04 January 2011

Why Anne is not my Favourite Character in the World

I lost my copy of Anne of Green Gables. Actually, I lost most of my set of the AoGG series. This tends to happen a lot with me; I lend out books left right and centre and never keep track of them. Then the lendee moves to another state and loses all of her (my) books in a monsoon flood or some such tragedy and I find myself stuck with an incomplete set of LM Montgomerys. I picked me up an old yellow hardcover with a wallpaper-like cover (complete with coffee mug stains) in order to scribble in should the mood take me

I mention this because the AoGG covers are the ones that I would say truly affect my enjoyment of a book. The late 90s versions that had Anne with fluoro red hair made my eyes bleed; later versions are dull and uninspired. Give me the kitsch and quaint cover of the 80s (pictured) – it’s the only one that doesn’t look like a damn romance novel or look so gloomy that no child would ever wish to read it. There’s something about the cover that feels homespun – it feels fun.

To me the cover is important. I need the cover to sway me in this book, because I have a love/hate relationship with the garrulous heroine of the piece. There are times when I truly do hate Anne, and I’m going to favour you with a (long) explanation as to why.

(Sigh: a re-cap for anyone who has not read this classic: an elderly brother and sister wish to adopt a boy to help on their farm, but are sent a girl who has a big mouth and a knack of getting into scrapes. Hilarity and drama ensue.)

I’ve always had a curious disconnection with Anne. I don’t get why Gilbert likes her (but then he always seemed a bit sappy to me), I don’t get why everyone puts up with her stories (which owe a lot to Mrs Radcliffe and those of her persuasion). I really just don’t get Anne these days. Perhaps I’m getting old.

Yet I still love the book. LM Montgomery is a masterful raconteur. Anne sparkles throughout, but only because the retelling buffs her up from a tiresome over-sentimental child with a superiority complex to a truly unique gem of a girl. My problem is that all Anne is is sparkle. There’s no substance behind it.

Seriously, read the second chapter. It’s our introduction to Anne as a character. In it, Anne barely draws breath for seven pages. We’re treated to a monologue of all her thoughts and feelings about everything. In a modern book, you’d call this lazy characterisation: we get told everything we need to know about the character in their first chapter and judge them from thereon in based on that information.
Here’s what she says:

She imagines stuff
She likes trees
She likes belonging to someone (Orphanages are bad)
She likes reading stories
She doesn’t like being skinny
She wants to be rich
She imagines more stuff
She likes trees
Do I talk too much?
More about trees
Her hair is red – her no likey
Imagines more stuff
Trees are pretty (renames tree lined avenue)
Ponds are pretty (renames pond)
Imagines even more stuff
Hooray! A new home!

Right there is pretty much everything you need to know about Anne – you accept everything she does after that because, well, she told you she right at the beginning! The only impression one gets of her is that she talks a lot. That in and of itself does not a character make. She’s a cardboard cut out – merely the means of propelling the real action of the book – but I’ll talk about that in the next post.

My opinion of Anne is a recent thing. I did worship her when I first read the book (at about eight years old – I saw the 80s TV version and was hooked). I think that this is a brilliant example of a story being told on two levels. As a child, I loved the make-believe stuff she went on about; now the thought of the ‘lake of shining waters’ is more than faintly ridiculous. Then I got Anne’s need for a different name and identity to go with it; now … well I still get the whole identity thing – I just don’t bother with the names. Then I thought Marilla was boring and skipped her parts; now I realise that the moments when Marilla is laughing at Anne are the best moments in the whole story. Now I find Anne just a bit tiresome, and as she grows up and becomes ‘normal’, she loses even the charm of childhood.

Anne is the favourite of all Montgomery’s heroines, but she is not her best. Montgomery is at her best when she writes about downtrodden heroines growing a pair and overcoming the strict and/or cruel guardians – usually through passive aggression, sneakiness or outright rebellion.
Anne doesn’t fit the type. You know she’s had a hard upbringing – it’s outlined for you – but it’s like it happened to another person. Anne is keen on melodrama, so her anguish over not being able to stay at Green Gables is ridiculous rather than affecting; you don’t even stop to think that she had no family and no home – even when she is telling you that. Then after that first incident, her past is treated as though it never happened.
No one is that well adjusted. Not after being subject to an abusive alcoholic, borderline slavery, neglect, institutionalisation and lack of education. You don’t just spring back and say ‘oh well, that’s done. I don’t have to think about that ever again’. Anne does, and it makes her feel, I don't know, a bit ... two dimensional. Perhaps I’m asking too much of Montgomery, but surely an acknowledgement of her past
The only moment any such acknowledgment is given is in chapter 6, when there is the possibility of Anne going to the nasty sounding Mrs Blewett. Marilla looks over to see Anne upset

“the misery of a helpless little creature who finds itself once more in the trap from which it had escaped”.

That’s it. That’s the only bit of the past that comes back to haunt Anne. After that she never feels a moment’s worry about her entitlement to stay a GG. Which is why I’m firmly of the opinion that this book is not about Anne. And I’ll write about that next time ...

Reading this back, I’m beginning to realise that Brideshead Revisited is taking its toll on me. You know, underlying tensions and family issues causing psychological damage and all that Freudian stuff. All I need now is to determine which of Anne’s cronies is Aloysius and spank them with a hairbrush. How very Enid ...