Discovering Anne, An Outsider’s Perspective


I’m spending time reading, writing, and thinking about Anne Shirley these days. Spending time is probably an overstatement. The middle of the winter term doesn’t allow much besides marking and preparing for classes. However, I was reminded recently that I have this interest in Anne and Lucy Maud Montgomery, and I sometimes wonder how I got here.
When I was twenty-one and thought I knew something about books and reading, I walked into my parent’s living room to find them engrossed in the television. A girl was on the screen announcing that her name was Anne Shirley—Anne with an E, no less.
Who the hell is Anne Shirley, I thought.
When I asked, my mother gave me a look. “We’re watching Anne of Green Gables.” I left the room.
Anne of Green Gableswas a title I had encountered variously over the years—both at home and at school. It was a girl’s book, as far as I could tell. My sister read it, and that was enough of a reason for me never to touch it.
By the time I was in my late twenties, had read a good deal more, and had begun to realize I knew much less than I thought, I encountered the book again, this time in a graduate seminar with my earliest mentor in children’s literature—Jon Stott of the University of Alberta.
I had taken a course from Jon in my third year as an English student, and his enthusiasm and love for kid’s books pointed out a new direction for my life. I had always loved books such as The Hobbit and The Narnia Chronicles, but thinking of children’s books as a field of study was yet unknown territory. I did an honours tutorial with Jon on Lloyd Alexander, and I took a course with him while finishing my MA. He introduced me again to Anne Shirley. There she was, red-haired and talkative, but since encountering Anne last, I had developed a soft spot for redheads because of my own, then a two-year-old.
I don’t remember liking the book all that much at the time, but something happened over the next few years: Anne, and Montgomery, began to get inside my life. I read more books in the series. I started tutoring a children’s literature course by distance, and Annewas on the reading list. Once they were in school, my kids fell in love with Road to Avonlea—watching it every day after school. It wasn’t Anne of Green Gables this time, but there was that little town again with all of its problems and charm. It was sucking me in.
Not until I began teaching Anne in the classroom did things begin to shift significantly. I found I loved the book. I watched the Kevin Sullivan film; I went on in the classroom at length about Anne’s language, her mistakes, her quirks, and how sometimes, just like Marilla, I wish she would hold her tongue.
My children’s literature classes are generally populated by female students, and every year the Annefans would come forward. I had grown to love the book and the character, but these were young women who grew up with Anne Shirley, and had an attachment to the book born out of that particular sense of discovery that goes with being a young reader. I knew I had to tread carefully.
Having also grown up enough to have an adult relationship with my sister, I talked to her about Anne. She was still a fan. She often reread the books, and she introduced me to another Montgomery character, Emily from Emily of New Moon. I read that series as well. Frankly, I was expecting more Anne, but, no—this was a different character altogether.
Around this time, while I was trying to sort out my academic life, I came across a call for panel proposals on Montgomery. I thought I would send something in. It was rejected, but it gave me a sense of what I was up against and what I was trying to do. Then I heard about the Lucy Maud conference in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and I went.
It happened to be the one-hundredth anniversary of the publication of Anne of Green Gables. I flew to Prince Edward Island, and discovered something I wasn’t expecting. Charlottetown was lovely, and I was immediately struck by the place and its people. My first evening in town, I walked down Queen Street in a soft, warm rain. Rain in Edmonton tends to be cold, sharp, and drenching. The people I encountered were interesting and friendly—and I do mean friendly. I found a place to eat, and I had seafood. The next few days gave me more information about Anne and Lucy Maud than I could ever take in.
After that conference, I decided to enter the world of Montgomery scholarship. It was like walking unknowingly up to a hole in the ground. It can’t be that deep, I thought, and jumped in.
I haven’t hit bottom yet. Five conferences, four trips to PEI, and one senior level seminar on Montgomery later, I can say that I know more about Lucy Maud than I ever thought there was to know, and many academics I’ve met know much more.
In spite of all the time reading and writing about Anne, I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider in the world of Anne and Lucy Maud. It came home to me in a forceful way at one of the LMM conferences in Charlottetown. I was with a small group at the banquet, lining up for food. I was getting more and more attached to this island, and I said, casually, “Maybe I’ll move out here and become an islander as well.”
My words were met by a short, shocked silence. “You can’t become an islander,” was the immediate chorus in reply.
I was a little taken aback. My hosts explained to me that you are only ever born an islander. You can live on PEI for your entire life, but if you weren’t born there, then you are never an islander. You “come from away.”
That left me feeling rather deflated, and the comment stuck with me for the next year. One day, again reading and thinking about Anne, I had a revelation: Anne comes from away. She was born in Bolingbroke, Nova Scotia, which meant that Anne, too, was an outsider and always would be. Anne, the girl who comes from away, was my refrain until the next time I visited PEI. I still feel like something of an outsider to the world of Anne and Lucy Maud, but I’ve also taken no little satisfaction in knowing I shared this much with the talkative redhead who has become so much a part of my life.