I don’t know why I used to read so many books while lying in my bedroom closet, but I did, and my earliest memories of “Anne of Green Gables” are there, while my mom was cleaning and blasting Alanis Morissette and Celine Dion. It seems fitting, now.
Sometimes, when you reread books from childhood, you find that they don’t quite hold up. Nostalgia alone isn’t enough to make the story carry you away like it used to. You find the characters lacking in depth or originality or relatability, you realize that harmful messages are subtly woven throughout, you just aren’t the person you were when it was fresh and new and you fell in love for the first time. Not so with Anne. Perhaps because I never really stopped rereading it, taking out a copy to read over my favorite passages and chapters whenever I need them, returning to the book in full each spring for a reread, carrying Anne in my heart wherever and whenever I am. Perhaps because Lucy Maud Montgomery managed to tap into something fundamental about childhood, the longing and the loving and the leaving, the changing and, at the same time, the holding on and the holding close. The book grows with you as you grow into yourself and there’s always a part of you that is still and always Anne Shirley.
“Well, don’t cry any more. We’re not going to turn you out-of-doors to-night. You’ll have to stay here until we investigate this affair. What’s your name?”
The child hesitated for a moment.
“Will you please call me Cordelia?” she said eagerly.
“Call you Cordelia? Is that your name?”
“No-o-o, it’s not exactly my name, but I would love to be called Cordelia. It’s such a perfectly elegant name.”
“I don’t know what on earth you mean. If Cordelia isn’t your name, what is?”
“Anne Shirley,” reluctantly faltered forth the owner of that name, “but, oh, please do call me Cordelia. It can’t matter much to you what you call me if I’m only going to be here a little while, can it? And Anne is such an unromantic name.”
“Unromantic fiddlesticks!” said the unsympathetic Marilla. “Anne is a real good plain sensible name. You’ve no need to be ashamed of it.”
“Oh, I’m not ashamed of it,” explained Anne, “only I like Cordelia better. I’ve always imagined that my name was Cordelia—at least, I always have of late years. When I was young I used to imagine it was Geraldine, but I like Cordelia better now. But if you call me Anne please call me Anne spelled with an E.”
“What difference does it make how it’s spelled?” asked Marilla with another rusty smile as she picked up the teapot.
“Oh, it makes such a difference. It looks so much nicer. When you hear a name pronounced can’t you always see it in your mind, just as if it was printed out? I can; and A-n-n looks dreadful, but A-n-n-e looks so much more distinguished. If you’ll only call me Anne spelled with an E I shall try to reconcile myself to not being called Cordelia.”
For me, it’s more than a part. For me, it’s the whole. The whole of me is and has always been Anne Shirley. It’s not just the way, when I was six and seven and eight and beyond, I longed to change my name, before I had ever even heard of Green Gables. I refused to answer when people spoke to me unless they called me by whichever name I had decided I wanted to go by that day, ranging anywhere from Beth to Matilda. There is something about Chelsea that has never felt like me, something I wear like Anne’s too tight wincey dress and that, when I hear myself called by my name, always makes me flinch a little inside. I know this bothers my mom, because she gave me this name, but I can’t help it.
“Fancy. It’s always been one of my dreams to live near a brook. I never expected I would, though. Dreams don’t often come true, do they? Wouldn’t it be nice if they did? But just now I feel pretty nearly perfectly happy. I can’t feel exactly perfectly happy because—well, what color would you call this?”
She twitched one of her long glossy braids over her thin shoulder and held it up before Matthew’s eyes. Matthew was not used to deciding on the tints of ladies’ tresses, but in this case there couldn’t be much doubt.
“It’s red, ain’t it?” he said.
The girl let the braid drop back with a sigh that seemed to come from her very toes and to exhale forth all the sorrows of the ages.
“Yes, it’s red,” she said resignedly. “Now you see why I can’t be perfectly happy. Nobody could who has red hair. I don’t mind the other things so much—the freckles and the green eyes and my skinniness. I can imagine them away. I can imagine that I have a beautiful rose-leaf complexion and lovely starry violet eyes. But I cannot imagine that red hair away. I do my best. I think to myself, ‘Now my hair is a glorious black, black as the raven’s wing.’ But all the time I know it is just plain red and it breaks my heart. It will be my lifelong sorrow. I read of a girl once in a novel who had a lifelong sorrow but it wasn’t red hair. Her hair was pure gold rippling back from her alabaster brow. What is an alabaster brow? I never could find out. Can you tell me?”
It’s not just the hair, either, although that did give me a thrill when I first read the book. I have been by turns in love with and sick of my hair, and when I was a teenager, I was desperate for what I perceived to be a more interesting color. Black, I thought, or green. My mom said no to both, and rightly so. I was never teased for it that I can recall, but I nonetheless empathized with wanting something more elegant and attractive.
“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.”
