As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’m currently re-reading the Anne of Green Gables series, by Lucy Maud Montgomery (on my last trip home to Sydney, I read the entire Twilight series, so this is a vast improvement). I’m about half-way through Anne of the Island, the third book. Anne is eighteen and has spent the last two years teaching at the little Avonlea schoolhouse. Now, she’s leaving Avonlea to go to college, the first Avonlea girl to do so. Her best friend Diana, who is staying in Avonlea, is engaged, and Anne is going off to college with two young Avonlea men, both of whom are vying for her affections.
The more I read of Anne, the more grateful I am that I was exposed to her as a child. I was a weird, precocious little kid with an overactive imagination and an absurd taste for the romantic. Anne, who is even more precocious and as has an even more active imagination, made me feel normal – maybe even a little boring by comparison.
I’m also grateful because Anne is a headstrong, intelligent, hardworking, fiercely loyal, good-hearted girl. By the end of the series, she’s about as educated as a young Canadian woman could be at the turn of the century, and she’s passionate about learning and about teaching. What a gift, then, to have been exposed to her as a young girl. Anne is smart and unafraid of showing it. She’s bold. She loves deeply. She values herself, and others, for who they are rather than what they look like or how much money they have. As far as fictional heroines go, I couldn’t have asked for better as a young girl.
But what strikes me most when I read Anne now – what I somehow failed to notice when I read her all those years ago – is how incredibly lonely she is. She’s described, in the first book, as “love-starved,” and there really isn’t a better word in the world to describe her when we first meet her. When I was a child, my imaginings were for entertainment. Anne’s imaginings – her make believe friends, and the way she immerses herself in poetry and novels – are a survival mechanism.
When we meet her, at age eleven, she has led a difficult life. Orphaned as a newborn, she was sent to live with a series of families who viewed her as a burden or as hired help. By age eleven, she has helped to raise three sets of twins. She has survived this terribly lonely existence by making up imaginary friends and by scrounging up beauty from everyday things that other people barely notice – trees, words, anything from which a drop of pleasure can be squeezed. She is deeply, desperately lonely. She has no memory of ever being loved, by anyone.
And yet, she knows, instinctively, how to love and be loved. She knows what a better, warmer, kinder world looks like, even though she has never experienced it. She can imagine having a best friend, or a mysterious and handsome beau, or a mother figure who can love her unconditionally, even though the world has never given her reason to hope for any of these things. She has never known love, and yet, she grows into a woman who can give and receive it in every possible form.
It is this trait that makes Anne so very remarkable, and, in my view, a model for those of us who work for social justice. Anne is capable of turning pain into beauty, and injustice into love. She is able to imagine a better world. More than that, she views it as her duty and her delight to create that better world, through teaching and learning or even, simple though it might sound, through treating people with kindness and empathy and love. The question of whether Anne is a feminist remains for another post – and oh yes, I’ll get to it soon – but there can be no doubt that she is, in her own quiet way, an activist. She believes in the possibility of a better world and is determined to do her part to create it. Like I said, as far as fictional heroines go, I really could not have asked for better.