Just as fresh and exacting is Montgomery's understanding of the connection children feel to the subtleties of the natural world. Nature, as Montgomery portrays it, enables children to experience autonomy and mystery as they can nowhere else. Each nook of shadows in a sun-striated field holds the promise of esoteric knowledge: "Below the garden a green field lush with clover sloped down to the hollow where the brook ran and where scores of white birches grew, upspringing airily out of an undergrowth suggestive of delightful possibilities in ferns and mosses and woodsy things." In Anne's eyes, the woods and fields of Avonlea become a half-world of fantasy, fairy tales, and chivalric poetry, where ghosts roam the woods between her house and her friend Diana's or where a flat can become Elaine's tragic barge en route to Camelot. Indeed, Anne's relationship to nature is almost pagan, steeped in the sensual. Anne, for her milieu, is one weird sister.
Unlike many other children's heroines—Jo of Little Women, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, even Nancy Drew—Anne is not just a sensibility incarnate; she has an irreducible human soul. * Her inner spiritual life exists utterly apart from the domains of domesticity and romance. She may be capable of telling her best friend, Diana, "I'd rather be pretty than clever," but she is also organically indifferent to the courtship tactics of the popular Gilbert, whose smooth brown eyes wholly disarm the other girls. The immunity of the questing self to the distracting temptations of the flesh is most often an attribute of heroic men, from the hardboiled detectives who pass up luscious blondes to Greek warriors who heed not the sirens. Anne, with her endless wealth of subjectivity, is nobody's object but her own. And she takes the prerogatives of the questing self to be her own. She may enjoy male company—especially as she ages and befriends Gilbert—but the pursuit of it hardly deflects her emotional course.
As if in reverence for Anne's independence, Montgomery often shows her to the reader in hovering tracking shots. In Anne of the Island, the third volume, Montgomery has Anne looking out a window in one of her lofty moods. "In imagination she sailed over storied seas that wash the distant shining shores of 'faery lands forlorn …' And she was richer in those dreams than in realities; for things seen pass away, but the things that are unseen are eternal." That last idea—that there's no place like the imagination (sorry, Dorothy)—could be the series' credo. (It's also the opposite, it turns out, of L. Frank Baum's more dismal message to Emerald City-infatuated young girls, who are forced to admit that reality consists of a dusty Kansas homestead.) It's unusual for a book about a girl to champion fantasy over the facts of life, such as they were ordinarily defined. This doesn't make Anne an ethereal sprite herself, though. Later in the series, she does grow up. She goes to college, develops her writing, marries Gilbert (but only after he almost dies, and out of abiding friendship, not fear of loneliness), and becomes the mother of six children. Still, the result is a sort of blended family. Her physical offspring have to share the house with her fertile imagination.
The outlines of Anne's life may not resemble the models of feminine success as it's conceived of nowadays. By the series' end, she has put aside her dreams of writing. And she channels into family life a large part of the energy that might have fueled her as an artist. Critics have argued that Anne's choices undermine her status as a "proto-feminist."
But what this argument misses is the inherently progressive nature of Anne's indomitable alertness, whose power is hardly diminished by the fact that she trains it on her children and the world rather than the blank page. She continues to meet, with her full self, mundane contingencies and tragic losses. If this isn't an overtly political stance, it's capable, if properly contemplated, of inspiring one.
* Correction, July 10, 2008: This article originally referred to Jo of Little Women as a 20th-century children's heroine. Little Women was published in 1868, making Jo a 19th-century children's heroine. (Return to the corrected sentence.)