Sunday, June 01, 2008

Anne of Green Gables: Questions I Never Thought to Ask Before

Cross-posted at Blogging Anne of Green Gables.


On the left is the the edition of Anne of Green Gables that I remember best from my childhood, illustrated by Hilton Hassell and published by The Ryerson Press. On the right is a picture of me the year that I first encountered Anne.

Like many of you, I have a long history with Anne of Green Gables. Although it's a Canadian classic and I grew up in Canada, I first encountered it in Scotland when I was ten-years-old and spending one of my dad's sabbatical years there. I don't know what initially prompted me to pluck it off the shelf of the Edinburgh Public Library. I do know that I was instantly smitten, that I read it quickly, and reread it countless times thereafter.

What was the source of its appeal for me then? First, much as I enjoyed the year in Edinburgh, I was homesick for Canada. And although the novel's Prince Edward Island setting actually has more in common with the Scottish landscape I then inhabited than with the prairie city in Saskatchewan that I'd left behind, Anne of Green Gables still somehow felt like a bit of home. Second, Anne was a skinny, freckled, red-haired outsider with a fondness for books and big words. All qualities to which I could relate all too well. Later, when I discovered the rest of Montgomery's oeuvre, I felt a much stronger kinship with Emily's writing ambitions than with Anne's. But Anne came first and holds a special place in my heart as a consequence.

What new insights could a reread of Anne of Green Gables yield up for me now? You would think that well would be exhausted after rereading the book so many times in childhood and a good few times as an adult as well. But no, in a testament to the richness of the novel, as well as to my long and ever shifting relationship with it, I'm finding myself noticing and questioning aspects of it this time through that I had never noticed or thought to question before. My modus operandi for this group read then will be to work my way through the book at a leisurely pace, offering up such observations and questions in a series of posts along the way.

We enter the novel by way of a meandering, paragraph-long sentence that follows the path of a brook from its source "away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place," alongside the Avonlea main road, and past the kitchen window of the ever-watchful Mrs. Rachel Lynde. I think that Mrs. Lynde is a marvellous character but it is by no means an obvious choice to begin the novel with her. Anne is, as trumpeted in the title, the main character, yet we don't meet her until the second chapter. Not only is Mrs. Lynde not the main character, I'm not sure that I would even count her among the most significant of the secondary characters so far as Anne is concerned (in that circle I would include Matthew, Marilla, Diana, and, later, Gilbert). Yet there she is, front and centre in the first paragraph and, indeed, throughout the whole of the first chapter. Why did Montgomery choose to begin the novel this way?

Ultimately, thanks to Mrs. Lynde's observant eye, and to her status as almost the voice of Avonlea, the first chapter provides the reader with a vivid picture of Green Gables, Matthew, Marilla, and the broader community. Thus armed with a sense of the people that Anne is about to encounter and of what is truly at stake for her, I think that we're primed to sympathize with her much more deeply than we otherwise could.

I suspect that a contemporary editor would suggest cutting much of that first chapter in order to get straight to Anne with the idea that that's the way to hook the attention of child readers as quickly as possible. What do you think? Is that opening chapter a perfect conduit into the book, or does it serve as a barrier to contemporary child readers of reputedly short attention spans? I'm putting myself in the former camp, partly because I don't regard Anne of Green Gables as a book exclusively for children, and partly because I don't think we give contemporary child readers enough credit when we make limiting assumptions about the breadth of their interests and attention spans.

The other aspect of the first chapter that jumped out at me from this reading was the sense of Canadian identity conveyed by Marilla in her exchange with Mrs. Lynde about the risks of taking in an orphan. She acknowledges some qualms but takes comfort from the fact that they're getting a "born Canadian." She notes: "And then Nova Scotia is right close to the Island. It isn't as if we were getting him from England or the States. He can't be much different from ourselves." I wouldn't have thought that either England or the States would have seemed particularly foreign to someone from PEI at that point in history, but Marilla's remarks belie my assumptions on both counts. They also lead me to wonder about if and how the Canadianness of the novel is conceived by non-Canadian readers. Does the embrace of Anne of Green Gables by readers from all over the world give Canada a place in their consciousness? Or does the Canadian content slip by non-Canadian readers unnoticed?

I'll stop there for now, saving my thoughts and questions about later chapters for subsequent posts.

To read the views of other bloggers on Anne of Green Gables on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of its publication, stop by Blogging Anne of Green Gables. A discussion of the novel will be ongoing there throughout the month of June. If you'd like to participate, let me know via e-mail, and I'll send you an invitation to join the Anne blog.


Eva said...

That is such a cute picture of you! Gorgeous red hair and freckles. :) I've always been jealous of people with freckles, but lately I've been getting a few of my own. I've been listening to Anne of Green Gables this go round, since I haven't listened to it since the first time my mom and I read it together out loud. It's still so much fun!

After many rereadings, I definitely picked up on the Prince Edward Island-ness of it, but not so much on the Canadian-ness (I'm an American, but I also lived in England a lot). For me, the Canadian part really came through only in Rilla, when WWI breaks out. When I was little, I'm sure I thought that PEI was part of the States, lol. :)

Anonymous said...

I have the exact same version of Anne only way more battered and falling apart. I picked up one of the new special release hardcovers that came out this year but I still love that green-covered paperback.

Anonymous said...

Ah. Is this the moment to confess that I've never read Anne of Green Gables? I've heard of it, and even seen pictures of the house on which it was based, but, alas, the book has eluded me. I#m struggling though Little Women at the moment, so maybe later on, once I've recovered from that.

Susan said...

I second Eva about the picture of you! Irresistible!!! As for Anne....she was my favourite Canadian book for the longest time, and she along with Anne Frank were the books I carried with me up to the present day. I can't imagine life without either of them! And yes, from the very beginning I picked up on the PEIness, mostly because a)I wasn't in PEI (and the book made me want to be!) and b) everyone in Canada knows we are very regionalistic. WE always ask, "Where are you from"? and your province and city tell us everything about you - big city or small, rich province or poor, and what your likely background is. I fooled everyone because, though born in London ON, we were gone within a month to Espanola, then Winnipeg....I lived all over, so I didn't belong anywhere!! So Anne is very rooted, and that is very Canadian.
Great topic and I like the Anne blog too :-)

Kate Evans said...

You are Pippi & Anne rolled into one. :)

Anonymous said...

That is a remarkable resemblance - no wonder you felt as if you'd found your alter ego!

I didn't read the Anne of Green Gables series until I was an adult, and I've since read all of them, and the Emily stories, at least once more. They are timeless stories in many ways - the values they impart about home and family and pursuing your dreams - but they are also a wonderful depiction of a time and place. Attitudes in the provinces at that time period would likely have been quite -well, provincial.
That's an interesting aspect to look for while reading the book this go round.

As for the first chapter, I do think Montgomery made Mrs. Lynde our omniscient narrator, introducing all the players, but building anticipation and suspense for Anne's arrival.

Evie Christie said...

I know i should be reading the Anne post but what a cute picture!

Melwyk said...

Kate, I can't believe that picture! You could have been the cover model. Thanks for the inspiration to reread Anne this year; I'm taking it very slow and seeing lots of writerly things I hadn't noticed so much before.