My first encounter with Anne Shirley-Cuthbert took place more than a decade ago, as far away from the wintery charm of her native Canada as possible. We were also removed by more than a century since the writer Lucy Maud Montgomery first published her novel Anne of Green Gables in 1908. On the day of my encounter, it was a summer afternoon and my mother and I were passing time in the car, trapped inside with the thickening two o’clock South African heat, waiting for my sister to come out of school. As always, my mother reached for a book to read to me.
I like to indulge in the idea that the day my mother first cracked the spine of Anne of Green Gables marked the first step in my journey to studying literature at Oxford. The book enchanted me, awakening me to the power that fiction has to make readers feel seen. In the novel, Anne becomes embroiled in ‘scrapes’ so often that the plot is practically structured around whatever trouble she gets into next. I was just as awkward, loudly passionate, and prone to troublemaking as her, a parallel I found wonderful. The revelation of our similarities often made me giggle with delight, and, amazingly, my mother laughed at the exact same quotes. Reading together helped me realise that she also understood what it was like being a curious young person with more imagination than one knew what to do with; if she understood Anne that meant she understood me too. We started calling each other “kindred spirits”, just like Anne and her bosom friend Diana.
Of course, I couldn’t relate to everything in the book. Anne of Green Gables follows an orphan girl and her life in the town of Avonlea on Prince Edward Island after being accidentally adopted by ageing siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. And here I was, not an accident as far as I’m aware, enjoying her story with my mother. But that’s the beauty of children’s literature: you remember what clicked into place for you.
Lesson learnt: books give you the vocabulary to voice feelings you never knew you had. That’s not to say that Anne of Green Gables is in any way didactic. On the contrary, Anne is prone to musings that exasperate her sensible guardian Marilla to no end, but she justifies herself by arguing that she may say something simply “because it sounds so nice and romantic, just as if I were a heroine in a book”. The fact that Anne is a heroine in a book was one of my first introductions to the writerly art of irony and how writers play with lines to make them both intellectually pleasing and also emotionally meaningful. In this case, the words freed me from the stifling responsibility of always having to be ‘mature’.
Anne is such an iconic figure in children’s literature that I’m sure many relate to my enjoyment of her character, especially following the release of the Netflix adaptation, Anne with an E (2017). The title references Anne’s love of romantic expression through words as she insists on spelling her name ‘Anne’ instead of ‘Ann’, which she argues “makes such a difference” aesthetically. The series illustrates its precocious protagonist’s imagination through beautiful visuals, and updates the original text to include a surprising degree of representation and nuance, because a series set in a community where the biggest cultural divide is between Methodists and Presbyterians just isn’t going to appeal in 2023.
The book’s poetic language will, however, always be what draws me to Anne’s story. Her habit of excitedly reciting poetic ramblings and her shameless indulgence in fantasy justified my own childhood participation in them. Even now, when I open the curtains of my room in Oxford and see the majestic tree of Hayward Quad, Keble College, I think of Anne talking to the tree outside her bedroom window at Green Gables. I remember that so many people—19th century writers, fictional characters, even my mother back in South Africa—understand life the same way I do. Anne had ambitions of being a teacher when she grew up: I’m sure she would be delighted to know that I return to how she pictured Green Gables whenever I need a little help remembering why my literature degree matters.