Like many women of my generation, I read Anne of Green Gables when I was young, and I saw a couple of adaptations on television, but it wasn’t until last year that I discovered how many books there were in the series, and decided to embark on them all in order. It was a year in which I considered myself fortunate, because I spent many happy hours immersed in the events of Avonlea and Ingleside.
Anne of Green Gables, the first in the series, tells the story of the orphan Anne Shirley’s arrival at the farm of Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. They were expecting a boy, and there are tense pages for Anne and the reader while the elderly brother and sister make up their mind as to whether she can stay. Once it’s decided, Anne’s natural ebullience is unquenchable, and she gets into a succession of scrapes to try the patience of her new guardians, while making friends and rivals in the community. Anne is instantly lovable, and the reader shares her despair about her red hair, and her yearning to be called Cordelia, so that when, at the end of the book, she has to curtail her dreams, we both suffer with her and admire her determination. I read this book in the edition edited by Cecily Devereux, which has an introduction and some interesting back matter, including contemporary reviews, which I found quite informative. I would have welcomed similar treatment for the whole series.
The second book, Anne of Avonlea, follows her early days as a teacher in the local school, and introduces her adopted siblings, the twins Davy and Dora. The tone is similar to the first book, since Anne is as prone as ever to disaster, especially as organiser of the Avonlea Village Improvement Society, but the in the third book, Anne of the Island, we see her start to mature, and a quieter note begins to emerge. Anne is now at Redmond College, and sharing a house with friends. Here she begins to truly appreciate domesticity, and becomes more reflective, while still maintaining her love of storytelling. She doesn’t lose the charm that she has for the reader – instead we feel as though there is a deepening relationship as she matures.
Anne of Windy Willows sees Anne as principal of Summerside school, learning to cope with difficult pupils and parents. This is one of my favourites, I think – I like the venture into the Gothic with Anne’s visit to Tomgallon House, and her landladies at Windy Willows (I wonder, incidentally, whether Montgomery liked cats, because they seem to be singled out for misery in her books!). Interestingly, it was written much later than the others, and is epistolatory, which I enjoyed because the letters make it a very “chatty” book.
From book five, and Anne's House of Dreams onwards, we join the married Anne, and the mood is often more sombre, though her joy in her new home and new friends always resurfaces. Montgomery never, in the earlier books, shies away from the fact of death, but in the loss of her first child Anne encounters the grief which means that her happiness can never again be perfect. The story of her friend Leslie Moore, too, deals with unhappy marriage, loss and a kind of duty which is contrary to all of Anne’s experience, not joyful duty but a burden. I felt, increasingly impressed that Montgomery didn’t try to shelter her young readers from the woes of life, but was trying to prepare them for what they might meet later, and there is a presentiments of war in the next book. Anne of Ingleside is much occupied with the visit of Gilbert’s dreadful aunt, who tries the patience of the entire family, but also focuses, one by one, on Anne’s children. It’s a lovely portrait of a happy and contented family, and is followed by, and contrasts with, Rainbow Valley, which is more concerned with a neighbouring family, the Merediths, who have lost their mother and are neglected by their father.
The last book, Rilla of Ingleside, was hard to read. The youngest of Anne’s children, Rilla (named after Marilla Cuthbert) is the last child still at home, and she’s a frivolous, carefree child until war breaks out and all the young men join up. Endeavouring to be more responsible, Rilla starts organising the local junior branch of the Red Cross and, on a fundraising visit, suddenly finds herself with a baby whose mother has just died. Caring for a helpless infant is daunting, but she is determined to do her best. It’s the agony of waiting that makes the novel so hard, though, the depiction of a community in limbo waiting to hear if its children will survive, at a time when news could take weeks to arrive, and the reading of news and waiting for corroboration of secondhand reports is a constant theme. The pain and grief of the small community is exemplified by the Blythe’s elderly dog, who accompanies Jem to the station and then waits out the duration of the war – I could hardly bear it. At the same time I found this woman’s perspective on the war illuminating and rewarding.
There is a “prequel” to the Anne books written by Budge Wilson, Before Green Gables, intended to explain how Anne became the kind of child she was, imaginative and resourceful. I started to read this, and gave up, but it demonstrated to me how successful Montgomery’s books are, because they never for a moment lag, or lose your interest – there is always a sense of freshness about them. I compared them to Susan Coolidge’s Katy books, which I also returned to recently, and found much less satisfactory than I recalled; the attempt to grow up with Katy (in What Katy Did Next) was, I thought, pretty dull, whereas Anne at every stage of her life feels like an old friend, one of those people you can meet after a long period with a feeling that you’ve never been apart.
I’ve listed the books in reading order below:
Anne of Green Gables (1908)
Anne of Avonlea (1909)
Anne of the Island (1915)
Anne of Windy Willows (1936; Windy Poplars in the US and Canada)
Anne’s House of Dreams (1917)
Anne of Ingleside (1939)
Rainbow Valley (1919)
Rilla of Ingleside (1921)