Anne of Green Gables grows old and gets her due.
One hundred years ago, L.M. Montgomery did for women's imaginative lives what Susan B. Anthony did for women's political lives by publishing Anne of Green Gables, the story of an outspoken red-haired orphan growing up on Canada's Prince Edward Island. The book immediately broke through commercially and artistically, selling some 19,000 copies in five months, leading even the cranky dean of American letters, Mark Twain, to pronounce Anne "the dearest and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice." Today, Anne of Green Gables and its seven sequels are the basis for a small industry. More than 50 million editions of the first volume are in print around the world. The books have spun off movies, musicals, miniseries, and an assortment of bric-a-brac, from tea sets to light switches. But perhaps the greatest tribute to Anne's enduring vitality is the decision by the solemn eminences who edit the Modern Library to issue and heavily promote a centennial edition of the first volume in the series. Tolstoy and Anna Karenina, meet L.M. Montgomery and Anne Shirley.
To some, this canonical promotion of a writer who would probably now be classified as a Y.A. (young adult) author might seem preposterous. To certain left-leaning cultural theorists who won't embrace a heroine with a less-than-revolutionary CV—Anne, once the Island's best young scholar, chooses to become a devoted wife and mother of six—the Modern Library's decision may appear to be a reactionary cave-in to nostalgic sentimentality. All very plausible arguments. But none of them is capable of accounting for Anne's still-flourishing appeal and the series' intellectual hold on the women who read it as young girls. Revisit Anne of GreenGables with an open mind, no matter what your age, and there's an excellent chance you'll feel that Anne deserves, however belatedly, to dwell in the company of Huck and Tom.
Anne Shirley is not a stereotypical girl heroine of her period. At the age of 11, she's adopted by Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, a pragmatic bachelor and spinster who have sent for a boy to help them out with their farm. Because of a miscommunication, the Cuthberts instead get Anne, a lonely, talkative girl who sees the world through starry eyes despite the hardships she's experienced as a foster child. But Anne is hardly a perfect child. Impetuous, proud, and perpetually distracted by her daydreams, she's always "getting into scrapes." ("It's so easy to be wicked without knowing it, isn't it?" she asks Matthew on their first meeting.) She forgets to hang up her clothes; she fails to make tea when Marilla asks her; she calls Mrs. Rachel Lynde, the town gossip, "a rude, impolite, unfeeling woman" who hasn't "a spark of imagination"; and she accidentally intoxicates her best friend with currant wine. At school, she breaks a slate over the head of Gilbert Blythe, a rival student who teasingly calls her "carrots." Her temper and her gaffes provide fodder for those village members who dislike having a child of "uncertain parentage" around. Yet with time, Anne wins nearly everyone over, as her grace, curiosity, and haplessness catalyze the bloodless community. She enables adults to reconnect with the childish soul within.
None of these charming qualities would seem to qualify Anne for hero status among contemporary women. What does is her habit of radical alertness. Nearly always, imagination comes first for Anne: before social expectations, before conventional romantic customs, and even before her gender's storied instinct to please and reassure. Because she is starved for human love, her primary attachment is to the natural world. As she approaches Green Gables for the first time with Matthew, she excitedly renames the landscape around her, dubbing a neighbor's pond "The Lake of Shining Waters" and transforming a prosaic "avenue" into "The White Way of Delight." In doing so, she reclaims the great, definitive Adamic prerogative: to name the world.
Some scholars have argued that Anneof Green Gables is an inherently—and chiefly—sentimental novel. Certainly, an orphan girl who wins over a provincial town with her magical imagination is hardly innovative material. But between the melodramatic passages, whose flourishes suit Anne's fanciful intensity, Montgomery shows a naturalistic prose style not unworthy, at its best, of a Sarah Orne Jewett. And her rigorous resistance to didactic "messages" departs from—and even consciously rebukes—the moralistic children's literature of her peers and predecessors. The dammed-up undercurrents of village life aren't coyly obscured but candidly witnessed. Montgomery's complex, ironic characterizations don't sweetly reassure; they provoke and stimulate. Marilla, for example. She's "a tall, thin woman, with angles and without curves," who, but for a hint of humor around her mouth, would appear to be a person "of narrow experience and rigid conscience."
Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.