I didn’t like Anne of Windy Poplars when I was ten and I don’t like it now. I remember disliking Anne’s letters to Gilbert, but I had forgotten why. My recent rereading, inspired by the Green Gables Readalong hosted by Lindsey Reeder, reminded me that I found the epistolary genre boring and that I wanted to read more about the relationship between Anne and Gilbert. Most of the book consists of letters she writes to him during the three years of their engagement when she’s teaching in Summerside, PEI and he’s attending medical school in Kingsport, Nova Scotia (a.k.a. Halifax). This time around, I thought I might appreciate the book more, because over the years other epistolary novels, such as Jane Austen’s Lady Susan and Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist (radically different – and both so good!), have persuaded me of the merits of the genre. No such luck. I think the novel would have been much more interesting if it had included letters from Gilbert as well as from Anne.
Anne’s voice is as lively as ever, as she recounts stories about the entertaining and exasperating characters she meets in Summerside, but while she sometimes rhapsodizes about her love for Gilbert and her dreams about their future life together, she almost never shows any interest in his life and what he’s doing during those three long years. I was surprised Gilbert didn’t break off the engagement. He’s conspicuously absent from this book. When Anne goes home to Green Gables for the summer the letters stop – which would make sense if the novel were composed entirely of letters, but it isn’t. There are several passages of third person narration that appear in between her letters, yet they provide more of the same – Anne’s experiences with the people of Summerside.
Perhaps Montgomery left Gilbert out of the story because by the end of the previous book in the series, Anne of the Island, he and Anne have resolved their differences and are blissfully happy. There’s no conflict between them left to dramatize, so instead she focuses on conflicts with the infamous Pringles and other characters. But I would think Gilbert would have plenty to object to in Anne’s self-centred, rambling letters that appear to show no interest in his life and his experiences at medical school.
Anne says she thinks she’s “scandalously in love” with Gilbert, yet there’s very little evidence to support that claim. She refers to the “beautiful two months” they share during the first summer at home in Avonlea, but we don’t hear any details, and even when she sees Gilbert when they’re home for Christmas in the second year, he’s mentioned only in passing – at one point he drives her and her friend Katherine to see Diana and her new baby girl. By the second summer, he’s even further away because he’s “gone west to work on a new railroad that was being built” (which struck me as a particularly vague statement given that Montgomery lived for a year in Saskatchewan and could very easily have specified which part of “the west” Gilbert travels to).
Even if Montgomery decided she didn’t want to include letters from him at all, she could still have revealed more about his years of medical training through Anne’s responses to his letters, or she could have described conversations between them when they meet in Avonlea during the summers. I know she wrote the novel after she had already published books that describe later episodes in Anne’s life, including Anne’s House of Dreams (1917), Rainbow Valley (1919), and Rilla of Ingleside (1921) (see L.M. Montgomery Online for more details). Anne of Windy Poplars wasn’t published until 1936, and I can see that it would have been a challenge to write something that fit in with the other novels.
I suppose my disappointment comes from my expectation, based on the ending of Anne of the Island, that the next book would follow continuing developments in the relationship between the heroine and her hero. And I guess Montgomery was facing the challenge, in both this novel and the later ones in the Anne series, of what to write about after the happy ending has already been written. Mary Henley Rubio says in Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings (2008) that “Maud positively hated the tacked on ‘happy ending’ of romance,” and that in Anne of Green Gables she had focused “not on Anne’s finding a man to marry, but on the more ambiguous image of the ‘bend in the road,’” which “pointed a way to interesting ventures in the future, not necessarily to marriage.” I can certainly understand why Montgomery tried hard to avoid the typical romantic ending, and why she held off for so long on bringing Anne and Gilbert together.
If the heroine and hero are happy, one has to find someone else to write about. In this case, it’s the impossible Pringle family (“I have found out there are some decent Pringles,” Anne writes, “… dead ones”). But I still wonder how happy Gilbert would be, reading those letters and knowing that while Anne loves him, she doesn’t pay any attention to what’s happening in his life. And I can’t help but think his frustration just might be a missed opportunity to explore further conflict between the two of them, frustration of the kind that might have made him want to break a slate over her head this time.
Last week I started reading Anne’s House of Dreams and I was glad to see that even at the start there is more about Gilbert’s medical career: “‘Gilbert looks very young for a doctor. I’m afraid people won’t have much confidence in him,’ said Mrs. Jasper Bell gloomily.” There, that’s more like it. Something Anne and Gilbert can object to together.
I wrote the first draft of this post before the sudden and very sad death of Jonathan Crombie, who played the role of Gilbert in the t.v. adaptation of Anne of Green Gables (1985) and its two sequels. I now feel even more sad about the absence of Gilbert Blythe. Sarah Larson wrote a lovely tribute to both Crombie and Gilbert for The New Yorker, “Why We Loved Gilbert Blythe,” in which she describes the “‘Carrots’ slate-smash” as Anne’s “tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me” moment. This mention of the connection between Anne of Green Gables and Pride and Prejudice sent me back to Miriam Rheingold Fuller’s wonderful essay “Jane of Green Gables: L.M. Montgomery’s Reworking of Austen’s Legacy,” in which she notes also that “Anne’s violent reaction to Gilbert’s teasing recalls Elizabeth’s response to Darcy’s first proposal, with its references to her ‘inferiority.'”
Here are some of the other responses to Anne of Windy Poplars by bloggers participating in the Green Gables Readalong: Naomi of Consumed by Ink and Eva of The Paperback Princess had a more positive experience of rereading the novel than I did, while Courtney at Once Upon a Bookshelf feels that “this book wasn’t true to the spirit of the rest of the series.”
If you’ve read Anne of Windy Poplars, I’d be interested to hear what you think of the book. There were some passages that I did like very much, so I chose a couple of them to highlight here.
At the beginning of the novel, Mrs. Rachel Lynde makes an appearance. Here’s what she says in reply to a comment Anne makes about the freedom she had at Patty’s Place, where she lived when she attended Redmond College:
“Freedom!” Mrs. Lynde sniffed. “Freedom! Don’t talk like a Yankee, Anne.”
I liked Anne’s reaction to Hazel Marr’s dramatic speeches (such as, “Oh, I don’t know if I hate you the most or pity you the most! Oh, how could you treat me like this … after I’ve loved you so … trusted you so … believed in you so!”):
“You can’t have many exclamation points left,” thought Anne, “but no doubt the supply of italics is inexhaustible.”
This line made me think of the advice Emily Starr receives from her favourite teacher, Mr. Carpenter, in Montgomery’s novel Emily’s Quest: on his deathbed, Mr. Carpenter warns her to “Beware – of – italics.” Good advice to any writer.
I happen to be visiting Prince Edward Island right now and I took a few photos to share with you. If you read my post “Attending Redmond College with Anne Shirley” a few weeks ago you’ll know I was planning to visit PEI in March, but wasn’t able to do so because there was a massive snowstorm in the Maritimes and the Confederation Bridge was closed (not that I would have been able to get anywhere near the bridge, with that much snow in my own driveway). Six weeks later, there is still snow on the ground here, and when we arrived on Wednesday it was snowing again. It’s been a hard winter in this part of the world. I’ll definitely have to come back to the Island in the summer.