Okay, books down, everyone! It’s discussion time!
Lucy Maud Montgomery was a deeply unhappy woman. She created heroines with happy lives, though all were touched with some sort of pain. Be it her many orphans, Kilmeny’s stained birth, Valancy’s drab existence, or Jane’s parents’ shocking separation—surely a fantasy of Montgomery’s own, given what we know of her marriage—these are not the saccharine girls of popular belief. Montgomery is believed by many to be of a certain school of writing from her era, with plucky heroines whom everyone loves.
So is that what you think of Anne? It’s true that most of the people around her find her likeable, even if it’s against their will. But she never does fully reconcile with Josie Pye, and in later books, when she’s talking about writing to friends, Josie is never one of them. And it’s definitely true that Mr. Phillips doesn’t like her—and what’s more doesn’t like her for several of the very qualities that make her so appealing to the characters who do.
Something seldom discussed is that the children in the orphanage where Anne was before the book began were for the most part expected to be taken in, if they were taken in at all, not by loving parents looking for a child to care for but by people looking for a servant. As the series progresses, we encounter a few “home children,” many of whom are overworked and mistreated. After all, what the Cuthberts originally sent for was a boy to take over the heavy farmwork for the elderly Matthew. They never give Anne more work than Diana seems to have, but it’s all, or at least mostly, work that she takes over from Marilla or Matthew.
Indeed, that was Anne’s life before Green Gables. Remember that she is eleven years old at the start of the book. She’s already been responsible for taking care of children for years, and no one responsible for her seems to have noticed or cared that she was still a child herself. It’s all too easy to picture an Anne who never got to go to Queens, who had to find scope for the imagination in drudgery until the day she died. Anne makes it clear to several characters over the series that she knows how likely that was to have been her fate if it hadn’t been for the Cuthberts.
Perhaps Montgomery was writing an idyllic, romanticized version of Anne’s childhood. Why not? It’s nice to picture yourself sitting beside the Dryad’s Bubble with Anne, Diana, Jane, and Ruby and telling stories. It’s pleasant to think about a past where you only have to do just enough work to satisfy a crusty old maid with a heart of gold before you’re allowed to go wandering over hill and dale, making friends and enjoying the scenery. Where, perhaps, you have a pair of hazel eyes watching you that you pretend not to notice.
Is Anne for girls? I hope not. I really do. I hope it’s possible to enjoy her adventures and fancies regardless of your gender identity. Oh, maybe boys would be expected to be more interested in Gilbert and therefore not interested in these books—though a couple of the later ones, about Anne’s children, would include stories from the boys’ perspectives. I have no doubt that Montgomery was writing with girls in mind as her audience. However, I can promise you that my eight-year-old son would heartily identify with Anne’s and Diana’s scaring themselves silly with the invented stories of the Haunted Wood.
It’s likely true that certain aspects of Anne are in the modern conception of the Mary Sue. Anne’s grey-green eyes, for example. How even Mrs. Rachel Lynde can’t dislike her for long. Her ability to have just the right knowledge for any number of situations. But Anne, heedless and impulsive as she is, is far from perfect, and it’s quite clear that Avonlea doesn’t revolve around her. Sure, we’re expected to dislike the people she dislikes, but after all, we’re seeing things from her perspective. It also feels as though Anne’s scrapes are less dignified than a Mary Sue is expected to be. Picture a Mary Sue accidentally getting her best friend drunk!
I’ve always identified with Anne. For a lot of reasons. Some of you are aware that Gillian is a use-name of mine, so I certainly sympathize with her desire to be called Cordelia. I was an imaginative child as well, one who peopled her world with mystical creatures and made walks to a friend’s house into journeys across enchanted kingdoms. Funnily enough, I always wanted red hair; I think Anne would have cheerfully traded on that score.
Something you’re not supposed to talk about, and Anne never does, is that Anne also has to come to terms with being smarter than her bosom friend. “I don’t have any black dresses,” sobs Diana when Anne asks for one of her raven tresses. This is someone who spends every minute possible with Anne and trades books with her and just . . . isn’t on Anne’s level. Anne seldom allows herself to feel frustrated by it, but it slips out every once in a while. Perhaps it’s why she needs her rivalry with Gilbert—if she and Gil are rivals, she’s not showing up Diana. She’s putting one over on Gilbert.
As I’ve said, Anne isn’t even the Montgomery heroine whose life I dip into most often despite there being more books about her than any of the others. However, there’s a reason she’s the one we talk about though the “formula Ann” books Montgomery was playing around with have long been forgotten. Anne has a wit and vivacity that breaks out of a formula, and Montgomery captures a version of her beloved Prince Edward Island that may never have been real but remains somewhere to which we all wish to return.