Catching up with an old, dear friend: Anne of Green Gables

A few weeks ago, I was interviewing someone for the Feministing Five, and one of the questions had her stumped. “Well, while I’m thinking,” she said, “who are your favorite fictional heroines?” I paused, realizing that even though I’d been asking that question of other people for eighteen months, I wasn’t entirely sure how I’d answer it myself.

You all know that I’m madly in love with Ginny Weasley from the Harry Potter series. I’d also say – while realizing how utterly predictable it is to say it – that Pride and Prejudice’s Lizzie Bennet is one of my favorite fictional heroines. As a complete Harry Potter nerd, I also can’t go past Hermione Granger, who, like me, is an unabashed nerd and who, like me, will probably grow up to have upper back problems from carrying around a bag full of heavy books for many years.

I listed these women aloud, with a nagging sense that I was forgetting someone. It was someone I hadn’t read in a long time, like a distant childhood friend I remembered fondly but without much detail. And then I remembered Anne Shirley, the heroine of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Anne is an orphan who is adopted by a brother and sister in their fifties who originally hoped to adopt a boy. She is skinny, freckled and has hair that can only be described as “decidedly red,” about which she is extremely self-conscious. The book, which was first published in 1908, is set on Prince Edward Island, Canada, and some passages describing the natural beauty of the place read like they were written by the PEI Bureau of Tourism. Anne is different from all the other girls in the town of Avonlea, where Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert live, and not just because she’s an orphan from out of town. She’s an odd child, though it’s an intensely lovable kind of odd.

So I decided that it was time to go catch up with Anne again. I’ll be traveling a lot during April, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my time on the road than by re-reading the series, which follows Anne from age eleven to well into her twenties. I started reading the first book over the weekend and as you might imagine, reading it at 23 is a completely different experience than reading it at ten or eleven. I notice the way that Montgomery writes about gender far more than I did when I was a child, for instance, and I appreciate the subtle mockery of small-town society, which reminds me a lot of Austen’s arch social commentary. But Anne is still Anne – flighty, unpredictable and utterly captivating.

One of the things that drew me to Anne when I was young was that she was a kind of hybrid of my sister and me. Whenever I tried to draw myself a mental picture of Anne, I came up with a girl who looked a lot like my older sister, who has been blessed, since the day she was born, with a head of the most gorgeous red hair you’ve ever seen. In my mind, Anne looked just like my sister, down to the freckles and the “remarkably pretty” nose – though Anne didn’t wear field hockey gear or jeans.

Anne might have looked like my sister, but she acted like me. Anne is always getting into trouble. She’s easily distracted, prone to letting her imagination lead her astray, and is frequently, as my mother would term it, “off with the fairies.” I was the same as a kid. I had an active imagination – overactive, some might have said – and a strong taste for the romantic, just like Anne. Anne is precocious and, at times, a complete show-off. She has a fiery temper, but at heart she’s just a sweet, deeply passionate little kid.

Like my other favorite fictional heroines – Lizzie Bennet, Ginny, Hermione, and Jo March from Little Women – Anne is smart, kind and observant. Like those other women, she has a vision of the kind of woman she wants to be, but she doesn’t always live up to that ideal. Her vanity and pride get in the way sometimes. Like them, she is torn between the desire to fit in – to be pretty and ladylike and coupled – and the desire to defy convention. Like them, she is capable of deep, profound love, not just for the man she eventually marries, but for her friends, her family, and for the pursuit of knowledge.

Anne Shirley is the kind of girl and woman I want to be: bold, passionate, imperfect, loved. And because I’ll have more opportunities than usual to read fiction in the coming weeks, I’m going to hang out with Anne, as she makes her first real friends, excels in her studies, becomes a teacher, falls in love and… well, I don’t want to spoil it for those of you who haven’t read it. But I can promise that I’ll report back to you from my reunion with LM Montgomery’s “red headed snippet” – the fictional heroine and old friend I’d almost forgotten.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/strangedays/ Heather

    Anne is AMAZING! The Anne books are my absolute favourite. It’s great to hear that someone else loves her, too :)

  • http://feministing.com/members/bryco88/ Katelyn

    When my mom was pregnant with my younger sister we were reading the Anne of Green Gables series. She looked at me one night and said, “Why don’t we name the baby Avonlea?” I’ve never asked my mom if she thought it was just a pretty name, or she was subliminally sending messages to the fetus that would become Avonlea to embody all of Anne’s amazing traits. Either way, my sister, Avonlea is now coming into her own, and I can guarantee embodies many of Anne’s traits and is becoming a bad ass feminist in her own right.

