October 7, 2015
Rereading Anne’s House of Dreams
I’ve been reading the Anne books as long as I’ve known how to read, though my preferences among them are a bit curious as Anne aficionados go. Anne’s House of Dreams was always my favourite, followed by Anne of Ingleside, because I found her children incredibly amusing. Rainbow Valley I could take or leave, but of course I loved Rilla of Ingleside, which seemed a proper grown-up book. Anne of Ingleside didn’t particularly, however, but it did permit glimpses inside Anne’s marriage, which I was fascinated by. (“They sleep in different bedrooms,” I said to my mother one summer day at the locks at the Rosedale Canal. We were with family friends. “So how did they manage to make babies?” I was told we’d talk about it later.) Anne of Ingleside is the one book of all my Anne book whose binding has completely come apart, which isn’t that surprising considering it was a crappy Seal paperback (and oh, good gracious, the typos! The typos!), although the others are holding up okay. It is possible that I have never reread Anne of Avonlea or Anne of the Island. Grown-up Anne was always more interesting to me than her youthful counterpart, although I’ve reread Anne of Green Gables twice in the last ten years and it’s only deepened my appreciation for its goodness and depth.
And so last week I turned again to House of Dreams, because we’re reading it for our book club. And I was a bit surprised to find that reading it was nothing but a pleasure, and it was rich with humour and surprises. And both, in the case of the regular references to suicide by Miss Cornelia Bryant: “Doctor Dave hadn’t much tact, to be sure—he was always talking of ropes in houses where someone had hanged himself.” There’s a lot of dark humour in the book, and darkness full stop in regards to poverty and status of women in the village families. Anne and Gilbert’s home stands in contrast to to the world around them, just like Captain Jim’s light house.
And yes, Captain Jim, the one bit I was just not as taken by. He was a bit like an idiot savant and I kept wondering about his sexlessness. I wondered a lot about sex in general, actually, and have a better understanding of why fan fiction was invented because I would actually like to read Anne and Gilbert porn—wouldn’t you? Anyway, I was relieved when LM dialled it back whenever I fear that he was about to launch into a sea yarn. There is no book I’d ever want to read less than Captain Jim’s life book, and while I didn’t feel relief, exactly, when he crosses the bar, I wasn’t worry to see the last of him.
The book I do want to read is this one though, about Anne and Gilbert’s first year of marriage. About Anne’s longing for motherhood, which is a subtle but persistent force throughout the book (and even violently so on the part of her friend, Leslie Moore). It goes unspoken, but it’s remarkable that in having a child, Anne would meet a blood relative for the very first time, which even in a world lousy with kindred spirits has to mean something. At the beginning of the book she witnesses Diana holding her own daughter:
“cuddling Small Anne Cordelia with the inimitable gesture of motherhood which always sent through Anne’s heart, filled with sweet unuttered dreams and hopes, a thrill that was half pure pleasure and half a strange ethereal pain.”
The beginning of the book is wonderful, a homecoming to Avonlea, Anne and Gilbert’s wedding the first Green Gables has ever seen. The prose is still so familiar to me from when I read it years and years ago, and I can anticipate each next line as I encounter it: the bit about the bird that sang during the ceremony. Marilla is stiff and deadpan, and Mrs. Rachel Lynde is still every bit herself, and we’re acquainted with characters from previous books (although not Windy Poplars, which was published after House of Dreams, although it takes place before, making it seem as though her friends from Summerside did not making the guest list).
They move to Four Winds Harbour, near the village of Glen St. Mary. There they meet the neuter seafaring Captain Jim, and Miss Cornelia Bryant in her ostentatious wraps and declarations of, “Isn’t it just like a man?” And Leslie Moore, whose name I always found so euphonic, and quite fitting that her husband was called Dick. Indeed. Tragic Leslie, who hates Anne for her fortune as much as she admires her as a friend, and Montgomery’s acknowledgement of that complexity in female relationships is really quite profound. I also rejoiced at the birth of Bertie Shakespeare Drew, who would come to be an important character in the following book.
I always found the romance between Anne and Gilbert most endearing, and I imagine that my greatest attraction reading the book when I was young was imagining that somebody might love me as much as Gilbert loves Anne. This is also why, while I am lucky that somebody loves me much indeed today. I often admonish him for not voicing his interior monologue using phrases like, “I can hardly believe that you are mine.” (My husband believes I am his too much entirely. Poor man.) It is possible that Gilbert Blythe gave me an entirely unrealistic standard of courtly love.
I don’t recall being disappointed by the Anne in Anne’s House of Dreams, though I can certainly see why one would be and I really liked Sarah Emsley’s post about Anne’s dismissal of her writing talents in the novel. Kate Sutherland (who, lucky us, is in our book club!) address this too in a post a few years ago, suggesting that Anne had not let herself down so much as readers had misidentified her as a writer. She had had other goals for herself, although yes, it would have been nice if literature proper in the novel wasn’t so gendered. And while Anne does go the route of plucky childhood heroines and settles down into conventionality ala Laura Ingalls, Dorothy Ellen Palmer made a great point on Facebook about the importance of seeing Anne as an adopted child whose spiritedness may have been a way to deal with trauma, loss and insecurity, and that the trajectory of this character to a happy and stable adult, wife and mother, is incredibly remarkable. (See also: Alison Kinney’s essay, “The Uses of Orphans.”)
What has always been most striking to me about the book is Mongomery’s depiction of the stillbirth of Anne’s first baby, this indefatigable character overcome by heartbreak, and her pain is so real. The experience was close to its author’s heart, giving an extra layer of poignance to the narrative, as well as authenticity. Striking too is Marilla’s fear at the loss of her own daughter, and her relief when Anne’s life is saved. Her inability to articulate her emotions too: “‘Time will help you,” said Marilla, who was racked with sympathy but could never learn to express it in other than age-worn formulas.” And Leslie Moore who dares to say, “I envy Anne… and I’d envy her even if she had died! She was a mother for one beautiful day. I’d gladly give my life for that!” Which is neither kind nor wise but something beyond either. Anne’s anger as well at the idea her daughter was in “a better place.” And when she’s told that one day it will hurt less and she replies, “The thought that it may stop hurting sometimes hurts me worse than all else.”
Although the novel’s most heartbreaking part of all takes place when we learn in chapter 35 that Gilbert Blythe is an ardent Conservative—but of course, and so was Matthew, we remember. But then after 18 years, the Tories lose to a sweeping majority by the Grits, which does to show that anything can happen. Captain Jim himself redeemed by the fact that he wasn’t a Conservative himself—though he dies. Hopefully not a comeuppance, but I do hope that somehow Montgomery’s narrative is some kind of political forecast. More accurate than some polls, I am sure. It doesn’t have to be the Liberals necessarily, but please, in two weeks, let us be able to say, paraphrasing Captain Jim, “After nearly ten years of Tory mismanagement, this down-trodden country is going to have a chance at last.”