Did you ever wonder exactly what Anne and Diana got up to when they trysted behind the Lake of Shining Waters in Avonlea?
Probably not. You likely read Anne of Green Gables, and all the other Anne books, without pondering the lesbian desires of the red-haired orphan.
But an English professor who is suggesting we all read Anne again, maybe with the lights dimmed a little lower, has succeeded in stirring up a storm about the great Canadian heroine.
The idea of Anne as lesbian, or at least of the Anne books as rife with lesbian imagery, is not new to academia. It has been discussed, along with other interpretations of Anne in CanLit studies for some time.
But the latest volley has come from Laura Robinson, a professor at the Royal Military College in Kingston. Prof. Robinson delivered a paper titled Bosom Friends: Lesbian Desire in L. M. Montgomery's Anne Books to the Congress of Social Sciences and Humanities, an annual gathering of academics, which was held at the University of Alberta in Edmonton last week.
Heavy-hitters in the Anne-based tourism industry in PEI reacted with sputtering denial. Anne and Diana, were they or weren't they, was the subject of fiery debate on a Maritime-wide CBC radio phone-in on Monday. Ms. Montgomery's biographers, and long-time students of her work, publicly demurred.
Prof. Robinson won't talk about it, but she succeeded in creating a stir -- which, one suspects, may have been her intention all along.
But the debate about her paper raises some serious questions. Is it fair to apply the lens of 21st-century scholarship to lines written in 1908? To read social criticism into children's novels by a minister's wife? To speculate about how her personal life might have led her to weave subtle criticism of social norms into her books?
In her paper, Prof. Robinson argues that Ms. Montgomery, by ending each of her stories with her heroine in the arms of the perfect man, subtly and self-consciously parodied compulsory heterosexuality. She "concocts a surprising array of creative alternatives to heterosexuality," she writes. Why, for example, are Matthew and Marilla siblings, and not a married childless couple?
The books' central female characters are Anne's source of strength, and, often, her objects of desire.
Her friendship with Diana Barry, for example, is homoerotic, Prof. Robinson argues: After Anne, in the professor's words, "tellingly intoxicates" Diana in the infamous raspberry cordial incident, the bereft waif says, "I love Diana so, Marilla, I cannot live without her. But I know very well when we grow up that Diana will get married and go away and leave me."
Then there is Katherine Brooke, a fellow teacher in Summerside whose stormy relationship with Anne makes up much of Anne of Windy Poplars. Katherine, Prof. Robinson writes, is "described with 'almost a man's voice' " and is dark and swarthy. Their relationship "is informed by a sadomasochism," according to Prof. Robinson, who offers such evidence as these words from Anne: "Katherine Brooke, whether you know it or not, what you want is a good spanking."
And what of Leslie Moore, the eccentric and beautiful neighbour in Anne's House of Dreams, who makes Anne ache with her beauty? (Anne starts with a physical shock the first night she sees her.) Prof. Robinson identifies her as the love of Anne's life, of whom Anne says, "There is something in you, Leslie, that I have never found in a anyone else."
"The language describing [time Anne spends with Leslie]is outrageously sexual," Prof. Robinson writes, citing this quotation: "When their work was done and Gilbert [Anne's husband]was out of the way, they gave themselves over to shameless orgies of lovemaking and ecstasies of adoration" (this describes a scene where they fuss, ostensibly, over Anne's new baby).
"Montgomery's texts subtly challenge compulsory heterosexuality by drawing attention to the unfulfilled and unacceptable nature of women's love for women," Prof. Robinson concludes. "Because Anne's various expressions of lesbian desires emerge but are not engaged, they draw attention to what is excluded, what cannot be said to be, in Anne's world."
Harrumph, say other Anne scholars.
Deirdre Keffler, co-chairwoman of the L. M. Montgomery Institute at the University of Prince Edward Island, says it's "great water cooler talk" but ultimately foolish.
"The female friendship is at the core of what Montgomery writes about," she said. "The whole issue makes us laugh because of its absurdity. If you think about female friendship in the time, and the vocabulary used in the time -- when we use the term 'lovemaking' now the thesaurus pops up 'sex.' But that's not what they meant."
And to say otherwise is to twist the writer's words, Ms. Keffler says. "There is something unfair in applying 21st-century standards to writing of 1908. But in no way do we disparage Laura Robinson. It's a lot of fun. Let her play."
Other scholars take the matter a bit less lightly. "I don't agree with [Prof. Robinson's]reading at all," said Mary Rubio, an English professor at the University of Guelph who co-edited Ms. Montgomery's journals and is now at work on her official biography. "I don't want to sound like an old fogey, but the little girls are just doing what little girls did in Anne's day, in L. M. Montgomery's day, in my day, which is hold hands, gang up against the boys and profess undying friendship for each other."
So when Anne vows to love Diana until she dies, "We're supposed to be laughing at Anne's language, not thinking it represents latent sexual desire for the same or another sex," Prof. Rubio said. "They're just kids."
And, she says, Prof. Robinson has lost perspective. "I think that once you start working with a particular kind of theory you can distort how you read literature," she said. "You have to start with the book itself, contextualize it in its culture, think how people then acted and how they read it."
We do know that Ms. Montgomery had a visceral reaction of distaste to homosexuality. In the early 1930s, she became the object of the intense passion of a young woman named Isobel, who visited, sent gifts, and wrote love letters in which she pleaded to be allowed to kiss her. "You're the dearest thing in all the world to me," she wrote in one letter, preserved in Ms. Montgomery's journal. "I'll die without you."
The author reacted with revulsion, saying Isobel's desire "nauseates me past all telling" and was the "horrible craving" and "curse" of the lesbian.
Prof. Rubio met and interviewed Isobel, then in her 90s. "It gave me insight into the terrible things done to people, who had to live feeling different and that people didn't accept you, you were deviant and wicked." Isobel was, Prof. Rubio said, mostly very lonely, and would not talk about her feelings for Ms. Montgomery.
"We left out a lot when we were editing, [the author]being disturbed by this woman but completely compassionate because she knew was a very unhappy woman," Prof. Rubio said.