Ten Things I Learned from Loving Anne of Green Gables
April 27, 2015 1:30 PM   Subscribe

Realizing the gap between Anne and myself opened up a space for me, as a reader, to ask hard questions about even the books I cherish — and finally to move beyond these sorts of questions, realizing that expecting every character to be a role-model, a perfected version of myself, wasn’t the sort of feminist or reader I wanted to be.

Sarah Mesle is a contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books.
posted by Sokka shot first (20 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
That's a very nice tribute and a very good example of learning how to deal with beloved books that are not quite what you'd want them to be and still love them in spite of their flaws.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:39 PM on April 27, 2015 [4 favorites]

Lovely essay. I never wanted to be Anne Shirley, but I did desperately want to be a kindred spirit, even when deep down I suspected I was a Sloane at heart.
posted by muddgirl at 1:51 PM on April 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

This is beautiful and, as a structure for criticism and writing about reading, very inspiring. I love these books dearly, too, and it seems apt for the piece to be framed as a set of lessons learned and stages grown into. From the title, I expected a list; not something as wise, heartfelt and open-ended as this is.
posted by byanyothername at 1:54 PM on April 27, 2015

From the title, I expected a list; not something as wise, heartfelt and open-ended as this is.

I've spent this afternoon inhaling Ms. Mesle's writing as I can find it, and I know exactly how you feel.
posted by Sokka shot first at 1:58 PM on April 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

"I have read them in trees and in airports and in my mother’s lap and in every bedroom I’ve called mine... Exquisite in both story and sentence, the Anne books built me as a reader, which is to say: they built me."

My mom read me the first Anne book when I was 5 or 6. I remember walking past a ditch full of broken shopping carts by our apartment and telling her it was a perfect graveyard of buried groceries. And wishing that my name would make sense if I added an E at the end of it, because it really would be more distinguished. Avonlea feels like home in a lot of ways. Just like the Tiffany Aching books and the Little House books, it's a place I can go when I feel homesick. They are books I keep finding comfort in, no matter how many times I read it or why I am going to it. Academic striving, feeling like you are a disappointment, finding a lovely relationship, scaring yourself silly, homesickness, the depths of despair, bosom friendship, fear of the end of friendship, admiring your environment, frustration with the things around you, competitiveness, sadness - it's all there and Anne is a wonderful, eloquent guide through it all.
posted by ChuraChura at 2:13 PM on April 27, 2015 [10 favorites]

I think she undersells the feminism in the novels. If you read the 100th anniversary scholarly Annotated Anne of Green Gables (of course I own it why do you even ask), you can see Montgomery's development of the text to make very specific and clearly feminist points. For example, it is one of the first (perhaps the first) bildungsromans about a woman who comes of age in mind and spirit as well as in body and community. In traditional European symbolism, men get associated with sky and spirit, women with earth and body. In the long, lyrical passages that describe the beauty of Prince Edward Island, Montgomery begins with the trees and the flowers -- which she scoured Canadian and American sources to find feminine vernacular names for -- like "Lady's Slipper." Masculine flower names, such as "Bachelor's Button," are changed out for "aster" or for feminine alternatives. Anne usually gives them feminine personal names -- "Snow Queen" and "Bonny." Sometimes LMM writes the masculine name in her first-pass manuscript and later comes back with a neutral or feminine alternative. She was deliberately locating the feminine in the flowers and then -- in just about every passage describing flowers at length -- she expands the focus to the sky. Sunsets, stars, sunrises, clouds, all of that symbolically extends Anne from the bodily world of the earth into the spiritual and intellectual world symbolized by the sky. A traditionally masculine world. It's deliberately transgressive. She isn't just waxing poetic about the vast beauty of Canada; she's locating Anne within a symbolic structuring of the world where Anne, crucially, has an emotional and intellectual life that is put on an equal plane with traditional masculine coming-of-age stories ... but without denigrating the femininity of the earth. She also applies flower words to the sky itself, describing its colors as "marigold" and "saffron" and so on. The down-to-earth stories of women doing women's work IS a feminist point, that Anne can dream and learn and love and go to college and teach, but she can also sew and weave and care for children and become a wife and mother. She uses a symbolic structure of Earth Mother/Sky Father that dates back to Plato and that reaches its full flower (heh) in the Romantic poets that Anne loves -- in order to subvert it and locate women and men on an equal footing, and to make the claim for young women reaching for the profoundly-metaphorical stars.

