Goodreads: Making Avonlea
Age Category: Adult
Since the publication of Anne of Green Gables in 1908, L.M. Montgomery and the world of Anne have propelled themselves into a global cultural phenomenon, popular not only in Canada, but in places as diverse as Japan, the United States, and Iran. Making Avonlea, the first study to focus on Montgomery and her characters as popular cultural icons, brings together twenty-three scholars from around the world to examine Montgomery’s work, its place in our imagination, and more specifically its myriad spin-offs including musicals, films, television series, t-shirts, dolls, and a tourist industry.
Invoking theories of popular culture, film, literature, drama, and tourism, the essayists probe the emotional attachment and loyalty of many generations of mostly female readers to Montgomery’s books while similarly scrutinizing the fierce controversies that surround these books and their author’s legacy in Canada. Twenty-five illustrations of theatre and film stills, artwork, and popular cultural artefacts, as well as snapshot pieces featuring personal reflections on Montgomery’s novels, are interwoven with scholarly essays to provide a complete picture of the Montgomery cultural phenomenon. Mythopoetics, erotic romance, and visual imagination are subjects of discussion, as is the commercial success of various television series and movies, musicals, and plays based on the Anne books. Scholars are equally concerned with the challenges and disputes that surround the translation of Montgomery’s work from print to screen as well as the growth of tourist sites and websites that have themselves moved Avonlea into new cultural landscapes. Making Avonlea allows the reader to travel to these sites and to consider Canada’s most enduring literary figures and celebrity author in light of their status as international icons almost one hundred years after they first arrived on the scene.
With its broad focus on everything from interpretations of Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon to film analyses, descriptions of doll-making, and explorations of Japanese Anne clubs, Making Avonlea is a fascinating look at how Montgomery’s work has been received, reinterpreted, and commodified. The essays range from scholarly critiques to personal confession, with each writer bringing their unique perspective to a field that they hope will continue to find acceptance in the broader scholarly community. However, despite the academic emphasis, the collection will also appeal to a more popular audience; any fan of Anne’s will be intrigued by the new viewpoints raised, and encouraged to look at Montgomery’s writings (and their reincarnations) with fresh eyes.
Like any collected work, Making Avonlea contains essays that vary in quality and interest. For my part, I found several of the analyses of Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon lacking–though this did not surprise me. I remain convinced that the “publish or perish” mentality in higher academia has led to a wealth of sub-par publications, which often do not seem to have any real point (observing things in a literary work, but not saying why it matters) or that seem to be far-fetched theories in an attempt to say something new. This is true of many publications, not just this one.
So, for instance, I was intrigued by Irene Gammel’s “Safe Pleasures for Girls: L. M. Montgomery’s Erotic Landscapes” and its argument that Montgomery subversively represents reader desire in her works. However, I started to question how far the argument can really go when Gammel writes that Emily’s sexual awakening occurs at Priest Pond and experiences menstruation in the Pink Room, as represented by what Gammel calls “Montgomery’s complex literary cryptogram for menstrual symptoms,” i.e. Emily’s “cold perspiration, anxiety, terror, horror, panic, and a none-too-subtle Gothic vision of a ‘bleeding nun'” (123). I am not sure that anxiety and terror are the most obvious symptoms of menstruation. Had Emily experienced cramps, bloating, backache, a headache, or fatigue, I would be more convinced that she is on her period, and not just experiencing an overactive imagination.
In the same vein, while I find it interesting for Gammel to argue that, “Wyther Grange signal the heroine’s entrance into fertility… ‘Grange’ (=grain) evokes the ancient fertility rites,” (123) I tend to be skeptical of criticism where we have to read too much into the work. Yes, the text can support the argument since the evidence is there. But…isn’t it a bit much to start linking Emily’s visit (where, it is true, she does grow up, does have a weirdly sexual encounter with a grown man, and does learn about sex from her female relatives) with fertility rituals? I tend to be a bit old-school with my literary criticism preferences, and I dislike when scholars seem to need to reach to prove their cleverness with unlikely allusions and assertions. An analysis of Emily’s experiences and how she emerges from them with new knowledge and less innocence is sufficient for me.
My favorite parts of the collection were the essays that did not focus on the books, but on the adaptations and products linked to the works. It is fascinating to see how Montgomery’s writings have spawned a bunch of industries, turning P.E.I. into a tourist destination designed to please fans who mistakenly think Anne is real (or conflate her with her author), creating copyright disputes and fights for “authenticity” when mass producing Anne products, and even inspiring an Avonlea section of a Japanese theme park. Some of these essays seem more like observations than analyses–or observations with a few sentences tacked on the end, in a half-hearted attempt to link the observations to some nebulous broader theme. But the questions they raise about Anne’s popularity, how she has been received by fans, and how others seek to capitalize on or manipulate fans’ enthusiasm are ones that will haunt readers as they consider their own place in the ever-expanding world of Anne.
Overall, Making Avonlea is both an enjoyable and an engrossing read. Anyone interested in Montgomery’s writing, popular culture, or, of course, Anne will want to check this out. The many incarnations of Anne may surprise even the most avid of fans!