While working on the historical novel I’m currently writing, I’ve been rereading some of the L.M. Montgomery classics I loved as a teenager, since many of them are set in the era I’m writing about. When I started writing about a young woman from Newfoundland who goes to university at Dalhousie in the early 1900s, I thought I should reread Anne of the Island, which is about a young woman from PEI who goes to Dalhousie in the 1890s — though Montgomery calls Dalhousie “Redmond” and Halifax “Kingsport.” Apparently Montgomery based Anne’s experiences closely on her own, as she herself attended university there. So I thought, what better way to get a glimpse into what university education for girls in Atlantic Canada would have been like in that era?
Only, you know what I’d forgotten about the book? There is virtually nothing in it about Anne’s university career. There are lots of passing references to meetings of College societies, to Anne and her friends working on papers or studying for exams, and even to quotes from various professors. But not a single scene is set in a classroom or even in the library — the story is essentially domestic, centring around the home life of Anne and her friends. Of course their romantic lives take up a lot of attention, but even the search for and eventual discovery of the perfect house to rent is far more significant than anything that happens in a classroom, and Anne’s summers back home in Avonlea get much more page space than her actual degree-earning. She wins an award for her academic achievements, but the time it must have taken her to earn that is hardly reflected in the pages of the novel.
Oh well. It’s a good story and I’ve always liked it; if I hadn’t gone back to it looking for a particular thing I might not have been bothered by its not being there. But given how rare it was for young women of Anne’s social class to get a university education in those days, I can’t help but feel there’s a missed opportunity there in L.M. Montgomery not having told more of that story.