Spotlight on Literary Heroines: Anne Shirley

I confess, I came to Anne Shirley later in life than I think you’re supposed to read her. The eleven-year-old (in the first book of L. M. Montgomery’s series, Anne of Green Gables) became a kindred spirit of mine when I was twenty-two. I was twice her age in the book, yet I became captivated by her and her effervescence. Why not, when Montgomery has her utter wonderful things like:

“Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?” (Green Gables, Chapter 21)

Even Mark Twain commented that Anne Shirley was

“the dearest and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice.”

(For this I will forgive him the less than favourable comments he made about Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice – see here).

Anne’s story, of an orphan adopted at first by mistake by an elderly couple who wanted a boy to help on their farm on Prince Edward Island, Canada, who quickly finds a place in their hearts and in her local community, shines with optimism, curiosity and positivity. Yet this isn’t to say it is all light, bright and sparkling: Anne is not a perfect character by any means, and her struggles are made clear by Montgomery. She makes mistakes and misjudges with the best of intentions, she has a fiery temper and a propensity to be overdramatic. (One of the best episodes bearing testament to this is when Anne performs a theatrical apology to her adopted mother Marilla Cuthbert’s friend Rachel Lynde, after Rachel was particularly harsh towards her and Anne yells back). And, as an aside, her determination to spell her name as Anne-with-an-E also appealed to me, as I have, pretty much since being a small child, declared to everybody that I am Lizzie-with-an-I-E.

Comments made by Anne throughout all of the books show her determination to move forward from her time at a dreadful orphanage and overworked by previous foster parents, alluding to the dark nature of her past experience but shining with optimism for the future. At the beginning of Green Gables, Anne declares to Marilla, when she is being taken back to the station amid the mix up of which child was asked for from the orphanage,

“It’s been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will. Of course, you must make it up firmly. I am not going to think about going back to the asylum while we’re having our drive. I’m just going to think about the drive. Oh, look, there’s one little early wild rose out! Isn’t it lovely? Don’t you think it must be glad to be a rose? Wouldn’t it be nice if roses could talk? I’m sure they could tell us such lovely things.” (Green Gables, Chapter 5)

Her wonderful imagination and enthusiasm are coupled with a depth of character that Montgomery catches perfectly. This duality was listed by Margaret Atwood, in a piece written to celebrate the centenary of Anne’s publication, as one of the reasons why the enthusiasm for Anne Shirley has never waned. Atwood commented that

“if Anne were nothing but a souffle of happy thoughts and outcomes, the Annery would have collapsed long ago. The thing that distinguishes Anne from so many ‘girls’ books’ of the first half of the 20th century is its dark underside: this is what gives Anne its frenetic, sometimes quasi-hallucinatory energy, and what makes its heroine’s idealism and indignation so poignantly convincing.”[1]

Similarly, Moira Walley-Beckett, responsible for the wonderful recent adaptation Anne with an E (read more about that in my posts here and here), explained that in her new approach to the beloved heroine that she takes nothing away from the original character:

“She is buoyant, she’s optimistic, she’s fiery, she’s sunny, she’s imaginative, she’s curious. I just add in the reality of her history.”[2]

Anne is a sophisticated character. Walley-Beckett does much to emphasise Anne’s feminism in her adaptation, a feminism very present in Montgomery’s writing. She is clever and ambitious, does not dilute herself and is not afraid to stand up for the injustices she sees around her. She is hardworking, caring and knows that she can be just as good and has as much to offer the world as the boys in her class at school. As Anne herself says,

“Oh, it’s so delightful to have ambitions. I’m glad I have such a lot. And there never seems to be any end to them – that’s the best of it. Just as soon as you attain to one ambition you see another one glittering higher up still. It does make life so interesting.” (Green Gables, Chapter 34)

Learning is her great joy and her academic rivalry with Gilbert Blythe (a romantic hero second only to Mr Darcy in my opinion) demonstrates that for Anne, it is the gateway to chasing her dreams.

And of course, I cannot write this without mentioning Gilbert Blythe. Their relationship is one of equals, and he has the utmost respect for Anne. It is a journey for both of them: beginning perhaps most memorably with Gilbert pulling Anne’s hair in class and calling her carrots, after which he feels terrible for getting her into trouble and though Anne despises him for a long time because of this incident, Gilbert develops a deep love for the red-haired heroine with a wild imagination and big heart. I think what I enjoy most about her relationship is that Gilbert is someone who never wants Anne to change or minimise her the exuberant character that, at first, shocks the Avonlea community, but later endears them to her. He, Anne’s best friend Diana Barry, and her adopted father Matthew Cuthbert, love that in her all along.

Anne Shirley is without a doubt a joyful, yet complex, heroine who has been treasured since her very first appearance in 1908. She was a runaway success from the beginning: in its first five months of publication, Anne of Green Gables sold 19,000 copies. No wonder, when Montgomery created a character so relatable and loveable.

To end with the inspirational words of Anne:

“People laugh at me because I use big words. But if you have big ideas, you have to use big words to express them, haven’t you?” (Green Gables, Chapter 2)

Love Anne? You might want to see these…

References

[1] Margaret Atwood, ‘Nobody ever did want me’, Article in The Guardian, 28th March 2008. See https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/mar/29/fiction.margaretatwood.

[2] Willa Paskin, ‘The other side of Anne of Green Gables’, Feature in the New York Times, 27 April 2017. See https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/27/magazine/the-other-side-of-anne-of-green-gables.html.

2 thoughts on “Spotlight on Literary Heroines: Anne Shirley

  1. How did Anne’s indestructible courage, optimism and ambition survive her childhood ?
    every painful detail of what she doesn’t tell recognised by Marilla ?
    Is this an aspect of the eternal nature-nurture debate ? Orphaned, yes, neglected and abused,
    but her parents were both teachers, reassurance for Marilla that they were ‘ nice folks’
    and an indication, especially for her mother, of social privilege ?
    Wish I’d never read about her creator’s death.

    1. There are a lot of really interesting sides to Anne and her story as her character, as you’ve mentioned – I agree, L. M. Montgomery’s death is so tragic. I think you can see a lot of details from her life coming out in Anne’s characterisation – particularly in some ways changing things she herself experienced to have kinder outcomes.

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