Anne appears in spring, like Persephone, and starts bringing Avonlea to life -- and almost the first thing she does in Avonlea is wear live flowers into the church. HEY SYMBOL OF PATRIARCHY HAVE SOME FEMININITY IN UR TEMPLES. The actual Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown becomes Queens College -- COLLEGE IS FOR LADIES, YO.

Quotations in Montgomery are never JUST the apt point to the moment, but virtually always point to the larger work the quotation comes from and, if you know the reference, underlines her themes or make deeper points about the characters or situations. (Like referencing the masculine romantic epics that Anne loves, to make the point that Anne is going through the same quest, just like a boy.) Names too -- Biblical Anne is the mother of Mary -- Marilla -- who in the book is a virgin-become-mother, who both mothers Anne and is mothered by her as Anne helps give birth to Marilla's long-repressed true self. Rachel Lynde, as in Judaism, stands for fertility, the mother of Avonlea, a symbol of plenty and fecundity and earthy women -- it's no accident she's fat and poor love-starved Marilla is thin. Diana is a pagan, sensual girl, who is always described as wearing (or eating) something red, and is the only character in the book to get drunk. Her physicality is sometimes set against Anne's spirituality -- but not too much, because this isn't a book about either/or but about both/and when it comes to the physical and spiritual.

It's a book about mutually-supportive relationships between and among women and how that love helps them self-actualize. There's only ever room for one man at a time in these novels -- not until Matthew dies can Gilbert enter Anne's life, because men are so secondary to the narrative in Anne (notice how rarely Gilbert shows up even when they're married!), which is about the webs of support that women weave to support and uplift each other, to hold together communities, to make it possible for women to become fully self-actualized, spiritual, intellectual, bodily people.

I think, in some ways, it would have been a bit of a cheat for Anne to become a famous writer (although I've wrestled with this for many years), because a large point the novel makes is not that women can be just like men, but that women are fully-actualized human beings as women and don't have to imitate men; that the world of women is rich and valuable, and that women are not thereby less intelligent or less spiritual than men. Having her become a wife and mother, as most women of that era did, and leading a rich, fulfilling life in that role is, I think, probably a more fit ending to Anne's story than if she'd been "exceptional," since Montgomery's entire point is that it's not just the rare, unusual woman who has a rich interior life -- it's all women. (Also, Montgomery had an unusually unhappy marriage and appears to have very badly wanted a happy family life and a happier motherhood experience ... Anne's happy family is a bit of LMM's own wish-fulfillment.)

And all in a charming little novel of poetic vignettes set in rural Canada. You've probably read it a dozen times without ever noticing the flowers and the sky ... but it's all there, and it's all deliberate, and it sneaks up on you because LMM is too subtle to knock you over the head with the fact that she just got mad lady-stuff all up in your manly realms of intellect, and you (dear contemporary Edwardian reader) cheered for Anne the entire way. Bam, you've been stealth-feministed.

(I'm mid-Anne-of-the-Island right now -- I'm always mid-Anne-of-somewhere -- where the good parts are all with her roommates and the romance bits you can really just skip over because men are borrrrrrrring and ladies renting a house together and baking cakes is FUNNNNNN.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:25 PM on April 27, 2015 [200 favorites]

Well I was going to try and say some stuff about this but I see Eyebrows McGee has beaten me to the punch, and better by half. Well done :)

I especially like this part from above:

It's a book about mutually-supportive relationships between and among women and how that love helps them self-actualize.