  • http://feministing.com/members/say0anything9/ Amanda

    I never read the books, but as a kid I absolutely LOVED the movies. (Now that I’m a grownup, I always read the book first, by the way!) Anne knew exactly who she was (She always corrected people who spelled her name wrong- “It’s Anne with an ‘E'”) and refused to let anyone redefine her. When Teddy tried to flirt with her in class by calling her “Carrots,” she smashed her slate over his head. And the movie series also had great portrayals of female friendship, between Anne and her “bosom friend” Diana.

    • http://feministing.com/members/shelly/ Shelly

      That was GIL who called her “Carrots!” *nods*

    • http://feministing.com/members/toongrrl/ Jessica “Jess” Victoria Carillo

      Yes!!!! I remember when I first read “Anne of Green Gables” in middle school, finally a weird girl that loves beauty and with a fierce loyalty! I also remember when me and my cousins were watching the 1980s film on PBS and eating a lot of ice cream. Also that she and Diana have what Tv Tropes calls, a “Romantic Two Girl Friendship.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKuVlqaXo_0

  • http://feministing.com/members/laurapty/ laurapty

    I recently read Anne of Green Gables to my daughters (11 & 7). The experience was exactly like reconnecting with an old friend (a bosom friend!). It’s lead to all kinds of Anne shorthand around our house: a person can be quickly categorized as a Marilla or an Anne, and giving “scope for the imagination” is high praise for a place or thing.

  • rachelike

    I loved Anne of Green Gables growing up! My mum read them to my sisters and I and the CBC movie is still one of my favourites. I go to a small university in Nova Scotia that’s about 45 minutes away from the PEI ferry. Anne has always enjoyed cultural fame across Canada but I’ve been noticing a lot of attention being paid to her academically recently – our sociology department has added a course on the novels and their cultural impact. My thesis advisor (who started the women’s studies department here) is teaching a course on modernism and first wave feminism and she let students make a case for a text they wanted added to the syllabus. It was put to a vote and Anne of Green Gables came in a very close second due to a well reasoned argument about the feminist tones of the novel (and the desire to add some Canadian content to a course primarily dealing with American and British authors). I love seeing Anne Shirley being taken seriously!

    • rachelike

      Oh! By the way, if you ever get the chance to go to PEI, I’d recommend it! It really is as beautiful as Montgomery makes it out to be!

  • http://feministing.com/members/eliza/ Elizabeth

    Chloe, PEI resident here (it as beautiful here as Montgomery describes).

    I must HIGHLY,HIGHLY recommend the L.M. Montgomery journals once you are done reading the Anne books. They start in 1889, when she is almost 15 yrs old and continue almost to her death (now considered a suicide) in 1942. They are absolutely engrossing and fascinating from a feminist perspective, considering all of the changes she lived through. I won’t give anything away, but please read them.
    She wrote them with the intention of publication after she (and anyone mentioned therein) was dead, and included photographs that she took which are also published.

  • http://feministing.com/members/thorn/ Jen

    Such great books! What I loved most about Anne when I was young was how flawed and real she was. Headstrong and prone to impetuous behavior, which was something that I could really identify with. I remember feeling like Anne was the first girl character that I could relate to. Thanks for reminding me of these great memories!

  • http://feministing.com/members/serenitynow/ Serenity

    Love Anne! I second (or third?) PEI. I recently watched the 80s miniseries during the PBS pledge drive and cried my eyes out….. again!

    Also, any fans of Ramona Quimby? I loved her and identified with her. All the more avant garde that she was first written in the 50s!

  • http://feministing.com/members/st41rw3ll/ Sabina

    I cherish a long, long writer-crush on L. M. Montgomery. Everything she’s ever written is wonderful–I especially like her short stories. Her later books for adults are even better than the Anne series. My favourites are A Tangled Web and The Blue Castle, which I highly recommend. They’re on Project Gutenberg!

  • http://feministing.com/members/ethomps2/ Emily

    Don’t forget Matilda!!

  • http://feministing.com/members/forgottendreamr/ Liz

    This is timely for me…I was recently considering rereading these books, because I loved them so much growing up. I was hesistant, though, because books we love as children often fall flat when we reread them as adults and I didn’t want fond memories from my childhood being over ridden by my adult perspective. Specifically, I was worried that Anne would turn out to be less of the female adventurer than I remembered. Thanks for posting this, it helped me decide!

  • http://feministing.com/members/clare328/ Clare

    Oh oh oh! Make sure you read ALL the series, it goes far past her 20s. My favourite of all is the final in the series, Rilla of Ingleside, about Anne and Anne’s youngest daughter. Though Anna of the Island is a close second. I read those two often. And Miss Cornelia in the later books is one of the best characters.

    Many girls look for their Mr. Darcy. I will always be looking for my Gilbert Blythe.

    • http://feministing.com/members/clare328/ Clare

      Just read that last sentence and realised what a romantic sap I become when talking about Gilbert. God help me :P