This year, my dear husband gave me a birthday gift of two L.M. Montgomery books: Anne of Avonlea, because my old copy had worn out, and Rilla of Ingleside, which I had read twice but never owned. I was thrilled, and immediately started reading Rilla of Ingleside again for the third time.
Like many people, I was introduced to Anne by the wonderful television series starring Megan Follows. I immediately felt like this red-haired, imaginative, bookish girl was a “kindred spirit.” After seeing the show, I read the series up through Anne of Ingleside, which is largely about Anne’s many children. By then, Montgomery had kind of lost me. I was only twelve or thirteen, and I couldn’t identify with Anne’s career path, then married life and adult joys and sorrows. I thought the series had gotten kind of boring. Nevertheless, many things about her writing still thrilled me: her wonderful ability to describe beauty so that you can see it in your mind’s eye, her sympathy with the human heart, and her gift for dialogue, making characters’ natures plain in the way they speak.
I also loved how Montgomery showed Anne’s development as a writer. In college, I mentioned this to my friend Heidi, and she asked me if I’d read Montgomery’s “Emily of New Moon” series. When I said I hadn’t, she said, “Emily is much more of a serious writer than Anne. I think you’d really like those books, too.” On my next birthday, Heidi gave me the Emily trilogy: Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest. She wrote in the first book, “Amanda–meet another kindred spirit.” I loved reading about Emily, an orphan raised by her aunts on New Moon Farm who develops her gift for writing throughout her life with much hard work. The Emily series is a little darker and sadder than the Anne series; Emily has some very serious trials, and her love story is more thwarted than Anne’s. I don’t know if I would have been ready for the series as a child, but for a young woman going through some darkness and tragic love stories of her own, it was perfect.
I continued to read L.M. Montgomery as I matured. Several years ago, I discovered a lesser-known book, The Blue Castle, which may well be my favorite of her novels. Timid, submissive Valancy, at twenty-eight, still lives with her mother, completely under her mother’s thumb, when she is told she has a heart condition and probably has a year to live. This galvanizes her into acting on her dreams, foremost of which is proposing to the man she’s in love with. Marriage and running her own household enable Valancy to really live rather than just existing, and her life with her husband, who claims he isn’t in love with her, is beautiful. I can’t tell you how it all turns out without spoiling the ending, but it’s a wonderful read, not just a love story but a story of a woman coming into her own and escaping others’ expectations.
When I told my friend Marta how much I loved The Blue Castle, she said, “I don’t know if that one’s my favorite, or if it’s Jane of Lantern Hill.” I hastened to check Jane out from the library and found it a delightful book. Jane lives with her mother until her father, whom she doesn’t remember, shows up to claim his “half” in her and take her to live with him for the summer. I don’t know if it’s realistic how Jane instantly loves a father she doesn’t know, or how willingly she keeps house and cooks for him, but it makes a good read, and Jane is a marvelous character, completely unlike any of Montgomery’s other main characters. Instead of being dreamy and imaginative, she’s a practical, down-to-earth girl with a knack for doing practical things, including shingling a roof–wearing overalls! Jane’s big ambition is to get her parents back together. She’s so capable at everything, you know she can probably manage this, too.
Naturally, I’ve gone back to the Anne series as an adult, and I find that they’ve changed. I guess it’s really that I’ve changed. I’m captivated now by Anne’s House of Dreams, the record of Anne’s first couple of years of marriage; now I can identify with Anne in this book. Though I don’t have children, I enjoy reading about Anne as a mother and about her children’s vibrant adventures in Anne of Ingleside. And Rilla of Ingleside, which tells of Anne’s daughter Rilla’s coming-of-age during World War I, is precious to me. Of Montgomery’s heroines, Rilla may be the one who grows and changes the most gradually and realistically, as the war makes new demands on her. I haven’t lived through a war anything like World War I, but I have had new and unwanted demands made on me, too, and I hope they are causing me to grow.
Despite–or because of–her flaws as a writer, Montgomery is even more dear to me than she ever was. In fact, it’s precisely her imperfections, including her over-fondness for throwing in chapters of gossip or teaparties unrelated to the plot, her superlative descriptions using words like “purple” and “bejeweled” too many times, and her personal biases that show so clearly, that inspire me as a writer. Montgomery had her flaws, and she never outgrew them, but she remains one of the best storytellers I’ve ever read. I hope someday I can tell a story as well as she did.
Amanda MacNaughton, a bookseller at Paulina Springs Books in Sisters and Redmond, Oregon, has something in common with most of L.M. Montgomery’s heroines. Like Anne, she’s an imaginative redhead who daydreams a lot; like Emily, she strives to improve her writing; like Valancy, she finds great freedom in marriage and having her own household; and like Rilla, she grows by doing things she really does not want to do. Now if only she could be a bit more like the capable, practical Jane.