When I reviewed Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, I was under the assumption that most of my readers had read it and thus included spoilers. Turns out, I was wrong! Anne of Green Gables (1908) by L.M. Montgomery is the beloved classic that has sold over 50 million copies world wide. Despite it’s success, I’ve decided to not include any spoilers — I’ve learned from my mistake! I want to add that I’ve seen the made-for-TV miniseries of this book many times; therefore, I knew the plot.
Green Gables is a farmstead located in Avonlea on Prince Edward Island in Canada. Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert are a brother and sister (a fact not blatantly stated until the very end) who never married or had children of their own, and thus they live together. They’re getting old, though — Matthew is 60 and has a bad heart — so they tell a friend who tells a relative who is going to an orphanage to pass along the message that the Cuthbert’s want to adopt a boy of about 11 to help on their farm. Not exactly a realistic way to initiate an adoption!
Terribly shy Matthew sets off in his buggy to pick up the orphan boy at the train station only to find a girl — a redheaded, skinny, freckled, highly-talkative girl! Will Marilla consent to keep her, when they don’t have any use for some girl? Based on the title of the book, you can assume yes, they do, but the delight of the novel is getting to know Anne and her strong personality, and seeing how people react to her.
Much like in the first chapter of Rebecca, there are numerous descriptions of foliage. Should a person not like Rebecca, it’s thanks to all those plants! The novel smooths out, though, and focuses mostly on rhododendrons and azaleas, which were easy enough to Google. But Anne of Green Gables has all the plant life — flowers, trees, and ferns alike — and it gets overwhelming if you’re like me and can name/recognize almost no plants. Thanks to the TV miniseries, I could picture Avonlea, though plant-lovers would rejoice in the words alone.
Many reviewers talk about Anne’s imagination (it’s huge) and her temper (it’s bad). I want to look a bit deeper at this book to give you food for thought. For instance, how we render children culpable unfairly. Notice that when Anne does something foolish, she is humiliated and must repent. Yet, many of the foolish things she does are the result of an adult’s misdoing. Example: Anne bakes a cake for the new minister and his wife, and she wants to do her very best! Despite a little cold, she bakes the cake with all the love she can muster. But it’s a disaster, and the cake tastes awful. Marilla scolds Anne to pieces, but it’s Marilla who filled an old vanilla jar with anodyne liniment (which, according to the National Museum of American History is not used for cake baking). Anne couldn’t smell the difference due to her cold, and label said vanilla! Other such blunders are Marilla’s fault, but Anne is repeatedly described as impractical, flighty, and sometimes bad. In the end, readers laugh at Anne’s mistakes, but the book also got me thinking about the way we treat children.
Most everyone befriends Anne and finds her unique and delightful. While we’re told that she has very little formal schooling due to her orphan days, she’s very smart, creative, and uses a large vocabulary. Although I was totally enjoying Anne, I was also wondering if this book hurts the reality of orphans. Is everyone expecting the children they adopt to be the next Anne? I’m sure many children moved from home to home have deep emotional issues, mainly lack of trust and education (moving from home to home prevents regular schooling). It’s a romanticized novel for sure — why is Anne so smart without school or a stable home? — though when you are in the throes of Green Gables, it’s hard to care about reality.
In fact, you really need to let go of reality. Anne is friends with adults and children alike, and she has a “bosom friend,” the best friend ever, with whom she never ever fights or becomes jealous of.
This disastrous 2016 combined with Anne of Green Gables made me on-again/off-again bitter. If only I moved to Canada, I thought, I could be happy and live a simple life. But that’s just silliness on my part. Avonlea (and Prince Edward Island) is so tiny that there is no diversity in Anne’s world. There are no people of color, LGBT characters, or families from anywhere beyond Avonlea (there are disparaging remarks about Arabs, French, people from U.S., Italians, even those from Nova Scotia). If people in Avonlea are fighting, it’s over small things, like whether or not they should say whatever comes to their minds, or be more tactful.
It doesn’t seem like I’ve said much nice about Anne of Green Gables. I think the magic of this book is that it’s escapism at its best, and it’s funny and endearing. I raced through the pages, sometimes letting my eyes go faster than my brain, requiring me to go back and re-read sentences. I was hungry to go faster because the book is so good.
Take for instance the characters. Two main characters are so stern that Anne’s creativity is sure to rile them up. There’s Mrs. Rachel Lynde:
“…for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde’s door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs. Rachel was sitting at her window, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed….”
And then there’s Marilla:
“Here sat Marilla Cuthbert, when she sat at all, always slightly distrustful of sunshine, which seemed to her too dancing and irresponsible a thing for a world which was meant to be taken seriously.”
Compare these two stiff women to Anne:
“You’re not eating anything,” said Marilla sharply, eying her as if it were a serious shortcoming.
“I can’t. I’m in the depths of despair. Can you eat when you are in the depths of despair?”
“I’ve never been in the depths of despair, so I can’t say,” responded Marilla.
“Weren’t you? Well, did you ever try to imagine you were in the depths of despair?”
“No, I didn’t.”
The shenanigans that ensue from the intermingling of these three personalities is worth the read alone! Anne of Green Gables is also very funny. When Anne falls off of a roof after being dared to walk it’s peak, bosom buddy Diana runs up:
“Anne, are you killed?” shrieked Diana, throwing herself on her knees beside her friend. “Oh, Anne, dear Anne, speak just one word to me and tell me if you’re killed.”
As if the dead can tell you they’re dead! Ha!
As Anne grows and matures and does her best in school and at home, she is recognized for her efforts. Mrs. Rachel Lynde says, “You’re a credit to your friends, Anne, that’s what, and we’re all proud of you.” And isn’t that a great feeling? I can’t remember a time in my life when doing good meant I reflected well on my friends. Competition to be the best is a selfish, angry beast, one we’ve cultivated to the extreme. For me, in high school, it was getting 1st chair violin, regardless of how well the orchestra did. In grad school, it was who wrote the best stories and published the most, despite writing not being a competitive activity. Even while blogging, I’m aware that we’re all working to have the most likes and comments and shares. I want to be a credit to my friends and community. And that’s the beauty of Anne of Green Gables. It’s an unrealistic world, but you want to emulate it to be a better person.
My copy is part of an eight-book box set released from Bantam Books in 1998. There is a map of Prince Edward Island and a brief biography of L.M. Montgomery in the back.
This book was read as part of Cathy 746′s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th.