This summer Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s first novel, will turn 104, and Anne Shirley is still winning friends and influencing readers. Last year saw four new editions published: one hardback, two paperbacks, and an electronic book. More than 50 million copies of the book have been sold, and this impressive number was reached without the common classroom study that has pushed sales numbers of some children’s classics higher.
According to one source, eight out of ten adult women admit an abiding love for Anne. And Anne’s appeal is not limited to North America; the Anne books have been translated into thirty-six languages, gaining particular popularity in Poland, where Montgomery ranked #2 in popularity among young readers, and Japan, where the books are popular with adults and children alike and inspire thousands of Japanese tourists to visit Prince Edward Island each year.
Why has this character inspired such devotion for such so many years? Scholars have offered answers. Some have suggested Anne is a feminist novel that encourages its girl readers to reject patriarchal values. Others have argued that the novel is anti-feminist, fostering traditional values and positioning women in a limited female world. Margaret Atwood’s list of thirty-two reasons the Japanese love the character ranges from Anne’s red hair to her love of cherry blossoms to her outbursts of temper. A centennial tribute compared her favorably with a range of fictional and real life characters from a Jane Austen protagonist and Carrie Bradshaw to Hillary Clinton and Lucille Ball. But I have my own ideas.
I think readers find in Anne a “kindred spirit,” to use Anne’s own term for those like-minded people with whom she shares a particularly close bond. Anne is smart, honest, and funny. She combines interests in books and clothes with ambition and daring. She is caught up in an imaginative vision of herself as “an enchanted princess shut up in a lonely tower with a handsome knight riding to [her] rescue on a coal-black steed.” At the same time, she is cool and courageous in a crisis and fiercely determined that she prove herself Gilbert Blythe’s equal in scholarship:
“Oh, it’s delightful to have ambitions. I’m so 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.“
And she has faults—a quick temper, a tendency to let imagination blind her to practical realities, and a surprising capacity to remember an offense.
Even when she errs, Anne inspires the reader with a fellow feeling. When she responds to Rachel Lynde’s candid appraisal of her as “terrible skinny and homely” with freckles and “hair as red as carrots” with an anger that unleashes an equally candid description of the Cuthberts’ most outspoken neighbor, readers may experience a satisfaction in Anne’s doing what they have longed but never dared to do:
”How dare you say such things about me?“ she repeated vehemently. “How would you like to have such things said about you? How would you like to be told that you are fat and clumsy and probably hadn’t a spark of imagination in you? I don’t care if I do hurt your feelings by saying so! I hope I hurt them. You have hurt mine worse than they were ever hurt before even by Mrs. Thomas’ intoxicated husband. And I’ll NEVER forgive you for it, never, never!”
Even stern Marilla experiences something of this fellow feeling when Anne gives her frank opinion of the minister:
“The sermon was awfully long too. I suppose the minister had to match it to the text. I didn’t think he was a bit interesting. The trouble with him seems to be that he hasn’t enough imagination. I didn’t listen to him very much. I just let my thoughts run on and I thought of the most surprising things.“
Marilla felt helplessly that all this should be sternly reproved, but she was hampered by the undeniable fact that some of the things Anne had said, especially about the minister’s sermons and Mr. Bell’s prayers, were what she herself had really thought deep down in her heart for years, but had never given expression to. It almost seemed to her that those secret, unuttered, critical thoughts had suddenly taken visible and accusing shape and form in the person of this outspoken morsel of neglected humanity.
Every Anne reader probably has her own favorite funny scene. Mine is her serving Diana currant wine instead of raspberry cordial and Diana’s resulting drunken state. Even Marilla laughed at that one, although not in front of Anne. The liniment in the cake is a close second, particularly since my grandmother one made a similar mistake with her rice pudding.
Then, of course, there’s the happy ending. Some critics see Anne’s giving up her scholarship to stay home so that Marilla can remain at Green Gables as limiting Anne’s world, but I doubt that many readers see it that way. I certainly didn’t. I adopted Anne’s own view that “the best” was waiting just around the bend of the road. I was much more interested in her reconciliation with Gilbert. Miss Lavendar speaks for me, and I suspect for many readers, when she responds to Anne’s query in book three, Anne of the Island, about the reasons for the widespread opinion that Anne and Gilbert Blythe should marry:
“Because you were made and meant for each other, Anne.”
Didn’t we all know they were meant to be together from the time Gilbert called her “Carrots” and Anne broke a slate over his head?
Almost as important as the friendship that is the first step toward Anne and Gilbert’s HEA is the transformation in Anne’s looks. Even Mrs. Lynde who once labeled her homely concedes in unexpectedly fanciful language that Anne is no longer plain:
”It’s nothing short of wonderful how she’s improved these three years, but especially in looks. She’s a real pretty girl got to be, though I can’t say I’m overly partial to that pale, big-eyed style myself. I like more snap and color, like Diana Barry has or Ruby Gillis. Ruby Gillis’s looks are real showy. But somehow—I don’t know how it is but when Anne and them are together, though she ain’t half as handsome, she makes them look kind of common and overdone—something like them white June lilies she calls narcissus alongside of the big, red peonies, that’s what.”
Anne’s charms wrought changes of opinion in real life too. The New York Times in their original review called the red-headed orphan “mawkish,” but they admitted they were wrong almost ninety years later when they included Anne of Green Gables as an “Oops” in their one-hundred year retrospective of reviews. I guess they had to wait until the reviewer was a kindred spirit to appreciate Anne.
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.