Anne of Green Gables is Canadian author L . M. Montgomery’s well-known tale of a rara avis, who enters the staid, conservative, rural community of Avonlea on Prince Edward Island and, along the way, transforms people’s lives – including her own.
Anne Shirley is a red-haired eleven-year-old who has lived her life in and out of orphanages, punctuated only by stints as slave labour in unhappy homes: cooking, cleaning and looking after infants. When ageing brother bachelor and sister spinster Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert decide to take on an orphan boy to help Matthew work their farm, Green Gables, Anne is sent to them by mistake. What begins as an unfortunate error turns out to be positively providential. Despite Marilla’s initial insistence that Anne be returned to the asylum, she eventually reconsiders this – frightened that Anne will end up in another household, working for the unpleasant Mrs Blewett – and reveals that beneath her stern exterior lies a compassionate heart. She decides that she will allow Anne a trial period at Green Gables. Despite a series of entertaining episodes that threaten this uneasy arrangement, including Anne’s insulting of the town matriarch, Rachel Lynde, and an ill-advised hair dyeing experiment that leaves her titian locks a shade of green, she is allowed to stay. What follows next is Anne’s chaotic journey from dreamy, accident-prone young girl to blossoming young woman with a mighty heart – and a mighty intellect to match.
Despite the tragic circumstances of her early life, Anne is a fighter and a true survivor. Her challenges have not diminished her appetite for life or her indefatigable quest for happiness and a true home. She possesses a sparky personality and a tendency for the dramatic – she is all vim and vibrancy, and she knows no middle ground. Anne refuses to submit to her misfortunes or her allotted role in life as stigmatised outsider. Most of all, she is no conformist. It slowly dawns on the reader, as we see her landed among her peers in Avonlea, that the first eleven years of her life, for all their troubles, have gifted her something very precious. Placed on the margins of society, she has escaped many of the strictures the society imposed on its children, particularly females. No one has ever expected Anne to amount to anything or to make a good match in adulthood, so they have never trained her to satisfy society, beyond the ability to complete household chores. As a consequence, she is sassy, has developed a rich interior life – the by-product of a youth spent turning to books to assuage her perennial loneliness – and talks too much, often dishing up truths that, while others may find them unpalatable, are still truths all the same. She finds authority difficult to deal with and often, rightly, identifies illogic and unfairness in it. Montgomery cleverly places Anne at eleven. Anne is young enough therefore to be realistically finessed – as she is, through the novel’s charming progression – but too old to have all her wonderful uniqueness and splendid non-conformity completely ironed out of her. She is her own person as a young girl and, for all the perceived improvement others identify in her, she remains her own person as a young woman. Her tough start in the world leaves her ambitious to make her own way, and she soon understands that her great intellect is a tool she can turn to her advantage. Montgomery is telling us that our darkest hours may eventually contribute to the making of our finest ones – it’s all in the attitude.
One of the most interesting aspects of the story is that Anne’s rise in the community from prejudiced-against misfit to much-loved and respected young local also has as much to do with the changing attitude of those around her as it has to do with her own gradual refinement. Anne changes much less than we might first be tempted to assume; indeed, as subsequent books in the series demonstrate, Anne never completely conquers her flaws. Rather, she stimulates the romantic and big-hearted approach to life that she possesses in others – one of the many reasons this book is such a tender and engaging work. Her placement at the Cuthberts turns out to serve them as much as it does her. They have been living lives of quiet desperation since their own childhood. Anne revitalises their existences and offers them a renewed sense of purpose. She is also the cause of event in their life, from the highly amusing to the downright annoying. Matthew recognises the worth in her instantly. Her talkative nature and comical affectations win his heart, as does her candour, particularly among the hypocrisies of rural life – something he respects. Marilla resists but, confronted with a wilful girl who turns out to mirror her own lack of conventionality, she eventually submits. She recognises kinship when she sees it. For Gilbert Blythe, the most handsome – and cleverest – boy in school, Anne is a revelation. Everyone adores him – but Anne refuses to moon over him. He is enchanted by her otherness. It is no coincidence that, longing for just a scrap of attention, any scrap, he chooses to tease her about her red hair – earning a smashed slate over his head in the process. As time moves on, Anne proves that her unusual appearance is equalled by further qualities – which the other girls in Avonlea so clearly lack: her manifest intelligence, quick wit, boldness, independence and romantic spirit. Gilbert loves her for her the very reasons polite society would deem her unlovable. Her negative chemistry with Gilbert is both the cause of much humour and incredible reader-frustration. Like Darcy and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, his mistake in slighting her eclipses her understanding that, perhaps above everyone in Avonlea, including Matthew and Marilla, he is the one who most fully appreciates her: mind, body and soul. She breathes life into the proper and somewhat less bright girl she selects to be her ‘bosom friend’, Diana Barry, and introduces both Diana and the other girls in her class to something they’ve not paid much attention to – their imaginations – with the aid of some Tennyson. Along the way, she saves others from crushing normalcy – and quite literally saves a life when she nurses Minnie May, Diana’s sister, from the croup.
This would make the novel one long ‘tastes like diabetes’ trope, were it not for the fact that the harsh realities of life – random injustice, death and bereavement, breaks in friendship, cruelty, loneliness and bigotry – are directly referenced, and Anne experiences all of these. Life is never easy and this novel, despite its optimism, never pretends it is or holds the view that it should be. Even the novel’s conclusion refuses a wholly happy ending, despite reconciliation between Anne and Gilbert, who selflessly steps in to help her when she needs him the most. Anne must compromise her own dreams in order to save Green Gables – and Marilla. Ties of love and society involve personal sacrifice. In Anne of Green Gables, difficulties are never far away, even amid the picturesque surroundings of Avonlea. Where much emphasis in Alcott’s Little Women seems to be on taking steps to avoid future difficulty by becoming good, with Anne Montgomery is telling us that we can never hide from difficulty and nor should we, but what we must do is insist on being true to ourselves.
As well as the novel’s underscoring of the trials involved in an engaged life, it offers us a heroine that couldn’t be more different from Pollyanna, despite the joys she engenders in others. She is far from perfect. And far from modestly reconciled to her imperfections. Despite her disappointment in her red hair, freckles and gawky physique, she is incredibly vain. She holds a grudge, with genuine spite – Gilbert is shut out of her life for almost all the novel as a result of his childish teasing. She can be haughty, snobbish and pretentious – her armoury against a world that has sought to rob her of her dignity and has good form in keeping her down. She possesses a furious temper and finds it difficult to accept critique. She is sensitive and deep, but has a tendency toward the superficial, as noted by her deference to Diana – who Anne seems to rate largely for her good looks. In her focus on her imaginative life she often misses the very obvious things right under her nose – whether mistaking currant wine for raspberry cordial and getting Diana stinking drunk in the process or her failure to recognise Gilbert as the great friend and, in subsequent books, lover he will come to be. Anne is a heroine indeed, but, above all, she is entirely human. And her mistakes make her.
For many years, Anne of Green Gables was viewed in simplistic terms. But it is increasingly gaining interest for its feminist themes – anyone who has ever read it might wonder why it has taken so long to be appreciated in this context. The novel praises and prizes the development of the intellect through reading and study, advocates careers, cheers on resourcefulness, admires individuality, postpones romance in favour of self-discovery, and encourages the potential to break out of the roles assigned to us by life – and by gender. It is a marvellous book, with some major – utterly contemporary – statements.