Once Upon a Time in Green Gables
Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1908 novel entitled Anne of Green Gables is an ingeniously plotted fairy-tale both despite and because of its beginning as Sunday School story with rigid morals, coming of age theme, and its placement among literature classics. Anne, a young and willful orphan is mistakenly adopted by the brother and sister duo, Marilla and Matthew. Despite Mathew’s unease around young girls he is instantly charmed by the imaginative Anne, while Marilla attempts to curb Anne’s flighty imagination and install strong, sensible Christian principles in its place. Anne’s penchant for daydreaming causes her to get in varying kinds of trouble but her strong deposition, keen mind and soft heart get her out of it just the same. Anne of Green Gables may be set in a sensible village on Prince Edward Island but the story-line, with its young redheaded heroine who learns her lesson after each pitfall is crafted in a way that brings the structure of an old moralistic fairy-tale to what was a contemporary setting.
The novel starts with the classic young orphan who has had a trying life up until the present time. Often in fairy tales with a young protagonist, one or both parents are usually absent and the hero(ine) falls pray to whoever had become custodian of the child; be it evil stepmother/father, street-gang leader, neglectful and/or disdainful relative etc. Anne’s parents die tragically from a fever when she is just a small baby (56 Montgomery) and she is then brought up until the tender age of eight by a Mrs. Thomas who uses guilt to keep Anne in place as child-minder to the Thomas’s four children (57). After Mr. Thomas dies, Anne is transferred to Mrs. Hammond to help take care of her eight children which include three sets of twins (58). While Anne’s guardians tended to follow a more realistic pattern, it is clear that she has had to overcome a great deal for her tender age and it is a credit to her disposition that she is still a bright young child rather than a bitter one.
In plenty of fairy tales there is often a character, sweet in temperament but firm in their beliefs that encourages the young protagonist to fulfill their potential against all other odds to them. I call this the Miss Honey effect, after Road Dahl’s kind and supportive teacher in his book Matlida. Most fairy tales have them to some extent whether the form of helpful house sprite, fairy god-mother, wizard headmaster etc. Anne situation isn’t as destitute as some of her equivalent heroines so her Miss Honeys are less pivotal but still just as necessary to Anne’s character development. There is stoic Matthew Cuthbert, who starts by giving Anne someone to listen to and often quietly encourages his sister to soften towards the vivacious little girl such as in the case of apologizing to Mrs. Rachel (100); seeking forgiveness for Anne in the case of Marilla’s missing broach (144); convincing Marilla to let her go to a concert (217); or going out of his way to get her a dress in the current style for Christmas (277-285). She meets a kindred spirit in Mrs. Allan, the new minister’s wife and Sunday School teacher, who wins Anne’s confidence and affections through a kind heart and encourages Anne to be herself and ask questions (242), comforts and forgives her after Anne’s disastrous baking (250) and empathizes with her regarding her ineptitude at geometry (257). In Miss Stacey she finds the closest thing to Miss Honey: a generous, supportive teacher who recognizes Anne’s scholastic aptitude, and recommends for Anne to be in an advanced class to prepare for Queen’s Academy teachers college (345). However, despite all the kind and visibly supportive people in Anne’s life, it is Marilla Cuthbert’s subtle yet firm guiding ways that makes her the true Miss Honey in Anne’s story. While she may sometimes despair of Anne’s imagination (85), she provides Anne with an anchor and a balance to her frivolity as she guides her with strict Christian morals and sensible expectations by teaching her proper prayers (79); teachers her that there is more to value about herself than appearance (83); defends Anne to Mrs. Barry after accidently getting Diana intoxicated (183); teachers her to curb her imagination so it doesn’t inhibit her (235); and encouraging her to attend Queens (345). Marilla’s character provides Anne with a consistent guardian who at encourages Anne, not through pretty words or flouncy dress, but firm support and expectations that she helps rear Anne to be able to meet.
If you asked Anne, she might tell you that her story could be a fairy tale if you had the imagination to alter it. However, even without Anne’s dryads or handsome princes, Montgomery weaves a fairy tale that people can identify with and a character to empathize with. Anne provides readers with a story that is just as full of pitfalls as any classic tale and a heroine who learns her lesson after each unfortunate incident. Anne of Green Gables provides teachers and parents with a poetically clever way of enticing young readers to a book that they can enjoy and learn from.