Lindsey Palka’s previous, slightly more academic work for The Toast can be found here.
Anne is usually described as the intelligent, cultured, beautiful wife of the doctor in Glen St. Mary, Prince Edward Island. But her mysterious origins may hold a key to the bizarre episodes of her time-traveling children.
Those of us who spent our childhood and teenage years obsessively reading L.M. Montgomery books instead of getting drunk in basements and smoking illicit cigarettes in our friends’ cars (full disclosure: definitely did way more of the former than either of the latter) may have noticed a suspicious….ripple in the timeline of the eight books. The nice thing about ending up with a final book with a definite real-world timeline means that in a hundred years or so, your fans with too much time on their hands will be able to overanalyze the entire series based on the tiniest context clues!
Jem, Anne’s oldest son, is the first key to the puzzle. He is described as being twenty-one years old in 1914, giving him a birth year of 1893. If we venture back to Anne’s House of Dreams, Jem is described as being born in the summer, around late June or early July. Therefore, according to the highly accurate conception-date calculator I found online at Baby2See.com (because that was the first search result), he would have been conceived in October of 1892. This directly follows the birth and death of Anne’s first daughter, Joyce, who is described as being born in June of 1892, giving her a conception date of September 1891, which very neatly coincides with Anne’s September wedding.
So far, so good. Walter is consistently described as being one year younger than Jem, giving him an 1894 birth year. There is then a two-year gap before the twins, Nan and Di, are born, who are consistently described as being three years younger than Jem. But then things get weird.
Shirley is the forgotten Blythe child. He doesn’t get his own story in Anne of Ingleside and is mentioned maybe twice in Rainbow Valley. But the real reason seems to be quite likely that he was too busy traveling through time to appear in the story.
In Anne of Ingleside, Shirley is described as two years old when Rilla is born. In Rilla of Ingleside, he is described as “a lad of sixteen” at the outset of the war in 1914. But Rilla is described as turning fifteen in July of 1914 (which is consistent with the description of the night of her birth in Anne of Ingleside as being “the coldest July night….in years”). This would, of course, give Rilla a fairly incontestable birth date of July 1899, and a conception around Christmas of 1898. However, Shirley would have to have been simultaneously born in 1897 in order to be two years old at Rilla’s birth and in 1898 to be sixteen years old in 1914. (The first wrinkle!)
To throw a wrench into the works, Anne is described multiple times as having a very difficult pregnancy and birth with Shirley, and to have been very ill for “many months” following his birth. This would support the theory of his birth being in 1897, giving Anne a decent recovery period before conceiving again in Christmas of 1898. However, how then to explain Shirley’s enlistment into the flying corps? This lines up neatly with America’s entry into the war. America officially declared war on Germany on April 6th, 1917, which was a Friday. Shirley tells his parents “I was eighteen last Monday” (April 2nd) when he tells them of his plans to enlist, in the same week of America’s entry. This would put his birth on April 2nd, 1899! (About April of 1899 is also when Anne of Ingleside opens, which features Anne and Diana reminiscing about their school days when Anne is either six or seven months into her pregnancy with Rilla, immediately recovering from Shirley’s horrid birth, or possibly both, which adds insult to injury when she is described as being still thin and lithe as a young girl.)
So—what to believe? Is Shirley born in 1897, two years older than Rilla, and is Anne ill enough to refrain from conceiving any more children for a year and a half? Or is he born in April of 1899, turning him eighteen in 1917 and able to join the armed forces? Shirley’s mysteriously fluctuating age to whatever is most convenient for the plot makes him either the most expendable Blythe child and the one whose details are least important, or it gives him the ability to time travel, which explains his mysterious absence from most of the books. His birth in April 1899 would certainly explain the difficulty of his birth, as it must indeed be difficult to give birth to one child when you are six months pregnant with another one. Perhaps the difference is that he spent the equivalent of two years flitting back and forth in time, visiting Ronbledore, and learning why he was The Unfavourite of the Blythe family.
Does this have something to do with Anne’s slightly murky origins as the impoverished daughter of a pair of schoolteachers? Did Walter and Bertha Shirley know something more than they should have? Was the reason for their early deaths not an epidemic of fever, but a flutter in the space-time continuum that would eventually pass through Anne and onto her youngest son in the form of the ability to walk through space and time?
It is time that we, the readers, demand the truth of Shirley’s long-form birth certificate! Unfortunately, with suspicious timing, births were not required to be civilly registered in Prince Edward Island until 1906 and never for fictional characters. Coincidence? Or is there more to this shocking and suspicious story?
Lindsey Palka holds a Master's degree in Canadian history, focusing on the First World War, youth, and family history in the Atlantic provinces. She reads, reviews, and trashes young adult historical novels from the '80s, '90s, and 2000s on her blog, Young Adult Historical Vault.