Anne of Green Gables

July 6, 2017

Impressions // Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

‘isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?’

It’s been quite a while since I last wrote anything here, but I couldn’t think of a more wonderful book to review for my return post. It’s been a relatively difficult few weeks for me, and it wasn’t too long before I realised that I needed to step back from everything I was doing and re-evaluate a few things. After a few days of dragging my feet, feeling sorry for myself, and not reading very much at all, I borrowed my grandmother’s copy of Anne of Green Gables in the hope of cheering myself up with a book. My aim here was to pick something that would hopefully prove more light-hearted and uplifting than The Handmaid’s Tale, which, admittedly, is a pretty low bar for a jolly read.

Anne of Green Gables is a book that made magical the childhoods of millions of girls, a book which, since its publication in 1908 has never gone out of print, but which, I’m sorry to say, completely passed me by when I was a kid, and came to hold virtually no interest for me as an adult. This could all be down to circumstance, but it’s more likely that I avoided these stories for so long because my perception of who Anne would be had been distorted by the comparisons I’d often heard being drawn between her and Eleanor H. Porter’s sanctimonious Pollyanna.

Pollyanna is an excessively (and I do mean EXCESSIVELY) optimistic young girl whose solution to every setback, major or minor, is her now famous (infamous?) ‘Glad Game’. The Glad Game is Pollyanna’s way of looking for the good in every situation, however dire it may at first appear, which, I realise, doesn’t sound all that bad at first.

She explains the game to everyone she meets by relaying the story of how, as the daughter of a poor minister, she and her family were often forced to rely on missionary barrels, which contained cast off clothing and various household items. Having spent weeks dreaming and longing for a doll to appear in one of these barrels, Pollyanna is bitterly disappointed when, upon opening one, she is instead furnished with a pair of crutches. Not bitter for long, however, as her father quickly invents the game: sure, Pollyanna hasn’t received the doll she wanted, but the crutches ought to serve as a healthy reminder that  she doesn’t actually need to use them, since both her legs work just fine. Ugh. Good for Pollyanna, I guess.

Incidentally, I turned to Pollyanna again a few years ago for the same reason I picked up Anne of Green Gables this time round. I was between jobs, between universities, feeling useless, and thought maybe the book I’d enjoyed so much as a child would provide some degree of solace. No. This time round, I spent virtually all 300 pages rolling my eyes at her sickly sweet, pious little old-timey version of ‘yes but think how lucky you are, really’ (i.e. shut up about your problems). To put it bluntly, Pollyanna would be a total pain in the arse if she were around today, and she was probably a pain in the arse then, too. Maybe she’s a sort of fictitious reduction of the sort of attitude we ought to take into consideration more than we do; that we could all do with a bit of perspective. In other words, if your only major concern of the day is that somebody else accidentally borrowed your toothbrush, you’re probably not doing all that bad. But this kind of perspective isn’t exactly what I was looking for.

Enter Anne Shirley, the girl I wish I’d known was around for me before. Anne sees your glad game, Pollyanna, and raises you scope of the imagination. Far more fun. And far more engaging. Anne’s imagination serves a similar purpose to Pollyanna’s glad game, from the point of view that, like Pollyanna, there’s a whole host of things for which Anne could quite rightly complain, and so she needs some kind of coping mechanism. Her parents died when she was young, leaving her to be ferried about as a servant from household to household before finally ending up in an orphan asylum. She has, at the beginning of the novel, not a friend in the world, and every right to feel utterly miserable about the harsh hand that life has dealt her. But this is not Anne’s style.

Instead of hopelessly hoping for a family, or auburn hair, or puffed sleeves, or a bosom friend, Anne can simply imagine she already has all of these thing, and be perfectly (or near-perfectly, at least) content. It’s the active nature of Anne’s positivity that appeals to me far more than Pollyanna’s more passive method of endurance: it’s the difference between putting a positive spin on your lot in life and forcing yourself to be content (as in, how can you not be content when so many other people have it worse than you?), and actively creating a new, and better reality for yourself which, to me, is what Anne does. Anne’s solution to friendlessness is not to accept it, but instead to create Katie Maurice from her own image in the reflective glass of a bookcase, or Violetta in the echo of her own voice in a deep valley.

But the other thing that appeals to me about Anne is that she is a fully realised character. Unlike Pollyanna, who, I don’t doubt, would look quite at home in a didactic Christian text for young children, Anne has her faults, and plenty of them. There are lessons to be learnt from her, indeed, and very often these lessons are learned by the reader before Anne herself. She’s stubborn and headstrong, she has a fierce temper, and even her imagination ultimately has its shortcomings. Her flair for the dramatic and her fondness for tales most ‘tragical’ has skewed her own perception of what an interesting life ought to be, but her realisation of this comes, sure enough:

It’s all very well to read about sorrows and imagine yourself living through them heroicallybut it’s not so nice when you really come to have them, is it?’

I’m not satisfied that this is all I’m going to write about Anne of Green Gables, not least because there are so many more parts of her story, but also because I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the new Netflix series, Anne with an E. For now, though, I’ll stop. Anne has consoled me.

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