So, yes. This book is probably older than everyone who has ever read this blog, if their ages were all added together. It’s a classic; it’s a book nearly everyone reads at some point in their childhood; it’s so much a part of culture that it’s sort of lost, almost, diffused so fully that the story itself trickles away under the wider literary tapestry.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not awesome.
I recently answered some questions about myself for the Greenhouse Literary Agency website, and during the course of that interview I realised something. I wrote a book at about the age of twenty or twenty-one (which was, and is, execrable dross) but I always thought of it as having been heavily influenced by Enid Blyton. However, I realised as I was thinking about it for the Greenhouse interview that actually, L.M. Montgomery had a lot more to do with my flowery, ever-so-dramatical turns of phrase than Enid had. I read Anne of Green Gables as a little’un, in bits and pieces, whenever I could get it out of the library; I had largely forgotten it, but the language and the drama and the sensibility seems to have stuck with me, somewhere, because it sure as heck came out in my first attempts to write.
The book concerns itself with the trials and tribulations of Anne Shirley, an imaginative and talkative red-headed orphan who arrives at the farm of Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. The Cuthberts are a brother and sister, both unmarried, who have long lived a quiet and uneventful life marked by piety and hard work. They send away to an ‘asylum’ – an orphanage – looking for a boy of about eleven to put to work on the farm in order to help Matthew; instead, they are sent Anne.
At first, they want to return her. The child’s wild imagination, ceaseless chatter and over-dramatic notions are a stark contrast to the Cuthberts’ controlled existence, but as first Matthew, and then (very gradually) his sister, begin to warm to Anne, she begins to settle into their small family and soon becomes an inextricable part of it. The book follows Anne from eleven to sixteen, from her arrival at Green Gables to her finishing her schooling, and we watch her grow from a flibbertigibbet into a young woman, one who is still imaginative and tender-hearted, but less prone to flights of giddiness. We are introduced to her ‘bosom friend’ Diana, and her classmates, and a boy who might be classed as her ‘frenemy’, Gilbert Blythe, who kicks off their relationship on the wrong foot by insulting Anne’s hair – a crime which she finds it very hard to forgive, but who becomes one of the most important people in her life from that point on.
The book is characterised by its tendency to tell Anne’s story not so much as a taut, controlled plot but as a series of vignettes, a ‘one thing happening after another’ style which isn’t so much in favour nowadays, but which speaks to its own time quite clearly. We watch as Anne learns, the hard way, how to make cakes and do the household chores which Marilla sets her, making a series of increasingly disastrous mistakes (though, as Anne herself points out, she never makes the same mistake twice!) My favourite episode was one in which Diana, then Anne’s newly-acquired bosom friend, comes over for the girls’ first grown-up tea, for which they are not being supervised. Marilla has told Anne she may serve her guest some raspberry cordial, and tells her where it is in the cupboard – but, unfortunately, Anne chooses the wrong bottle and serves Diana currant wine instead, leading to intoxication and a massive misunderstanding between Anne and Diana’s mother. It shouldn’t be funny to laugh at the idea of a child being so drunk she can barely walk across the field to her own house, but somehow the way it’s described here had me creased over with laughter.
As the book comes to an end, and Anne takes her final school examinations with the view to becoming a teacher herself, the story begins to pick up pace and some true conflict rears its head in terms of choices that have to be made, friendships which must change, illnesses which begin to claim their price on the people Anne loves, and homes which must be left behind. I must admit I read the latter chapters with tears in my eyes, perhaps because I’m a sentimental old sod and the style this book is written in played a disconsolate tune on my over-developed heart strings, but it is true that the closing of the story, after watching Anne’s progress, is emotional.
Anne of Green Gables rambles and meanders, and it’s full of pages of Anne’s chattering descriptions of everyone and everything she sees and thinks and hears and feels, but for all that it’s charming and beautiful. Anne is a character who will delight and sweep away even the most cynical of readers, and her relationship with the Cuthberts is deeply touching. I loved Anne for her brains and her courage, her distinct inability to put up with nonsense, her plain common sense (despite all the mistakes!) and her absolute loyalty and love, no matter what challenges come her way. It’s a shame there’s so much ‘ginger-ism’ here (as Anne continually goes on about how sore a trial it is to be red-headed; when I was a child, I prayed to be allowed to have red hair! Different strokes, I guess), but even that – of course – seems to work out all right in the end.
If, for some reason, you haven’t read this book already, I’d recommend it. If it’s a childhood favourite you haven’t revisited in a while, then dig it out. It’s a sweet, charming, guileless tale which, I think, is valuable in this mad, sad old world. I’m certainly glad I paid another visit to Green Gables – it’s just as pretty now as it was twenty-five years ago.