In my article a couple of weeks ago, “Smiles and Laughs from Anne’s Marking Pile, a Quote from L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Avonlea,” I talked about how L.M. Montgomery worked so hard to shape her second novel, Anne of Avonlea (1909). I enjoy this book. It is full of little anecdotes and cute stories, showing Montgomery’s strength as a short-story writer. Lovers of Anne will, I’m sure, be pleased just to get as much of her as they can.
I think most critics would admit, however, that it is not nearly as strong as most of the rest of the Anne series, from Anne of Green Gables in 1908 through the 1910s. My four-star rating is there because I simply quite enjoy reading the tale, and there are a few evocative moments of poetry and prose. But I admit that it sinks a bit beneath the pack–especially after the literary strength, imaginative power, and roaring success of Anne of Green Gables.
However, what if we flipped the frame a little bit? I think that sometimes readers set Anne of Green Gables down–which many receive as a heartwarming, inspirational classic–and then read Anne of Avonlea with a little shrug. It’s good, but it is no Anne of Green Gables, they say.
As a sequel, Anne of Avonlea really struggles to do what great sequels do: Bring us back into the fictional world and characters of the first book, but move the story forward into a new adventure.
Frankly, nothing really happens in Anne of Avonlea. Anne teaches well for a couple of years. The Green Gables household stretches and grows and adapts. There is an incident with a saucy parrot. A building is turned blue. An old maid discovers lost love, Diana leaves behind her Byronic hero for a pudgy farmer, Anne shrugs off love and expectation of marriage within her comfortable Avonlea, and many good spirits find their spiritual kin.
As a sequel, Anne of Avonlea is really a placeholder book–though one that Montgomery fans like a great deal.
Instead of setting aside Avonlea because of its weaknesses, however, I think we can turn them around as its strengths. Anne of the Island (1915) is Anne’s tale of going to university to complete her BA. During her college years, she creates a sisterly menagerie in an unusual old city home, including some lifelong friends. Anne finds closure with her orphaned past and begins a romance with her own not-terribly-Byronic hero, the tall, dark, and handsome Roy Gardner.
More than anything, perhaps, in Anne of the Island, our red-headed hero grows to adulthood and must, then, come to terms with who she wants to be in the world. Anne toys with a writing career using a story she sketched out in Anne of Avonlea. The first of the Avonlea gang of young adults falls to consumption–following a tension set up in Anne of Avonlea. Like Jane Eyre and the Story Girl, who entrall others though lacking traditional beauty, Anne captivates many young men, receiving I don’t know how many proposals for marriage. At least four, for certain. Anne excels academically, leaving open the question of whether being a homemaker or a smalltown schoolmarm are sufficient activities for this “B.A.”
And, without providing a spoiler, there is Gilbert.
The long-won friendship between Anne and Gilbert is one of the climaxes of Anne of Green Gables. At that point, teenage friendship is its own rewards, and healthy boy-girl friendships romp through Montgomery’s novels of the 1910s and 1920s. Growing up, though, complicates matters for everyone but Anne. Although everyone in Avonlea knows that Gilbert is in love with Anne, and although Anne cuts a fine young-adult figure in Anne of Avonlea–Anne, after all, wears her hair differently now that she is sixteen–Anne resists the growing-up nature of growing up. One of the climactic moments of Anne of Avonlea is that Anne must face in herself a crisis when her best friend, Diana Barry, will share the bosom of another for life.
Ultimately, then, the Anne-Gilbert relationship is only set on hold in Anne of Avonlea. Montgomery’s sequel ends with words that sound very much like a prequel:
For a moment Anne’s heart fluttered queerly and for the first time her eyes faltered under Gilbert’s gaze and a rosy flush stained the paleness of her face. It was as if a veil that had hung before her inner consciousness had been lifted, giving to her view a revelation of unsuspected feelings and realities. Perhaps, after all, romance did not come into one’s life with pomp and blare, like a gay knight riding down; perhaps it crept to one’s side like an old friend through quiet ways; perhaps it revealed itself in seeming prose, until some sudden shaft of illumination flung athwart its pages betrayed the rhythm and the music, perhaps . . . perhaps . . . love unfolded naturally out of a beautiful friendship, as a golden-hearted rose slipping from its green sheath.
Then the veil dropped again; but the Anne who walked up the dark lane was not quite the same Anne who had driven gaily down it the evening before. The page of girlhood had been turned, as by an unseen finger, and the page of womanhood was before her with all its charm and mystery, its pain and gladness.
Gilbert wisely said nothing more; but in his silence he read the history of the next four years in the light of Anne’s remembered blush. Four years of earnest, happy work . . . and then the guerdon of a useful knowledge gained and …
Actually, I don’t want to finish that line–just in case I am successful in making a case for this book for you, a new reader. For the lines that finish Anne of Avonlea play out the tensions of Anne of the Island and what comes after.
Thus, I think that Anne of Avonlea is better read as a prequel to Anne of the Island than as a sequel to Anne of Green Gables.
Now, if you follow my L.M. Montgomery WWI-era timeline, you’ll discover that although Anne of the Island (1915) completes a pre-married life trilogy of the period–Montgomery will add Anne of Windy Poplars in 1936, another teacherly book–it appears five and a half years after Anne of Avonlea. In the meantime, Montgomery has published Kilmeny of the Orchard (1910), the Story Girl/Golden Road couplet of episodic books (1911 & 1913), and a collection of Anne-related short stories, Chronicles of Avonlea (1912). She has also gotten married, moved to Ontario, and began a double life as a minister’s wife by day and an international celebrity author by night. Or perhaps it is the opposite–I can never be sure how secret identities work.
But my proposal should not be set aside for all that. As a prequel to Anne of the Island, Anne of Avonlea sets up the story beautifully. There are other ways that we can read Montgomery’s second novel. It works as a “Janus text”–a novel that looks both fore and aft. But I think that considering Avonlea as a prequel succeeds in moving it out of the quite significant shadow of Green Gables. In this new light, we see that it isn’t really true that almost nothing happens. For all that happens is happening as Anne moves to the critical moments of her early adult life in Anne of the Island.
Here is a little clip of “Anne & Gilbert,” the small-stage folk musical that has been playing in Prince Edward Island for a generation. This clip is a practice and from Ottawa at the National Art Centre–I couldn’t find a local version–but the play is great in that it shows the link between Anne of Avonlea and Anne of the Island that I propose here. Sadly, the big-stage Anne of Green Gables musical that has the world-record for longest-running musical did not run this year because of COVID-19.