Saturday June 1st 2013

Revisiting Anne


First published here for Bea Magazine in May 2013.

When 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.

PS: When I posted this on Bea, someone pointed out the bigotry in ‘Rilla’, and they are right, and it was something that I intended to mention but it somehow got cut from my draft. Plus, I never intended to imply that someone who chooses to spend their life mothering is failing; far from it; I want women to have the choice to do that and not feel shamed by making that choice, but, importantly, I don’t want them to feel as though it’s the only choice they have. So in a world where many still assume that motherhood is a woman’s ultimate role, it’s nice to read about heroines who buck that trend.