Fiery-haired, bright-eyed, Anne Shirley became cemented as a Canadian icon very nearly as soon as her story hit shelves in 1908. Even reading Anne of Green Gables one hundred and twelve years later, it is easy to see how the plucky orphan with her flaming red hair and flair for the dramatics won the hearts’ of young and old. Though L.M. Montgomery is most well known for Anne of Green Gables, for whose titular heroine she went on to write seven more books chronicling both Anne’s adventures and later that of her children, she also went on to pen the lesser known Emily of New Moon trilogy, along with Pat of Silver Bush, its sequel Mistress Pat and the standalone Jane of Lantern Hill. At this point in time I have only read and acquired the first three Anne novels: Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, and Anne of the Island, so for the time being I will restrict my comments and thoughts to just these three books and explore the others at a later date.
Anne of Green Gables upon its publication was nearly unanimously heralded by overwhelming success. Many have said that in theme it is similar to Kate Douglas Wiggin’s novel, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and that as that novel proved popular in the United States, it was not surprising that Anne’s story provided the same pleasure for Canadians. This was an era where fiction for girls was starting to come into its own. In many ways the trend goes back as far as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and other books for young people. Montgomery with her many novels all featuring young adolescent heroines was following in this tradition. Anne was no doubt very relatable to many girls growing up during the era in which it was written, and Montgomery won hearts with her honest, and heartfelt portrayal of girlhood.
Anne is a character who though she carries tinges of nostalgia, even today in the 21st century still proves a modern heroine. Anne does not follow into popular tropes of the day that were usually reinforced by male authors. She is not conventionally beautiful and is even referred to as looking rather plain,
“[s]he’s terrible skinny and homely…”Anne of Green Gables
And though she longs for beauty and grace these are not her only ambitions. Anne is smart and driven. This can especially be seen in the way she interacts with Gilbert Blythe. Instead of being cowed by Gilbert’s mental prowess she matches him measure for measure. Anne does not shy away from competition, even with a boy, something that at the time would still have been seen as highly unusual. Anne in fact spends little of her youth pining over boys. In fact the relationship that she has with Diana Barry outstrips any romantic inclinations she has in the first book. It is not until Diana marries and Anne attends Queen’s that she begins to see men, and particularly Gilbert Blythe, in a new light.
Anne and Diana engage in the first book in a common practice in the 19th and early 20th century known as a “romantic friendship.” Often these were passionate relationships between women that in many ways could be construed to those outside of it as being romantic. This would fall completely in line with the way that Anne and Diana refer to each other as “bosom friends” and when Diana’s mother chastises Anne for getting her daughter drunk on currant wine, they both swear undying affection for the other in the time they are apart and Anne keeps a lock of Diana’s hair. All of this is very in keeping with the resurgence and revival of romantic gallantry that was all the rage in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The parallels can even be more clearly seen later on when Gilbert heroically rescues her when one of Anne and her friends’ dramatic schemes goes awry. It is also in this scene that Anne first begins to exhibit outward romantic feelings for Gilbert.
By making Anne an orphan Montgomery also brings to light an important social issue of the time. The prejudice that Anne initially experiences was based on the reality of many orphaned children. Such gossipy stories as the ones Rachel Lynde relates,
“[w]hy, it was only last week I read in the paper how a man and his wife up west of the island took a boy out of the orphan asylum and he set fire to the house at night…”Anne of Green Gables
as gospel truth of orphans harassing and causing menace to the families who took them in, would have been very similar to ones commonly circulating at the time. People tended to view children who were not of their own blood as being inherently suspicious and the assumption was that in many cases these children had been given away for a reason. But what this reason was, was often far different from their assumptions. In many cases parents gave up their children when felt that they were given no other option, often because they had too many children that they were unable to feed. Orphanhood then was inherently connected to class structure and poverty, and many people participated in this practice by recruiting orphans to be “farmed out” to provide cheap labor since they weren’t required to pay them a wage.
Thankfully, in Anne’s case this did not take place. Anne was raised as a daughter by Matthew and Marilla and as such her life greatly improved upon her adoption, giving her freedom from the domestic nursemaid duties she had been overburdened with at her last home, and later, the chance to pursue her education at a collegiate level. Anne in many ways also benefits from her unique position in the levels of society in Avonlea. Though she may not have had as many of the material pleasures as Diana Barry enjoyed as the daughter of one of the preeminent families she would be allowed greater freedom later on in choosing her own life path. Diana Barry was told that she didn’t need need to go to Queen’s Academy because she would never be expected to work for her living making such additional education completely unnecessary in her parents’ view. Anne not only was able to attend Queen’s but she also was able to transfer to Redmond College as well. Diana however, never leaves the island and marries Fred Wright right out of school.
Part of what makes the Anne books so charming and beautiful is that the pages are peppered with beautiful descriptions of Montgomery’s native island in all its glory. She as an author is able to transport her readers to a different time, a different place, with a few strokes of her pen, and even if a reader has never visited Prince Edward Island it feels at once utterly home-like and familiar. She also drops in periodically lovely pieces of poetry from various authors, tying it in beautifully, as these were no doubt beloved by her main character.
I really enjoyed all of the first three books, though if I had to pick a least favorite it would be Anne of Avonlea. It has some dated humor, (think “boys will be boys” mentality) as applied to Davy who along with his sister Dora become Anne and Marilla’s charges. The book had some quaint parts, (I particularly enjoyed the chapters featuring Lavendar Lewis and the picnic scene with Anne and her friends), but I don’t feel that Anne’s story arc progressed as much in this novel, and Anne of the Island made more headway in this regard. I especially loved the passages in Anne of the Island detailing Anne’s time at Redmond where she and Priscilla, Stella, and the fashionable Philippa are living in an old-fashioned ramble-down house that definitely feels like it came out of one of Anne’s stories. Seeing such a fond show of female camaraderie was heartwarming. But though I loved Anne of the Island quite a bit, I found the treatment of Ruby Gillis’s death to be unduly harsh and bitter. In general, Montgomery seemed to express more scorn towards Ruby and also Philippa than I would have expected for what she sees as vain, flirtatious, behavior, and she seems to forget that in Ruby’s case in particular, she was being rather hard on a girl who did not even live to be twenty years old. These parts of the books haven’t aged that well, but otherwise I found all three enjoyable.
I am anticipating being able to acquire the next five books soon and will give my thoughts on those too in due course. And if you are looking for some fascinating reading material whether you are a fan of Anne, or even just interested in learning more about Montgomery and her work in general, I can’t recommend a better book than Elizabeth Rollins Epperly’s book The Fragrance of Sweet Grass: L.M. Montgomery’s Heroines and the Pursuit of Romance. She has some fascinating things to say about not just the Anne books but all of Montgomery’s novels, and even though her work is certainly scholarly, it was also a very pleasant and surprisingly easy read.