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Revisiting Anne

ANNEWhen I was a small child, I was an avid reader. I still am, I suppose. I read fewer books these days, because I am always getting distracted by compelling articles that I find on the internet, and I’ve also inadvertently taken up a couple of hobbies I never thought I would…. like… <whispers> … crochet.

But back then, I lived on books. Many Saturdays, while my parents were shopping for food, I’d head to a library, and it was there that I discovered some of my all time favourites, and an addictive heroine. I never got on that well with Pollyanna, but oh. my. goodness. Anne.

If I remember correctly, I got the whole set of Anne books from the library, all at once. I had a habit of doing that, and still do to a certain extent; these days I tend to invest wholesale in an author, and buy their entire oeuvre before I’ve even read a word, and in those days, I’d leave the library with chunks of books by one writer. I left that day with a pile of the works of one LM Montgomery.

I loved Anne. A chatty, imaginative risk taker, who (initially at least) defied her adopted parents’ attempts to lady-fy her. I loved her story. I loved her brain. I loved the fact that she was able to use that brain for good. I loved the manner in which she fell in love. I loved her quirky nature, I loved her scrapes, I even sort of liked the message which came loud and clear – that you can look through your mind, or throughout the world, for excitement, for glamour, for love, for new ideals… but in the end, happiness doesn’t have to be out there, it’s within, it’s at home, where you make it. I say sort
of because at that age, I planned to take over the world and have an impossibly glamorous lifestyle.

For I was old enough to be mildly irked by the vague sense that somehow, she settles; she becomes lady-like, and she eventually falls into the role of wife and mother to someone just a little bit more important than her… but it was a minor quibble.

I read all the books that were available in that library. ‘Anne Of Green Gables’, ‘Anne of Avonlea’, ‘Anne of The Island’, ‘Anne of Windy Willows’, ‘Anne’s House Of Dreams’, ‘Chronicles of Avonlea’ and ‘Further Chronicles Of Avonlea’. And then I noticed that there was one missing. ‘Rilla Of Ingleside’, a story clearly focusing on Anne’s youngest daughter. I’ve since discovered that there was yet another – Rainbow Valley – but ‘Rilla Of Ingleside’ was the one that I knew I had missed, and I was so disappointed that it seemed to be out of print. I asked the librarian, I asked in every book shop I went to. But then I forgot about it, because I didn’t get any results. There wasn’t any Google back then.

A few months ago, thinking about what might be an appropriate read for a five year old girl with a reading age of at least double that, I thought about Anne, and wondered if those books would do. And I thought about Rilla Of Ingleside, too, and did a Google search. And of course I was able to lay my hands on a second hand copy.

‘Rilla’ is such a sad book, really, and on a number of levels. It opens on the eve of World War I, a conflict that Canadian troops were very much involved in, and Anne’s large family and friends are considerably affected by it. I found it hard to enjoy the snippets where that formerly irrepressible red haired heroine appeared, for she seems subdued now, living in fear of losing her boys. I never wanted to see Anne living in fear. And Rilla is hard to like; she’s a little flighty to begin with, and, given that her predecessor is the ambitious and impetuous Anne, it seems a retrograde step to focus on someone who lacks ideals, whose aim is ultimately to become a wife, and whose most obvious growth is in those characteristics that will mark her out as womanly.

These days I spend a lot of time reading feminism, and political stuff. And I’ve also spent some time recently mulling over whether Anne is a suitable role model to offer to a small, strong girl who believes in herself. I’ve always thought Anne wasn’t such a bad character to look up to, not least because she is the complete centre of this story, not an accessory to a man, as so many women are in popular culture. And although there is a theme of romance running through it, it’s not the only element of the story. You get the feeling that Anne’s love for Gilbert, and his for her, is a transforming and enduring thing, but it’s not the only thing that matters. Anne isn’t validated by Gilbert. She is a person in her own right, a funny, witty, clever person, who is popular, gathers friends and followers, and isn’t measured by her ability to “catch a man”; at least, not in the readers’ eyes, though perhaps in the eyes of her fictional peers. She is determined, cunning, brave, doesn’t take no for an answer, and doesn’t see singleness as a problem – there are times when she embraces the idea of becoming – horrible phrase – an “old maid”.

I do want my daughter to read these books, because Anne is a heroine who attacks life with a vengeance, and that’s an example that I approve of. Like any other book, though, it reflects the times, and as we get to the later books, Anne’s focus becomes the lives and doing of her children. When I first read these books, I felt that Anne’s ‘settling’ was understandable, because it was set in the past, but in recent years I’ve been troubled to see childless women of the here and now being judged for their choices, and seen the achievements of mothers downplayed while their home-making skills were extolled; all of which makes these attitudes seem a great deal less historical.

I hope, hope, hope that girls of my daughter’s generation will read these books and see Anne’s actions in the context of the age she lived in, and not as a lesson that a woman should live her life through children, and that she is only validated by having them.

About caro unlimited

Editor, publisher, reader, writer, thinker, lefty, feminist, mother. Also likes walking, recycling, and whisky.

One comment on “Revisiting Anne

  1. Carrie
    May 24, 2013

    I have a lot of thoughts on this, mainly because I always have at least one ‘Anne’ book on the go.

    I think it’s not quite right to say that Anne resisted attempts to ‘lady-fy’ her – when Marilla first meets her, she thinks that Anne seems like a nice child, and if she is chatty, then at least nothing she says is slangy, it’s “ladylike” – “it’s likely her folks were nice people”, or something similar.

    Anne’s household management, I think, has to be seen as a good thing – she becomes a good housekeeper and initially gives up her ideas of going to Redmond because she wants to stay and help Marilla, to whom she owes so much. This sense of duty (and her eventual reward) has to be a good thing.

    Something else I think is important throughout is Anne’s commitment to her friendships, and her loyalty; that’s a great thing for any child to learn.

    The ‘Anne’ series simply has to be read in its context throughout. Mrs Lynde doesn’t approve of Anne going off to college. Diana’s parents don’t let her go to Queens (and she eventually ends up getting engaged when she’s 18, because what else is there to do?). And ‘Rilla of Ingleside’ is ridden with racism.

    And practically, the later books have to focus on Anne’s children, because children aren’t going to want to read a book about a 40/50something woman, I guess!

    I think Rilla is a fascinating character – she’s another realistic character; even her parents are critical of her vanity and laziness. But the interesting thing about her is that she steps up to the challenge of raising a war baby, organising the Junior Red Cross, and helping in her community – she has the same sense of duty that her mother has had, it’s just hidden under layers of frivolity.

    I do share the occasional misgiving from a feminist point of view, absolutely, that Anne’s writing takes a back seat after her marriage (although she does obviously carry on writing fiction and is relatively famous for it – in ‘Rainbow Valley’ Walter fights Dan Reese because he accuses Anne of ‘writing lies’). However, Anne’s ambition has always been to make life “a little more beautiful” – and I think she achieves that.

    Your point about childfree people is interesting – but in the later books, Miss Cornelia is “childfree” and nobody seems to judge her for it; Captain Jim, on the other hand, is the object of much sympathy from Anne because he has no children or grandchildren.

    Perhaps one thing we need to remember is although childfree women/”career women” are still judged for their choices, so are women WITH children, and being a mother is still a valid life choice for those who wish it.

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This entry was posted on May 24, 2013 by in Bea Entertained, Bea Feminist, Bea Literary and tagged , .
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