The imagination thing gets a little closer to the heart of it. I never thought much about my blindness as a child, never really resented what I couldn’t see because what was going on in my mind was so much more interesting to me than anything in the outside world. I had friends, and I must surely have done things with them and slept over at their houses and all the other hallmarks of being a young girl, but what stands out most clearly to me are all the hours I spent with my imaginary friends. I had an entire imaginary town, peopled with my friends and their families, complete with full names, phone numbers, trips to the skating rink (a pair of rollerblades and a back porch), dramas and domesticities. Unlike Anne at the orphanage, I had so much scope for the imagination–a front yard with a weeping willow tree and wild onions, trees to climb, plenty of nooks and crannies to hide away in because I was very small–but there were still things I wanted and didn’t have, or had and didn’t want. Aren’t there always? I took care of them all with my imaginings, and, often, I think I even believed the things I made up. I knew I had made them up, of course, and if you’ve never done this I don’t know how to explain it to you, but alongside that knowing was also the certainty that I had made them up into actual existence. It wasn’t always a good thing, but mostly it was.
As much as she hated Gilbert, however, did she love Diana, with all the love of her passionate little heart, equally intense in its likes and dislikes. One evening Marilla, coming in from the orchard with a basket of apples, found Anne sitting along by the east window in the twilight, crying bitterly.
“Whatever’s the matter now, Anne?” she asked.
“It’s about Diana,” sobbed Anne luxuriously. “I love Diana so, Marilla. I cannot ever live without her. But I know very well when we grow up that Diana will get married and go away and leave me. And oh, what shall I do? I hate her husband—I just hate him furiously. I’ve been imagining it all out—the wedding and everything—Diana dressed in snowy garments, with a veil, and looking as beautiful and regal as a queen; and me the bridesmaid, with a lovely dress too, and puffed sleeves, but with a breaking heart hid beneath my smiling face. And then bidding Diana goodbye-e-e—” Here Anne broke down entirely and wept with increasing bitterness.
This, though, is the true heart of it, I think. I identify with Anne so strongly because I, too, love my best friends passionately and I, too, hate their imaginary future husbands. When I picture my best, most ideal life, it’s full of women, myself and all my closest soul sisters living and working near each other, holding dinner parties and sleepovers well into our twilight years, raising animals but never any children, maybe having the occasional romance but never the lifelong commitment of marriage.
I know, obviously, that this is far from realistic, and is not the best possible life for all my friends. I know that some of them do want marriage, and maybe even children, and would probably be unhappy with their lives if they never had those things. I know that. But I am very sparing with my affection, and it takes a lot for me to bond with someone on a level where I would call them friend. That word means something more to me than just “person I like and whose company I enjoy”. It means kindred spirit, bosom friend, confidant. It means love that is not exactly romantic but maybe is, kind of, a little bit. I have trouble with the blurring of the line that often occurs between women who are friends and women who are partners. I am jealous and greedy and I want everyone I love to love me best and put me first. This is an unattractive and sometimes destructive quality, I know that too. But I have never related more to a character or a passage or a sentiment, and I feel in my bones that I will repeat this scene whenever one of my friends gets into a serious relationship, because, like Anne, I am overdramatic and painfully full of feelings and all of life is for me one long romance. Just not with a man.
OCTOBER was a beautiful month at Green Gables, when the birches in the hollow turned as golden as sunshine and the maples behind the orchard were royal crimson and the wild cherry trees along the lane put on the loveliest shades of dark red and bronzy green, while the fields sunned themselves in aftermaths.
Anne reveled in the world of color about her.
“Oh, Marilla,” she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs, “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it? Look at these maple branches. Don’t they give you a thrill—several thrills? I’m going to decorate my room with them.”
“Messy things,” said Marilla, whose aesthetic sense was not noticeably developed. “You clutter up your room entirely too much with out-of-doors stuff, Anne. Bedrooms were made to sleep in.”
“Oh, and dream in too, Marilla. And you know one can dream so much better in a room where there are pretty things. I’m going to put these boughs in the old blue jug and set them on my table.”
There’s also this, which is just … you know. October is my favorite month of all months, and, for someone who is so reluctant to spend money or do anything else extravagant for myself, I do love pretty things. And puffed sleeves. Last year, at an antique shop, I bought myself a dressing gown with puffed sleeves and every time I wear it, I think of Anne and feel ridiculous and glad.
I could go on. There is so much about Anne that is also about me. I hold wild, awful grudges, I have never let go of anything in my entire life. I resented Anne a little, the first time, for eventually forgiving Gilbert. I resented her even more for marrying him. I also used absurdly pretentious words in everyday conversation when I was young, and still sometimes do in writing. And so on, and so on. I’m convinced that Lucy Maud Montgomery looked into the future from 1908 and saw me, a child desperately in need of a literary kindred spirit, and she wrote this book for and about me. I thank her for it every day of my life.