The Anne of Green Gables Read-a-long continues today with a reflection on Chapter V: Anne's History by Caroline E. Jones, a longtime supporter of the LMMI and frequent attendee at the biennial conferences.
I love a lot about this chapter, but I especially love seeing a different version of Anne herself, an Anne unprotected by her prodigious imagination, and Anne sharing the facts of her life. Anne’s imagination is undiminished by the “perfect graveyard of buried hopes” she characterizes her life as, she wants to tell Marilla the things “I imagine about myself.” As they drive away from Green Gables, Anne sees an early rose and delights in its beauty, wondering what it must be like to be that rose, not simply to wear pink, but to be pink, “the most bewitching color in the world.” She wants to create her own narrative, build her own story.
Marilla, however, wants no stories of roses or imagined lives: she wants “bald facts,” the child’s actual history. Montgomery’s language is telling: Anne “eagerly” offers her imagined biography, but “resigns” herself to those same “bald facts.” However, even in those simple facts—her parents’ names, for instance—Anne finds poetry. “Aren’t Walter and Bertha lovely names? I’m so glad my parents had nice names,” she comments, then deflects Marilla’s moral on the importance of behaviour rather than names with a philosophical repudiation of Shakespeare’s rose by any other name still smelling sweet.
Anne also describes her childhood home as she imagines it, embowered by honeysuckle, lilac, and lily of the valley, and wistfully considers the three months of her life she lived there, before moving on to the grimmer realities of her childhood. She describes life with Mrs. Thomas of the drunken husband, then Mrs. Hammond and her three sets of twins in a place so “very lonesome … I’m sure I could never have lived there if I hadn’t had an imagination,” and ultimately in the orphanage at Hopetown. The resonant strain through this narrative is abandonment: first by parents who desperately wanted her, then by two families who didn’t, lending resonance to Anne’s earlier cry, “I might have known nobody really did want me.”
Marilla questions Anne about her education (helping the reader to understand this orphan’s extraordinary literary knowledge), then comes back to the Thomases and Hammonds, asking, “Were those women . . . good to you?” It is in this questioning—and her response to the answers—that we see the wisdom beneath Marilla’s sternness, and, as Casey Hamilton noted in her response to chapter 3, the kindness and potential for love that Marilla may not even be fully aware of herself. As Anne equivocates, “O-o-o-h … oh, they meant to be,” Marilla unconsciously judges the women previously entrusted with the child before her, and reflects on Anne’s longing for a home. She finds herself pondering the notion Matthew had suggested the night before: perhaps we might be some use to her. And the door of her heart begins to creak open.
As Marilla ponders and Anne drinks in the views, they lapse into silence, making their way along the shore road toward White Sands. Anne, prompted by the sea’s proximity, shares a rare happy memory of her time with the Thomases, a wonderful day spent at the Marysville shore (“even if I had to look after the children all the time”), telling Marilla, “I lived it over in happy dreams for years.”
Montgomery closes the chapter with a bookend to Anne’s fancy of being a rose, this time a reflection on being a gull: “Don’t you think it would be nice to wake up at sunrise and swoop down over the water and away out over that lovely blue all day; then at night to fly back to one’s nest?” With these twin symbols of freedom and home, Montgomery establishes Anne’s quest, not simply for this novel, but for all the books that follow. Anne has never had agency in the material circumstances of her life, so she has built it imaginatively. Just so, her imagination, and her passion for beauty in nature and language, have offered a mental and spiritual freedom that has sustained her through a hard, deprived live. What she has not been able to create imaginatively (along with raven black tresses), is home, a place—and people—where and to whom she belongs, and which belong equally to her. Matthew Cuthbert sensed that need immediately. Marilla is slower to understand, but understand she does. And, once she understands, she can neither turn away this child nor turn away from her.
The fifth chapter of a thirty-eight chapter book might seem early for a turning point, but Montgomery’s narrative is carefully crafted with several pivotal moments, points where characters reach crucial understandings of themselves, others, or the world in which they live. This is the first, and, arguably, the one which makes all the others possible.
Caroline E. Jones has published on L.M. Montgomery as well as on sexuality in children’s and adolescent literature. She teaches writing and American Literature at Austin Community College in Austin, Texas, where she lives with her family, friends, and cats. She blogs (very occasionally) at https://cantquitreading.blogspot.com/.