What exactly are the revelations in Lucy Maud Montgomery's final book about that fiery redhead Anne Shirley Blythe and her family, being published, uncut, for the first time this week? Fans of Anne's husband, the good doctor tending his flock in rural Prince Edward Island, might want to cover their eyes now.
"Gilbert is such a bastard," says Benjamin Lefebvre, the Canadian academic who discovered the typescript of the story collection, The Blythes Are Quoted , in the archives of the University of Guelph in Ontario. "He's controlling, he's vindictive, he's manipulative, he tells people what to do."
The portrait of Anne is surprising too - she's a bit of a sap, a lot less feisty than fans of Montgomery's earlier Anne of Green Gables novels will remember. As well, Montgomery has retroactively made her most famous creation a poet. The Blythes Are Quoted is full of poems that Anne is said to have written, and some by her son Walter.
"We don't see a lot of Anne in the book," Lefebvre says, "but what we do see is a new take on Anne."
The Blythes Are Quoted is a bubbling cauldron of dark matter. There's suicide, adultery, and the odd bastard (the illegitimate variety, as opposed to the annoying kind represented by Gilbert, who may have grown darker in Montgomery's later writings as the author struggled to cope with the fallout of her real-life husband's deeply depressive personality). As Lefebvre points out, these themes aren't new to Montgomery's novels, "but the difference is now they make up the central story."
The central stories largely focus on the Blythes' neighbours, tales that Montgomery had written but, with a few exceptions, had not published during her life. She wove in references to Anne and her husband and children, in order to satisfy the huge public appetite of Green Gables fans. Then, Montgomery added some poems, declared that Anne had written them, and put it all together under the title The Blythes Are Quoted .
From there the story of the book itself becomes quite mysterious: Montgomery, who was 67 and in poor mental health, dropped off her last manuscript at her publisher, McClelland & Stewart, in April, 1942, went back to her Toronto house, and died in mysterious circumstances - possibly a suicide, possibly of an accidental overdose.
But M&S, Montgomery's publisher since 1916, chose not to release the book, and it languished in the vault for 30 years until another publisher, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, took the book apart, rearranged some of its components, sliced out others, and issued it in 1974 as The Road to Yesterday .
In 1999, Lefebvre, a young undergraduate from Montreal with an interest in Montgomery's work, sought out the original manuscript in the archives of the University of Guelph. Once he'd put on his protective white gloves and took a look at the book, he realized that a great deal of Montgomery's last work had never seen the light of day.
Why would McClelland & Stewart ignore the final book of one of its top-selling authors? Lefebvre isn't sure, but one theory has to do with the book's pacifist message not going over well when soldiers where being shipped off to fight in Europe.
In her earlier novels, Montgomery had sounded notes of support for the First World War. But by the time the next one arrived, her tone was tempered, and she had her fictional stand-in reflect this: Anne and Gilbert had lost their beloved Walter in the Great War, and in The Blythes Are Quoted , they worry that the world has not learned any lessons. "Anne says at the end that the vision of the new utopian world they'd hoped for wasn't going to happen, and the sacrifices made 20 years before were futile," Lefebvre says. "That's one of the reasons the book might not have been published in 1942. Here's a popular writer criticizing a war that was going on."
In her last book, Montgomery places Anne and Gilbert in the back row - essentially they're spectators commenting on the lives of neighbours and friends. So is The Blythes Are Quoted essential reading, or just for Anne completists?
"I think it's a book for all Anne fans," Lefebvre says, "I'm hoping this will encourage readers to reread the other books and see new things in them."