Thursday, 9 June 2011

Anne of Green Gables (1908)

Besides the clean-cut, scarlet figure of the Mountie, one other stands as a true pop-culture icon of Canada: Anne of Green Gables. The little pigtailed girl with straw hat and flaming red hair is world-renowned. It's even said that she's more popular in Japan than in Canada, and at the very least, Lucy Maud Montgomery's original novel is required reading in grade schools of the former. Geoff Pevere and Greig Dymond, authors of Mondo Canuck: A Canadian Pop Culture Odyssey, wryly observed that Anne is the closest thing to Mickey Mouse that Canadians ever have or ever will create.

The appeal of the novel is undeniable. Anne occupies a position comparable to a cross between Pollyanna and Tom Sawyer, another precocious and adventuresome child to whom the whole world is filled with charm and whimsy. Twain, in fact, wrote a letter to Montgomery stating categorically that Anne was "most lovable childhood heroine since the immortal Alice." Montgomery's rendition of the Gay Nineties is also distinctly Canadian. Far north of Walt Disney's Main Street USA and Mark Twain's flowing Mississippi, Anne strolls across the semi-rural hills of Prince Edward Island. Within a short distance of Montgomery's Cavendish - now Prince Edward Island National Park and a National Historic Site - are idyllic meadows, marshes, forest groves, red sand dunes and surging ocean. In Anne's imagination, this pastoral splendor takes on the character of a fairy tale, everything renamed according to her mood, such as christening "Barry's Pond" the "Lake of Shining Waters" or a babbling spring the "Dryad's Bubble". Even on the opposite coast from the craggy Rocky Mountains and its Grand Railway Hotels, Edwardian finery contrasted with stunning nature suggests something of the Canadian character.

Montomgery's story, extrapolated from an old newspaper excerpt about a couple who sent for an orphan boy and received a girl, alternately tugs at the heartstrings and busts out laughter. Aged spinster Marilla Cuthbert and her equally aged, gynephobic brother Matthew send for an orphan boy to help about their farm, Green Gables. Instead, they are surprised to receive a girl, Anne Shirley. The sad tale of the orphan girl desperately wanting a place to call her own, where she is loved and accepted, is regularly punctuated with comedic episodes where her outgoing ways fray the gossipy old ladies of Avonlea towne. She's a redhead and terribly imaginative, neither of which is particularly desirable in a girl, wrapped up in ceaseless talking. And talking. And talking. Within all that talking, though, are observations hilarious, profound and inspiring.

As an example:
The child put out her hand and broke off a branch of wild plum that brushed against the side of the buggy.

"Isn't that beautiful? What did that tree, leaning out from the bank, all white and lacy, make you think of?" she asked.

"Well now, I dunno," said Matthew.

"Why, a bride, of course--a bride all in white with a lovely misty veil. I've never seen one, but I can imagine what she would look like. I don't ever expect to be a bride myself. I'm so homely nobody will ever want to marry me-- unless it might be a foreign missionary. I suppose a foreign missionary mightn't be very particular. But I do hope that some day I shall have a white dress. That is my highest ideal of earthly bliss. I just love pretty clothes. And I've never had a pretty dress in my life that I can remember--but of course it's all the more to look forward to, isn't it? And then I can imagine that I'm dressed gorgeously. This morning when I left the asylum I felt so ashamed because I had to wear this horrid old wincey dress. All the orphans had to wear them, you know. A merchant in Hopeton last winter donated three hundred yards of wincey to the asylum. Some people said it was because he couldn't sell it, but I'd rather believe that it was out of the kindness of his heart, wouldn't you? When we got on the train I felt as if everybody must be looking at me and pitying me. But I just went to work and imagined that I had on the most beautiful pale blue silk dress--because when you ARE imagining you might as well imagine something worth while--and a big hat all flowers and nodding plumes, and a gold watch, and kid gloves and boots. I felt cheered up right away and I enjoyed my trip to the Island with all my might. I wasn't a bit sick coming over in the boat. Neither was Mrs. Spencer although she generally is. She said she hadn't time to get sick, watching to see that I didn't fall overboard. She said she never saw the beat of me for prowling about. But if it kept her from being seasick it's a mercy I did prowl, isn't it? And I wanted to see everything that was to be seen on that boat, because I didn't know whether I'd ever have another opportunity. Oh, there are a lot more cherry-trees all in bloom! This Island is the bloomiest place. I just love it already, and I'm so glad I'm going to live here. I've always heard that Prince Edward Island was the prettiest place in the world, and I used to imagine I was living here, but I never really expected I would. It's delightful when your imaginations come true, isn't it? But those red roads are so funny. When we got into the train at Charlottetown and the red roads began to flash past I asked Mrs. Spencer what made them red and she said she didn't know and for pity's sake not to ask her any more questions. She said I must have asked her a thousand already. I suppose I had, too, but how you going to find out about things if you don't ask questions? And what DOES make the roads red?"

"Well now, I dunno," said Matthew.

"Well, that is one of the things to find out sometime. Isn't it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive-- it's such an interesting world. It wouldn't be half so interesting if we know all about everything, would it? There'd be no scope for imagination then, would there? But am I talking too much? People are always telling me I do. Would you rather I didn't talk? If you say so I'll stop. I can STOP when I make up my mind to it, although it's difficult."

She's like that the whole time, and it's actually quite entertaining. Amidst the humour of incessant chatter lies the beating heart of a passionate Romantic, whether the character or the author.

Montgomery was herself shocked by the popularity of a book that went through five rejections before finally being picked up by a publisher. The following year, she wrote Anne of Avonlea, and in subsequent decades, Chronicles of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne's House of Dreams, Rainbow Valley, Further Chronicles of Avonlea, Rilla of Ingleside, Anne of Windy Poplars and Anne of Ingleside. She also lived to see three film versions: a now lost 1919 silent film, a 1934 adaptation and the 1940 sequel Anne of Windy Poplars. The latter films were such a hit that lead actress Dawn O'Day changed her own stage name to Anne Shirley. Reflecting its popularity in Japan, Anne became an anime series in 1979, directed by future Studio Ghibli auteur Isao Takahata. The most recent franchise, a product of Sullivan Entertainment, began with a television movie in 1985 for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and since spawned into further movies and series's.

1 comment:

Sal Kaye said...

I've read most (or maybe all?) of Montgomery's books as a child. Anne is popular in Germany, too.
Thanks for posting this, I enjoy remembering the nights I spent reading these books and didn't get much sleep.

Sal K.