I first became acquainted with Anne of Green Gables through the well-known production that aired on PBS in the mid-80s, and I was enthralled. I had never heard of the books before, though they were hailed as classic children’s literature. My education had been enormously deficient! So I bought and read an eight-book set by Lucy Maud Montgomery containing the six Anne books as well as Rainbow Valley and Rilla of Ingleside.
If you’re not familiar with Anne, she is an orphan girl who has been passed around to different homes primarily as a “mother’s helper” until she ends up in an orphanage at the age of 12. She’s bright and witty but spends a great majority of her time daydreaming, imagining, and reading, perhaps as a way to escape and survive her circumstances. Unmarried brother and sister Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert of Prince Edward Island in Canada decide to send for a boy from an orphanage to help around the place as they are getting on in years, but through a miscommunication they receive…Anne. Soft-spoken and tender-hearted Matthew thinks perhaps they can do her some good and should keep her. Practical Marilla disagrees, but when she finds out Anne will be sent as a helper to a cheerless, “fractious” woman with a houseful of children rather than back to the orphanage, she can’t in good conscience hand her over, so she sets about to “raise” Anne properly.
But this description fails to capture the charm of the books and the characters:
Anne, who emphasizes that it is “Anne with an e” because the “e” adds so much character and interest, who is so sensitive about her red hair that she breaks a slate over a boy’s head for teasing her about it and tries to dye it “raven black” only to end up with it green, who longs for “a bosom friend,” who has never tasted ice cream and thrills at the possibility, who aches over beauty, renaming a tree-lined avenue the “White Way of Delight” and renames Barry’s Pond “The Lake of Shining Waters,” who gets into a series of amusing “scrapes, who, though she has “tragical” days in “the depths of despair,” usually finds the bright side of any situation.
No-nonsense Marilla, who has a kind heart and a latent sense of humor despite her strictness and sparseness, who at first is driven to distraction by Anne’s chattering but later grows to like it, who has trouble expressing her feelings.
Matthew, who never went courting because it would have involved having to talk to a woman, who decides to buy Anne a pretty dress for a ball and gets so flustered he buys a garden rake (in the dead of winter) and 20 lbs. of brown sugar before he can work up the nerve to ask for what he wants. The segments where he buys the dress, fashionable with “puffed sleeves” which Marilla thinks are so silly but which Anne has been longing for, and Anne’s running out to the barn to thank him with love and devotion shining from her eyes are some of the sweetest.
Then there is Anne’s “bosom friend” Diana; the mischievous Gilbert Blythe, whom Anne steels herself against because he teased her, but of whom she is ever aware despite her sworn animosity; busybody Rachel Lynde who does have some redeeming features nonetheless; beloved teacher Miss Stacey, who helps her give form and definition and restraint to her imagination in her writing and who nurtures her love of learning.
Though the story is not a “Christian” one per se, it is a God-fearing moral one, and though it is called children’s literature, many adults love it just as well. My reading this time was somewhat overshadowed at first by Carrie’s discovery that Lucy Maud Montgomery’s life was not characterized by the brightness, warmth, and charm of her writing, and that she in fact ended her own life. But after a while the joy of the story took over, and I could take joy in the joy she evidently found in writing. I wondered if her imagination, like Anne’s, was an outlet, an escape for whatever darkness she experienced, and I only wish she had anchored her hope in the One who could deliver her.
Just after reading the book I watched the first DVD again. Though there are a few differences from the book, overall it is remarkably true to it, and it is visually stunning as well. The scenery, the clothing, the hats, the wallpaper, the decorations — all are a feast for the eyes. And Hagood Hardy’s soundtrack is gorgeous: I kept hearing Anne’s theme even as I was reading the book. (The second film was wonderful as well, though it strayed a little farther from the books, but the third one about Anne’s first years of marriage was a complete rewrite for which Anne fans have yet to forgive Kevin Sullivan. I don’t think he quite realized just what it was about the Anne stories that captivated and charmed viewers. But we’ll save that discussion for another time.)
My first time through the books was a joyful journey of discovery: this reading of Anne was a visit with old friends. I predicted that this would make me want to reread the whole series again, and it has, but I am going to have to hold off for now and get back to that stack of new books that I need to clear off my shelves. But later in the year, perhaps this summer, I hope to visit with Anne again and continue on through the series.
(This post will also be linked to Semicolon’s Saturday Review of Books.)