Anne had brought her slate down on Gilbert’s head and cracked it – slate not head – clear across.
Gilbert Blythe was my first literary crush. I said this recently to a group of women, and got more than one nod of agreement. I first read Anne of Green Gables (1908) by L M Montgomery (1874-1942) because it was my mother’s favourite childhood book – she described her best times at school as the rare afternoons of ‘quiet reading’. When at about the age of ten, I found the ‘Anne book’ in my local library, I fell upon it. Over the next few years I probably borrowed it more than any other book. (It helped that, like Anne, I had red hair. I hated geometry too, although my mother suspected, unfairly, that I was just imitating Anne and could learn to love it if I tried. And then, of course, there was Gilbert.)
I am not alone in my fondness for this book. Some of the Reading Sheffield interviewees remember it well. Dorothy (b. 1931) recalled:
My absolute passion was Anne of Green Gables…I adored all the series. If I had had a daughter…she would have been called Anne.
The hold of this remarkable book is as strong as ever. It is easily Maud Montgomery’s most popular story and remains in print after a century, with millions of copies sold in many languages. Prince Edward Island has a healthy Anne/L M Montgomery tourism industry. There have been around 20 film and television adaptations and related productions (the star of the 1934 movie, Dawn O’Day, even changed her name to Anne Shirley) and a new version is due in 2016, with no less than Martin Sheen playing the role of Matthew Cuthbert. The adventures of an orphan in rural, late 19c Canada apparently remain as enjoyable as ever, and Anne has retained her gift for friendship over the years.
For those who don’t know, Anne of Green Gables is the story of a young girl given a home by a brother and sister living on a farm on Prince Edward Island. What no-one knows as she arrives on the Island is that the orphanage made a mistake. The request was for a strong boy to help with farmwork, not an imaginative, sensitive, lonely chatterbox of a girl. Miss Marilla Cuthbert, who does not like her plans overset, intends to return her but is persuaded not to, and so Anne gets the home she needs and spinster Marilla and bachelor Matthew the child neither expected. Her adventures last for a further five books, well into adulthood, and include the incident quoted above, in which Gilbert, on first meeting Anne, unwisely pulls her hair and calls her ‘Carrots!’ She is, you see, very sensitive about the colour and longs for it to be a ‘handsome auburn’:
Oh I could endure anything if only I thought my hair would be a handsome auburn when I grew up. It would be so much easier to be good if one’s hair was a handsome auburn, don’t you think?
L M Montgomery, it is said, based her novel in part on a newspaper story about an orphan girl sent in error to a couple who wanted a boy. (Does anyone know what happened to the girl? I long to know.) But she also clearly drew on her own difficult childhood and later life. Unlike Anne, she was not orphaned as a baby, but did lose her mother very early and afterwards saw little of her father. She was brought up in a community like Avonlea by her maternal grandparents in an austere household. The Cuthberts and their Green Gables farmhouse were probably based on relatives living nearby (you can visit their house still). Maud had little money and worked as a teacher to fund university, although unlike Anne she did not complete her studies. Both married and lost children.
On the strength of this, it is easy to over-estimate the autobiographical element of Anne of Green Gables. I certainly assumed this as a child. But Anne Shirley and Maud Montgomery are not the same. Anne knows sadness but has, through Gilbert and her family, the security to help her overcome tragedy. Maud’s journals, published long after her death but with her permission, apparently show a troubled woman who had a difficult marriage with a depressive man, who lost a child and did not always get along with her surviving sons, all while living a very public life. It comes as a huge shock to the reader of the Anne books to learn that their author may have committed suicide in despair and weariness.
Anne is then not so much the real as the might-have-been-Maud, just as her other characters like Emily of New Moon and Jane of Lantern Hill appear to explore aspects of Maud’s life. Emily develops her writing talents and Jane eventually re-unites her estranged parents in a way Maud never could and is secure in their love.
For Maud, there was a long period in the critical wilderness (all those happy endings, all that folksiness and whimsy, all those adjectives…) but ordinary readers apparently always appreciated her. She created a secure, rural world based on the one in which she grew up (and possibly warmer and funnier than the real thing), which is enormously attractive. As are her spirited heroines, who are unusual, as heroines should be, but not so much so that we cannot identify with them. Thousands of girls probably wanted to be Anne and/or one of the others. I certainly did.
Maud Montgomery is not alone in this type of literature: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Jo March and her sisters, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Pollyanna and Katy Carr are all cousins of Anne (some more distant than others). But I think Anne has the edge over these others, even Jo and Laura. Through Anne, Maud remains more popular than other writers of her period and type, no matter what the critics thought or think. If you read them in childhood, there seems a good chance that you will remember them with affection in adulthood. As Reading Sheffield interviewee Florence Cowood (b. 1923) said: ‘I just liked the story and the struggle in [it].’
Did you read Anne of Green Gables or other books by L M Montgomery? Why do you think they remain popular?
By Val Hewson
Note: Anyone wanting to know more about L M Montgomery should read Mary H Rubio’s excellent biography, Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings (Anchor Canada, 2008), which made me think about the woman who created Anne Shirley. And the Lucy Maud Montgomery Research Centre at the University of Guelph is well worth visiting.