Ask any female reader in the industrial world who “Anne spelled with an ‘e’” is. Odds are her response will be, Anne of Green Gables. First published in 1908, 50 million copies and eight sequels later, Canada owns Lucy Maud Montgomery with pride. She managed unintentionally to put Prince Edward Island on the map for young girls and made Canada’s smallest province into an international tourist attraction.
Anne of Green Gables is based on the adventures of a skinny red haired freckle faced orphan with a huge imagination and a deep desire to belong. The illustrious Mark Twain, in a personal note to Lucy Maud Montgomery, praised her Anne character as “the dearest and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice.”
Book review - Anne of Green Gables
As an orphan Anne Shirley had experienced the harsh realities of life without parents. Over her brief lifespan of eleven years she had been farmed out to several different families. She not only did household chores but was overworked caring for their children. Multiple sets of twins were her nemesis.
We are introduced to our heroine in the midst of a huge kerfuffle. This particular one, unlike the many which follow, is not of her making. Anne has mistakenly been sent from an orphanage in Halifax to live with a brother and sister on Prince Edward Island. Matthew Cuthbert and his spinster sister Marilla had specifically requested a boy. With his health deteriorating Matthew needed a boy to help work the farm at Green Gables.
The elderly siblings express their shock and dismay at receiving a young girl instead of a boy.
Anne responds, “You don’t want me because I’m not a boy! I might have expected it. Nobody ever did want me.”
The softer Matthew suggests that they keep her.
“Well now, she’s a real nice little thing, Marilla. It’s kind of a pity to send her back when she’s so set on staying here … We might be some good to her.”
However, the more staid Marilla insists that Anne be returned to the orphanage the next morning.
Anne’s dream of becoming part of a loving family is shattered.
“My life is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes.”
Next morning Marilla is faced with the choice of keeping Anne or passing her along to Mrs. Blewitt. At first glance Marilla may appear cold with few emotions but she does have a good heart. Her conscience won’t allow Anne to become a slave to Mrs. Blewitt and her twins. Marilla’s decision to keep Anne is destined to alter life at Green Gables and Avonlea forever.
Over the next five years Anne’s escapades elicit both our tears and laughter. Whether it’s breaking her slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head for calling her “Carrots”, falling off the Barry’s ridge-pole roof as a result of Josie Pye’s dare, dying her red hair green instead of a beautiful raven black, serving cake made with liniment instead of vanilla to the minister’s wife, or getting her best friend drunk on red currant wine, we fall in love with her irresistible charm and cheer her undaunted spirit.
Unlike her imaginary friend Katie whose reflection Anne found in the window pane or Violetta whose voice was heard in an echo, Anne’s greatest desire is to find a true ‘kindred spirit’. She wants a special friend with whom she can share both her great imagination and adventures.
The irony is that Anne does develop many such “kindred spirit” friendships. Diana Barry is immediately identified as Anne’s ‘bosom friend’ but over the next two hundred pages, both Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, her beloved teacher Miss Stacey, Diana’s cantankerous aunt Josephine, and even the infamous Gilbert Blythe all become ‘kindred spirits’.
L. M. Montgomery develops her characters through their interactions with Anne. Knowingly or unknowingly, all are changed.
The normally shy Matthew is bewitched by Anne. Unlike Marilla, he loves listening to Anne’s overly descriptive stories. Perhaps he enjoys them because Anne does all the talking. Matthew agrees to Marilla’s demand not to “put his oar in the water” when it came to the rearing of Anne. He gently comes to her defense when Anne gets into scrapes. He pushes out the edges by bringing Anne sweets from town. However, Matthew manages to break down the final barrier when he asks the nosey Rachel Lynde to sew Anne a dress with the puffiest of puffed sleeves and indulges her with a string of pearls.
We see the greatest change in Marilla Cuthbert. After Anne’s arrival, she slowly sheds her hard shell to display a much softer side. Her love for Anne cannot be pushed down for long and her maternal instincts surface. After Anne’s fall from the Barry’s roof, Marilla came to the realization that Anne was “dearer to her than anything on earth.” By the end of Anne of Green Gables the contrast is quite stunning. She takes great pride in Anne’s accomplishments and the earlier diatribes that followed Anne’s antics have been replaced by bursts of laughter.
“No, I wasn’t crying over your piece … I just couldn’t help thinking of the little girl you used to be, Anne. And I was wishing you could have stayed a little girl, even with all your queer ways … I just got lonesome thinking it all over.”
Gilbert Blythe matures from a brash self-centered teaser into a humble self-sacrificing young man. At first, he was intrigued by the new girl with the red braids. Unlike the other school girls who fawned over him, Anne was smart and she chose to ignore him. He admired her competitive spirit and as “iron sharpens iron” their academic rivalry continued throughout Anne of Green Gables. Gilbert had always liked Anne but his ‘like’ blossomed into love. Anne’s heart was finally stirred by the strength of that love when he sacrificially gifted his teaching position at the Avonlea School to help Anne care for Marilla after Matthew’s death.
Anne goes through her own metamorphosis over the course of this book. She leaves behind her penchant for the dramatic, her temper, and her scorn for Gilbert but manages to maintain her competitive spirit, her love of literature, her zest for life and her wonderful imagination.
Book review - Anne of Green Gables
Why do we love Anne so much?
Anne lives her life with intensity. There is no in between. She is either ecstatic or in the depths of despair.
“For Anne to take things calmly would have been to change her nature. All spirit and fire and dew, as she was, the pleasures and pains of life came to her with trebled intensity.”
Her red hair was the bane of her life. (review continues below)
“Now you see why I can’t be perfectly happy. Nobody could who had red hair … I cannot imagine that red hair away.”
Anne Shirley’s besetting sin was “imagining too much.” Her greatest strength became her greatest weakness. Anne regularly got lost in her imagination which resulted in many of her trials and embarrassments.
Anne was far from perfect, making lots of mistakes.
“Marilla, isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet? … but I never make the same mistake twice.”
Anne appreciated nature, often becoming speechless “… just drinking in its beauty.
Anne was a great romantic, renaming the “Avenue” the “White Way of Delight” and the Barry’s pond the “Lake of Shining Waters.” Her stories were brimming with beautiful lovers who more often than not suffered tragic ends.
But the number one reason we love Anne Shirley is because of her deep desire to be loved. Anne had been badly scarred by constant rejection as a young girl and was afraid to love anything or anyone because it might be taken away. After several years of friendship she is caught off guard when Diana Barry tells her that she loves her. I also think Anne kept Gilbert Blythe at arm's length not only because of her pride but because she was unable to recognize love when it was directed towards her.
Book review - Anne of Green Gables
Many young girls have seen Kevin Sullivan’s television production of Anne of Green Gables and love it, but this should only whet their appetite for more and there is so much more in the book.
As one who has read and reread this classic many times I would encourage you to pass along this great treasure to your daughters. Better yet indulge yourself and read it together.
I think Matthew Cuthbert summed up Anne of Green Gables best when he was reminiscing with Marilla,
“She’s been a blessing to us, and there never was a luckier mistake than what Mrs. Spencer made – if it was luck. I don’t believe it was any such thing. It was Providence because the Almighty saw we needed her I reckon.”
We needed you too Anne, our lives are much richer for having known you!