Saturday, May 3, 2014

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

Anne of Green Gables 
by  L.M. Montgomery

published 1908

At the moment I am using an ebook version but I have a copy of the hardback pictured to the left hiding in a box somewhere and I though I had a paperback copy from around the time the Megan Follows series was aired, but I can't seem to find it anywhere.

I first read Anne of Green Gables when I checked the book out from the library as an elementary school student. I loved it at the time. I have red hair and vividly remember being taunted and picked on for it. The idea of moving to a place like Prince Edwards Island, which seemed in the books to be in perpetual bloom, was utterly magic. I also adored Matthew, though I will admit I was scared of Marilla. I watched the Megan Follows series when they aired and re-read the book when I was an undergraduate in college but have not since.

So now I have re-read Anne for the Midnight Garden readalong as an adult.  In some ways it was like revisiting in a childhood friend and in other ways I have some new perspectives that impress me anew with what Montgomery was able to pack into this children's book. The prose takes some getting used to, but once I got sucked into the magic of visiting another time, I was just as much enthralled as an adult as I remember being as I child.  I was also a bit slow to finish reading the book because of what happens near the very end. It made my cry as a child and, well, I cried again as an adult.  I don't usually cry for books.

The discussion at Midnight Garden made me think about a few things that I might not otherwise have included in this review/rambling train of though babble ...

First is the historical context with respect to red hair. It was not simple vanity that made Anne hate her hair – in the context of the time there was very real prejudiced against people with red hair and all sorts of insinuations/insults about what it meant in terms of character. Given her backstory, she must have heard them all. The characters were serious when they talked about red hair meaning that Anne was intrinsically bad and that she was cursed with a bad temper.

This stuff still carried on when I was a child (I have red hair but I am a strawberry blonde so it wasn’t too bad – my cousins with dark red hair like Anne’s got it much, much worse). Children with red hair could be seriously bullied (in the UK they still are!). It was also a way to marginalize the Irish, the red hair being a sign of genetic inferiority. I know this probably seems silly to people today but it was a serious a form of discrimination then.

Try being a child who is continuously told that you are bad and have a mean temper - even if you didn't, you would develop one. Anne had a great deal of baggage with respect to her hair, so that - after being accepted in the school and feeling safe there (they didn't bully her for her hair! Even Josie, though clearly a jerk, didn't actively bully her - subtly undercut her yes, but not openly bully) - having Gilbert show up and suddenly take a poke at that very vulnerable aspect of psyche, well that explains why she went over the top over what seems today like a pretty innocuous insult. She still carried it way, way too far, but it also sets up the dynamic that is the dominant source of conflict in the story. I am not sure how far she would have gone scholastically without the extra inspiration of an opponent. 

Other things that are more obvious to an adult then they were when I was a child - first, it is disturbing just how awful it must have been to be an orphan in that time period. People are taking these children on as unpaid laborers and expecting them to be subservient and grateful for it! Ugh!  Second, there are also some opinions that are racist, sexist and/or generally troublesome. (Though on the whole the book is quite progressive concerning opportunities for women. Marilla and Matthew never once seem to question the wisdom of Anne going to college. That is awesome!)

Many of these come from Marilla - though there appears to be some misunderstanding of this comment ...

"At first Matthew suggested getting a Home boy. But I said 'no' flat to that. 'They may be all right  - I'm not saying they're not - but no London street Arabs for me."

Marilla isn't talking literally about a child of Arab decent. Street Arab was a Victorian term for children who lived on the streets of the city, usually surviving by doing odd jobs like holding horses, and carrying messages, or picking pockets and engaging in petty thievery. Basically homeless children, or children from poor families, who were considered wild and 'nomadic like Arabs.' So still a generally racist term, but for more complex reasons that are apparent and being applied to London born children. Later on you have other cracks, like the one about Italian traveling salesmen, that paint Marilla in a less than attractive light, at least in terms of modern social moors. This leads me to my next couple of points ...

