Canadian novel,” laughed Anne. “That is quite beyond me.”

Owen Ford laughed too.

“I dare say it is beyond me as well. All the same I mean to have a try at it someday, if I can ever get time.”

Anne's House of Dreams and the "great Canadian novel"

Oh, Anne! What happened to “I’m just as ambitious as ever,” from that last chapter of Anne of Green Gables? “I do little things for children”? In her biography of Montgomery, Mary Rubio notes that “Less than three weeks after finishing Anne’s House of Dreams Maud began writing a version of her life called ‘The Story of My Career’ for publication in Everywoman’s World, a popular magazine for women.” Later published as The Alpine Path (1975), this story opens with a combination of modesty about her accomplishments – “Could my long, uphill struggle, through many quiet, uneventful years, be termed a ‘career’?” – and determination to succeed as a writer – Montgomery writes that to climb the path to “heights sublime” and “true and honoured fame” has been “the key-note of my every aim and ambition.” She was herself ambitious, and, as Rubio discusses in Chapter 19 of Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings, her reputation suffered when she was “re-categorized as ‘a children’s writer’ and ‘provincial,’” after which “most male critics who belittled Maud’s books did not actually read them, they just accepted the labels pinned on them.”

Anne's House of Dreams and the "great Canadian novel"

I found it hard to believe that after all his struggles to write, Owen writes his “great Canadian novel” so quickly, in one summer, and then has “not much doubt that he would find a publisher.” He records the stories Captain Jim has been telling for years, and when he has completed the manuscript, “He knew that he had written a great book – a book that would score a wonderful success – a book that would live. He knew that it would bring him both fame and fortune” (Chapter 25). It’s all so easy! Soon the book is “heading the lists of the best sellers” (Chapter 40). It made me wonder why we don’t all try to write the great Canadian novel. But perhaps one has to be “a real writing man” to achieve that ambition.

In a way, I wish I hadn’t gone back to reread the later books in the “Anne” series, because when I was very young, the first books in the series inspired me to become a writer, and it’s been somewhat disappointing to find out what happens to Anne’s literary ambitions. But at the same time, it’s been fascinating to make comparisons with what I remembered from my childhood.

Anne's House of Dreams and the "great Canadian novel"

Forrest Building, Dalhousie University

When I read Anne of the Island as a child in Halifax, I didn’t realize Kingsport was based on the city I lived in, or that Redmond College was based on Dalhousie University, where my father was (and is) an English professor. Over the past couple of years I’ve enjoyed exploring Montgomery’s Nova Scotia connection in that novel and in her journals. (See “Attending Redmond College with Anne Shirley” and “L.M. Montgomery in Nova Scotia.”) I had vague memories of disliking Anne of Windy Poplars when I was ten, but I had forgotten why, and when I reread it in April, I was interested to discover that immediately after Anne and Gilbert get engaged, he moves to the sidelines instead of continuing on as a central character in her story. (See “Anne and Gilbert After the Happy Ending.”) And I remember thinking it was quite magical that one of Anne’s closest friends in Anne’s House of Dreams was a lighthouse keeper, but I either didn’t notice Captain Jim’s dismissive attitude toward women and writing or I forgot about it over the years.

Anne's House of Dreams and the "great Canadian novel"

Eventually I’ll probably reread Anne of Ingleside, Rainbow Valley, and Rilla of Ingleside as well, even though I’ve missed the chance to blog about them in the appropriate months for this particular “readalong.” I’m especially interested in Rilla, and her preference for straight roads (as contrasted with her mother’s love of the “bend in the road”). At the moment I’m torn between thinking I ought to revisit the “Emily” series, which was also part of what inspired me at the ages of ten and eleven to want to be a writer, and thinking I just might want to hang onto my childhood memories of those books for a little longer.


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