- "Have all of our women the vagrant heart?":Anne of Green Gables and Rural Womanhood in Flux
On a cold winter night in 1900, L. M. Montgomery laments that she is "conscious of a great soul loneliness" (SJ 255). Although she loved the beauty of rural Cavendish, she writes, "The monotony is dreadful" (SJ 224). Montgomery longed for "bright, cheerful companionship, laughter, sparkling conversation," and notes that "The friends who have been a real help and inspiration to me are seldom near me" (SJ 255). Montgomery knew what it meant to be a rural young woman and see her peers leave their family farms behind. She too had "a vagrant heart" and an intimate understanding of this national dilemma. Dora Sigerson Shorter's poem of that name describes a woman who, like Montgomery, longs for a life outside the narrow confines of home. Rural discontent, particularly among young people, was not unique to Montgomery but part of a larger national phenomenon in turn-of-the-century Canada. Recognizing that Anne of Green Gables was composed and published during this time of rural transition in Canada can add a layer of meaning to the story of Anne Shirley. In this article, I argue that Montgomery creates Anne as a national heroine whose choice to stay on the farm, despite the opportunity to follow "a vagrant heart," has significant and empowering implications for rural Canadian women at a time when the traditional gender roles of an older agrarian economy were becoming outmoded.
Examining how gender operates in Avonlea is the topic of Julia McQuillan and Julie Pfeiffer's "Why Anne Makes Us Dizzy: Reading Anne of Green Gables from a Gender Perspective" (2001), an article that has been influential in terms of framing the discussion of gender in Anne of Green Gables for the past decade. Anne's identity formation, McQuillan and Pfeiffer assert, is largely concerned with Anne becoming a good "girl," rather than a good "person" (28). McQuillan and Pfeiffer's article concludes that Anne's struggle [End Page 200] to "do femininity" exposes the "rules of being a boy or girl" and engages the reader in Anne's struggle to fit into a world that is ordered by gender "difference" (31). Feminists can find pleasure in the novel, the article argues, from the "visibility" of gender as a structure (30-31). I use McQuillan and Pfeiffer's article as a starting point, arguing that "do[ing] femininity" in rural turn-of-the-century Canada has specific national and agricultural significance. By looking at L. M. Montgomery's context as a rural author, I argue that her use of the pastoral engages women with the nationally significant and intellectually challenging role of retaining rural populations when depletion was perceived as a threat to Canadian identity. Additionally, this article maps the ways in which Anne and Marilla's different kinds of rural feminine identity subvert heteronormative patterns, emphasizing that advancements in dairying on Prince Edward Island allowed agrarian women new opportunity to manage farmsteads without male control. I call into question McQuillan and Pfeiffer's assertion that Anne "never offers to work the farm" (25), arguing instead that Anne's labor contributions to Green Gables, though understated, are important in the context of the changing agricultural economy of Prince Edward Island.
The Agrarian Woman and the Pastoral
To read Anne of Green Gables as a narrative that plays up the pastoral and bucolic nature of life on a farm is not simply a generic romantic outdoorsy reading. Rather, it is grounded in a particular moment in Canadian history when the rural exodus threatened rural life. In using the pleasures of a rural landscape to foster a desire to stay on the farm, Montgomery is in good company with religious leaders like John MacDougall and governmental leaders like James W. Robertson, who worked with the Commission of Conservation in Canada (Brown xiv). The pastoral ideal that is popular as Montgomery publishes her first novel appears not to be simply a matter of appreciating natural beauty, but a matter of national importance and perhaps the only concept that could save rural Canada.
While Montgomery scholars are certainly aware that...