I haven't read the books all the way through yet...most of my experience of Anne comes from the famous miniseries. Nevertheless, as a young boy in a house full of men (and one woman--my mother) this has had a profound effect on me. Recently, while pondering and writing down thoughts about my childhood I had this to say about my mother exposing me to the world of Green Gables:
I'm grateful that Mom didn't try to hide her female interests from her sons. I'm grateful that she instilled in me a passion for Jane Austen, Anne of Green Gables, BBC Period Dramas, and all those things that made it really hard for me to talk to other boys my age...and really easy for me to talk to the girls! I love that Mom never tried to shield me from feminine perspectives, these perspectives have greatly informed and enriched my life.
(emphasis added)

To this day I still think about the boundless imagination and passion of Anne, about kindred spirits and bosom friends. I use these terms without irony in my own conversations with all the folks in my life.
posted by Doleful Creature at 2:38 PM on April 27, 2015 [11 favorites]

Eyebrows McGee, what an elegant and accurate (to me!) assessment of Anne Shirley, which I think applies to other Montgomery heroines like Emily Byrd Starr, Pat Gardiner, and Sara Stanley. While the Anne of Green Gables books were incredibly important to me, I wish the other girls could be discussed more, especially Pat of Silver Bush who had absolutely no desire to leave her home.

I came to the books when John Major was the UK prime minister, so the hardest thing for my budding preteen political consciousness to wrap around was that Anne and Gilbert voted Tory.
posted by peripathetic at 3:39 PM on April 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Many of LMM's works are deeply subversive in a quiet way.
posted by winna at 3:49 PM on April 27, 2015

In the long, lyrical passages that describe the beauty of Prince Edward Island, Montgomery begins with the trees and the flowers ...

Some of the very best nature writing in English, not matched by any American I'm aware of.
posted by jamjam at 3:49 PM on April 27, 2015

Eyebrows McGee, adding that book to my to-buy list!!!

My adoration of L.M. Montgomery's world in my childhood and teen years was unmatched. I owned every single book she wrote that was in print and would cajole my parents to drive me to our local university's library to pore over LMM's personal journals. (If you're a fan of her work, read them -- they're so lovely and well-written.) I was on an early listserv in the 1990's called Kindred Spirits -- was anyone else on that? -- which had spirited conversation about her books. I eventually left when the email volume grew too large -- I wish I still had my emails from that time period.

I worshipped Anne, both the literary redhead and the Megan Follows interpretation, but I never identified with her -- so many of the stories in the books were about her winning over rivals and cranky adults with her spirit and charisma, and I was much more of a shy bookworm who was scared to death of offending anyone. (Despite my deepest desires, the Josie Pyes and Katherine Brookes of my life stayed Pyes and Brookes, no huge personality makeover on their parts.) I always identified more with Valancy in The Blue Castle, tongue-tied in the face of aggression (who then strikes out on her own and is rewarded, but is still never universally loved). Anne is the warm, loving, champion of the underdog and life of the party, Valancy is the sarcastic, funny one by the punch bowl who's just gone on a blissful 10-mile hike alone and doesn't care what you think about her. I'd like to think the two would be friends -- and that I have a little of both in me.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 3:50 PM on April 27, 2015 [4 favorites]

Thanks for the mention of the annotated version, I'll have to go search it out! I've been wanting to re-read Anne of Green Gable to compare it to Green Gables Fables. It's been far too long since I've read about Anne's adventures.
posted by angelchrys at 3:55 PM on April 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you read the 100th anniversary scholarly Annotated Anne of Green Gables (of course I own it why do you even ask)

Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee to the Amazons!
posted by corb at 4:23 PM on April 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

Annotated Anne

I think it's important to note that the first book (which is clearly the most thought-out in terms of symbolism) ends with all possibilities open to Anne -- she has received a job, she has reconciled with Gilbert, she is able to stay at Green Gables -- so there's no choosing between romance and career. Anne of Green Gables ends with Anne, having successfully navigated the shoals of adolescence, ready to step into the great wide world and forge her own path, none of which are closed off to her.

Anne's ultimate choice, of marriage and children, doesn't really happen until book 5 (and even then she keeps writing here and there for local things). You can stop at the end of Green Gables with the world spread before youthful Anne, ready to leap. (Book 5 -- Anne's House of Dreams -- is one that has in particular changed for me since I've had my own kids; I used to read it as a sweet romance between Anne and Gilbert, but now it's a relatively soul-searing novel about the hopes and horrors and sweetness of motherhood. Ingleside is easier because it's more fairy-tale-ish, less raw.)

rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto: "so many of the stories in the books were about her winning over rivals and cranky adults with her spirit and charisma, and I was much more of a shy bookworm who was scared to death of offending anyone. "

I actually was reflecting sort-of on this the other day, that part of what's slightly unusual about Anne is that YA female heroines are quite often rather solitary, bookwormish, shy, etc. -- because I think a lot of us who love them (and those who write them!) fit that model. Anne is somewhat unusual in that she's so incredibly social while also being a total weirdo, and she has both a rich inner, emotional life and a rich outer, social life, and those aren't presented as being in opposition.

