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.