12 July 2008

Anne of the Hundred Years

Megan Follows as Anne Shirley

This year marks the centenary of one of the most remarkable characters in children’s literature, Anne Shirley, the heroine of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and its sequels. Though there was something of a boom in Anne-dom several years ago, when an extraordinary television miniseries was broadcast (it inspired me to read the book), I’m often struck by how little Anne is known, and what a pity that is. If you’re a girl, if you’ve got plans to become a woman, or to know one, you need to read Anne of Green Gables. Really, you should have done so already.

When we first meet Anne, she’s an orphan sent to work on a farm, on Prince Edward Island. The farm is owned by a middle-aged brother and sister, the no-nonsense Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, who were expecting a boy: instead, they find they’ve adopted a fanciful, strong-willed, intelligent, opinionated red-headed 11-year-old girl with a penchant for getting into “scrapes.” A romantic and a true Canadian, Anne is captivated by the natural beauty of the area, and gives grandiose names to every lake, hillock, and tree she sees, but she applies herself to her chores and her schoolwork, too, and a powerful love grows between her and the Cuthberts.

And the book is immensely enjoyable, even if you don’t have a high tolerance for “girl’s stories.”* Anne’s scrapes are often quite funny, the famous episode in which she accidentally dyes her hair green being representative, and her personality bursts off the page. As the reader watches her come alive, the excitement builds. She is — still — something fresh and original in fiction.

Indeed, the book is something of an extended character study. Written in an age when girls, in books as in life, were expected to be Victorian paragons, Anne of Green Gables presents a heroine who is independent, rebellious, and something of a proto-feminist. She’s also a chatterbox, for whom the concept of “seen but not heard” is anathema. She exults in language, and many of her speeches go on far too long, sometimes to the point of exasperation. But that’s the point. She forces the reader to admit that her eagerness to share her opinions, hardly a virtue among other heroines of her era, is recognizable, realistic, and entirely lovable — even admirable.

Of course she yearns to be a writer, and for a while you may be excused for thinking that Anne is about to live out a Canadian version of My Brilliant Career. But Anne has other ideas, and it doesn’t take very long to realize that she’ll wind up marrying a boy who teases her on her first day of school. Her relationship with the handsome Gilbert Blythe, the smartest boy in school and therefore her principal rival, is sometimes described as platonic friendship, yet they wind up having six kids: there must be something motivating them other than mutual respect.

In a late sequel, Anne surrenders her writing ambitions in order to rear their children, a plot development that disappoints many of her admirers. Yet it’s wholly in keeping with the character. Perhaps not since Dorothea Brooke, in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, has English-language fiction featured a heroine so intelligent, so eager to test her own resources, to make her own choices in life and to shoulder the responsibility for those choices, as Anne Shirley.

I didn’t read any of the sequels. I preferred to keep Anne where she was at the end of the first book. But I urge you to get to know her, not only through Montgomery’s novels but also through the television series. In the book, Anne’s scrapes sometimes get repetitive, and you may wish for a firmer editorial hand: the television series provides that, along with gorgeous scenery and incandescent performances from Megan Follows (Anne), Richard Farnsworth (Matthew), and above all the great Colleen Dewhurst (Marilla).

Spend a little time with Anne, and you’ll wind up with a greater appreciation for the girls in your life. You’ll also start dreaming of a vacation in Prince Edward Island. Gas prices be damned.

* Since boyhood, the only significant “girl’s story” I’ve been unable to stand is Little Women, a book that no boy should be made to suffer, ever. Indeed, Little Women is wholly unsuitable for boys and harmful to their psyches, because of the inhuman treatment the March sisters heap upon poor Laurie. Bad enough that they give him a girl’s name and constantly emasculate him, but the poor sap winds up marrying the odious Amy, far and away the worst sister. By contrast, Anne Shirley doesn’t abuse Gilbert Blythe. She doesn’t have to. She asserts her equality from the get-go, and they proceed from there. That’s an example that both boys and girls can profit from.