I was also reflecting that LMM doesn't shy away even a little bit from accurately reflecting the passionate intensity of female adolescence -- in any of her characters, who all behave in ways that are roundly mocked in the wider culture (of now and then), in ways that we ALL did as teenaged girls, in way that we maybe cringe when we think of now, but she writes about them with such love and sympathy and understanding that it isn't cringe-inducing in the story. The adults in her books are adults -- they aren't just cardboard cut-outs to populate a teenaged world; they respond with anger or laughter to teenaged excess; they try to curb it and control it, or ignore it and outwait it -- but the POV adults when the teenaged girls behave in shrieking-at-the-Beatles-or-Bieber, in-love-with-their-best-friend, writing-horrific-poetry sorts of ways are always loving, understanding, or at least (in the crucial moment) remember what it was like to BE a teenaged girl (Aunt Ruth *sniff sniff, Em'ly*). I think that may be part of the enduring appeal of LMM's books: Her recognition of the passion and intensity of female adolescence, her understanding and acceptance of it, and her ability to place it in a safe and loving context where the girls going to excess are given a protected space to recover from it in their families (natural or found). Even the crankiest old spinster in LMM's novels is going to step forward to champion a teenaged girl who's just been a little too silly, if the world tries to come after her for it.

(I also think this is part of the popularity of the Harry Potter novels: JK Rowling obviously likes and understands adolescents, and there are adults-who-are-adults in her novels, which make them loving and safe even when ultimate evil is trying to kill everybody. There's still a Remus Lupin, a Molly Weasley, who have a maturity and an apparent inner life beyond childhood, and you know you can count on them to go to bat for you and sort out your shit. I felt like the real climax of the book 7 wasn't when Harry won, but when Molly shouts, "NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!", kills Bellatrix, and then sobs "You — will — never — touch — our — children — again!" THERE'S JK Rowling's POV in the novel, there's what she wants you (youthful reader) to know beyond everything else: There are Molly Weasleys in the world, and they will assail the gates of hell for you.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:03 PM on April 27, 2015 [41 favorites]

Or "storm heaven for you, if [they] knew were it was."
posted by jamjam at 6:52 PM on April 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

Eyebrows McGee, that was an amazing comment! One slight correction though - I believe Anne went to university in Halifax not Charlottetown and the model school is Kings College, which makes the resexing of the university even more obvious. There's a cemetery in Halifax with the lions if you ever get to visit.
posted by hydrobatidae at 7:06 PM on April 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

hydrobatidae: "Eyebrows McGee, that was an amazing comment! One slight correction though - I believe Anne went to university in Halifax not Charlottetown and the model school is Kings College, which makes the resexing of the university even more obvious. There's a cemetery in Halifax with the lions if you ever get to visit."

She goes to Queens College (Prince of Wales College) in Charlottetown to get her teaching certificate, and then after teaching a few years goes to Halifax to Redmond to get her BA -- Redmond is Dalhousie.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:15 PM on April 27, 2015 [4 favorites]

It blows my mind how metafilter has succeeded in giving back to me the books I loved in my childhood and later resented because they appeared to form part of the submissive wife life I bought into, which I was never very good at, in part because Anne & Jo & Katie & Laura & Jane & Elizabeth all were impulsive, intelligent, independent characters that gave me the courage and desire to be myself, not an imitation, even if I didn't fit the social norms.

Thank you, metafilter for the posts and mefites for the incredibly educational discussion within the threads. I love you.

(Green gables, Little women, what Katie did next, little house on the prairie, Jane Eyre, Pride & Prejudice - books so much more rewarding than the babysitter club stuff.)
posted by b33j at 12:07 AM on April 28, 2015 [12 favorites]

Also the books are available at Gutenberg here
posted by b33j at 12:10 AM on April 28, 2015

FWIW guys that annotated edition is only a dollar for Kindle!
posted by corb at 7:15 AM on April 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

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