I think it is actually very important to read books like Anne of Green Gables and Huckleberry Finn (for a more overt and famous example). They are incisive products of their time and give us important insight into human nature. The way people treat each other and the attitude that they held should make us uncomfortable – in many cases good authors include them in order to bring such behavior into focus and force us to think about them. It’s like the Whoopi Goldberg introduction to one of the Loony Toons collections – there are stereotypes and all sorts of raciest/sexist language that can make some of the cartoons horribly uncomfortable but were included because “removing these inexcusable images and jokes from this collection would be the same as saying [these prejudices] never existed. So they are presented here to accurately reflect a part of our history that can not and should not be ignored."

When you introduce a historic book to a child I think it is really important to talk with them about what happens to try to put it into context – the way that orphans are talked about at the beginning of the book is rather shocking for a child. It is really important to visit our past, to understand our societal mistakes, and to develop empathy for people who have different experiences than our own. Anne of Green Gables presents a somewhat idealized, but well-developed and insightful portrait of a time period very different from the modern world.

Marilla and Mrs. Rachel are voices of their time. They are representative of the rather hidebound attitudes that have to be adjusted, but they are not bad people. Both of them are trying their best to be good people to the best of their understanding. 

I think one of the strongest points of the story arch in Anne is that Marilla starts to unbend and changes her mind about several things. In the story, she *isn’t* lovable at first - she is rigid and rather scary. Matthew is loveable from the start but it takes time for a connection to develop with Marilla - both for Anne and for the reader. Initially Marilla represents some of the worst acceptable prejudices of the time and we are not expected to think that it is a good thing. It is more like being trapped in a conversion with an elderly relative at a family holiday – you have to be respectful even if really loathe some of the opinions that they hold. The good news is that Marilla starts to drop some her baggage.

I mean, just look at her attitudes and worries about Anne. Also her prejudices against things like concerts and puffed sleeves. Marilla learns through her interactions Anne and grows more accepting, she also becomes more lovable.  I really wonder how L.M. Montgomery pictured Matthew and Marilla’s childhoods, and what she envisioned making them the way they were as adults.

Anne blooms from a child to a young woman, but the journey that Marilla makes over the course of the book is no less valid, though harder to verbalize. 

I can't give the book a fair rating because Anne of Green Gables is one of my favorite childhood books and I love it to pieces – overwrought flowery language and all. I plan to share these stories with my daughter when she gets a bit older. Both of my children have a tendency to long, dramatic recitations quite reminiscent of Anne.


  1. Hi Elisa! Goodness, it took forever for me to make my way over here, but I'm so glad I did.

    I really appreciated your discussing Anne with us on our readalong post (yay!), and reading more of what you have to say about the origin of the "street Arabs" term. I am in total agreement with you that we aren't necessarily meant to think that these prejudices are examples of good behavior, either (I mean, poor Mrs. Lynde gets quite severely taken to task for some of her prejudices, even if it's only on the most superficial level), and reading these books as an adult, I'm struck by how much more I understand and sympathize with Marilla as well. It's not easy to have your world turned upside down, and she comes a long way in opening both her mind and her heart after Anne comes into her life.

    It really is an adjustment language-wise to revisit books like these, though, but that's true for me with many wordy classics. Fortunately, Anne is so charming and delightful that it's easy to look past any flaws. <3

    I'd also love to know what Maud was thinking about Matthew and Marilla's past, as well as Maud's own history and how it shaped her books. I haven't read any biographies of her yet, and I really need to.

    Thanks again for taking part in our chat! I hope you'll join us for A WRINKLE IN TIME this month, or for another classic readalong down the road.

    Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

  2. I am late coming to this post. Thank you for your insight. I read Anne of Green Gables just recently and I am far from being a youngster. I loved it, but I read it with out much thought of the prejudices that were discussed. Well, except for the red hair part. I too am a redhead, though more gray now. :) Even in the US in the 50s and 60s , I was teased, picked on and generally ignored. I turned to books as my friends! That was the great part. Anyway, thanks for you commentary. I really appreciate it.


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