When I was about 13, my grandparents gave me special editions of both Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea, the first two books in the series about beloved Canadian wonder Anne Shirley. I watched the Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea miniseries endlessly, but for some reason, I never felt the inclination to crack open the copies so thoughtfully purchased for me. The little book duo was eventually relegated to one of my book drawers, and when I moved away from home, I forgot about them completely. Luckily, I’m a nostalgic kind of person, and a few years ago when I was visiting home and reliving my childhood, I came across the books in that wooden drawer, perfectly preserved, with that lovely, papery book smell still intact. Now, 19 years after the gift was given, I’m finally reading them. I wish I hadn’t waited so long. Anne is a plucky, charming orphan with plenty of temper to spare, and she spends the book getting into all kinds of mischief. I definitely would have identified with her as a 13-year-old, and would have devoured the entire series.
Set in the early 1900s, the book opens with aging Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert (brother and sister, not husband and wife, as I thought for about 75% of the book) setting out to adopt a young boy to help out with the farm and land they live on. Through some miscommunication, they receive a little girl instead, much to shy Matthew’s trepidation and sharp Marilla’s chagrin. The siblings want to trade Anne in for a boy, thinking that she’ll be a nuisance rather than a help, but the positive, whimsical little thing charms Matthew immediately, and eventually wins Marilla over too. And so, after some dramatics, Anne is allowed to stay at Green Gables, where the entirety of the story takes place.
Introspective and incredibly smart, Anne is a child with little upbringing and almost no formal education. Surprisingly, she speaks as well as some highly educated adults, and much better than most of the residents of Avonlea, her flowery sentences starkly contrasting with the clipped, countrified ones of Avonlea’s inhabitants. We don’t get too much explanation about this, but we do get the idea that Anne spent a lot of time reading as a young child. She is also prone to daydreams and finding “scope for imagination” almost everywhere, and we get more hints that this sort of escapism is, at least in part, the result of a troubled past.
Anne purposely doesn’t dwell too much on her life before Green Gables, but we do find out that she was orphaned in infancy, and by age 11 has bounced between something like three homes, raising other women’s broods of children while never being treated like a child herself, or loved, or even paid much attention to, really. Her only friend has been a girl she named “Katie Maurice” who is, quite literally, her own reflection. Which is heartbreaking, but in all honesty, the fact that this poor, neglected girl found her truest friend in herself is maybe not the worst lesson someone could learn…. Anyway, her preoccupation with seemingly frivolous and superficial things like having puffed sleeves on her clothing, or having black hair, or changing her name to Cordelia, belies a need to focus on something lighter than what probably threatens to consume her thoughts – loneliness, neglect, abandonment, and feeling unwanted. It also hints at some self-hatred, probably also borne from her tumultuous childhood. She hates her red hair and her freckles, and even goes so far as dying said hair, with unfortunate results, and asking Marilla to rename her Cordelia. (The ever-practical Marilla of course insists that she regrow her natural hair, and keep her given name, which Anne agrees to, of course with the caveat that “Anne” must be spelled “with an ‘e’”.) This focus on the superficial feels like a defense mechanism, which would have been interesting to see explored a little more. It’s clear that there’s much more to Anne than meets the eye, and the reader is never privy to all of the harsh realities of what made Anne who she is.
Most of the story focuses on her foibles as a young girl, such as when she unwittingly gets her best friend drunk, or accidentally breaks her ankle on a dare, or bakes a cake filled with painkillers. A lot of the story is also consumed by Anne’s disdain for a friendly but mischievous boy named Gilbert Blythe who joking calls her “Carrots” because of her hair. She holds it against him for YEARS. I’m talking a won’t-look-in-his-direction, change-the-subject-when-his-name-comes-up type of grudge. It’s sad and kind of hilarious, mostly because Gilbert clearly adores Anne, but she wants nothing to do with him until they’re teenagers. She learns, far too late in my opinion, that making rash decisions and holding fast to early judgments can alter the course of our lives and reflect our own shortcomings. She eventually befriends Gilbert, and it’s clear that there will be more to that story as the series progresses.
Over time, we witness Anne grow from a small, hot-tempered, dreamy little thing into a quieter, calmer, less hot-tempered, lovely young woman. When we see the person Anne grows into, we see what effect Matthew and Marilla’s care and attention have had on her. Matthew’s indulgence and unadulterated love for the girl has healed her in many ways. Matthew is, to her, a “kindred spirit.” Marilla is strict, to be sure, and has tried – and succeeded – in taming the girl and shaping her into a poised, fiercely intelligent, driven young woman. However, I was bitterly disappointed, to the point of feeling a sense of loss, when I realized that Anne had lost some of her wildness in the midst of growing up. Of course, Anne lived in a different time, and all women were expected to be reasonably mild-mannered, even when it went against their very nature, so I understand the decision to dial Anne’s frivolity back. But I liked her best when she spoke her mind without caring what anyone thought, stumbled into scrape after scrape, and floated into reveries mid-task. Even Marilla laments that her grown Anne isn’t as bubbly or talkative as she used to be, despite the fact that Marilla tried to stamp both the energy and loquaciousness out of Anne at every turn. (I kept thinking, “This is what you wanted, Marilla! This is what you did! And now we all have to suffer!”) But despite the radical change in Anne’s behavior, she is still an engaging and lovable character, and we find that though she has been subdued by custom and age, and touched by loss and heartache (I won’t divulge anything, but I definitely cried), she hasn’t lost all of her spark by the end of it all. I was so taken by the story that I immediately jumped into the sequel upon finishing.
I do have to note that this book is not all sunshine and roses – there are hints of racism in here. Marilla and Anne have a small interchange about the door-to-door salesman who sells Anne some hair dye, a man who Marilla thinks is Italian but Anne says is Jewish. I don’t want to delve too far into it, but it is a blight on the book. This incident forced me to start thinking about (rather than just noticing and moving on) how many mentions there are of “pale” complexions, and how only they seem to be revered and desirable in this fictional little world. Ugh. I hate that so much classic literature is problematic. This kind of thing draws me right out of the story and right back into myself, a self which I know they would have looked at with distrust and maybe hatred if they’d had the chance. But, as we do, I am chalking it up to the time period and ignorance, and choosing to move on. With one eye open, of course.
My next task is to tackle the Netflix series, which I hear is much darker and explores Anne’s past a bit more. We’ll see if I love it as much as I loved the original television series and the books.
Anyone who loved the Canadian Anne of Green Gables TV series from the ‘80s. Any spunky, wild, imaginative kid, or any spunky, wild, imaginative adult who, like me, is still a kid inside. And anyone who, also like me, loves redheads AND their freckles indiscriminately.
Author: L.M. Montgomery
Publish Date: 1982 (originally pub. 1908)
Publisher: Bantam Books
Edition: Special Collector’s Edition
ISBN / ISBN13: 055321313X / 9780553213133
US Price: $3.99