By Constance Classen and David Howes
Over the more than ninety years since its publication, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables has acquired the status of a Canadian cultural icon. Reflecting this fact, Sheila Egoff writes in The Republic of Childhood that "to denigrate the literary qualities of Anne of Green Gables is as useless an exercise as carping about the architecture of the National War Monument" (Egoff 1967). Not only is Montgomery’s book cherished within Canada, it is also "probably Canada’s best-known fictional export" (Sorfleet 1975: 4), an archetypal example of the Canadian who finds fame and fortune abroad while remaining true to home (see further Katsura 1984; Wachowicz 1987).
In this chapter we will attempt to show that, however dear a Canadian symbol and success story Anne of Green Gables may have become, it is patterned after a foreign work, the American children’s classic Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, by American educator and author Kate Douglas Wiggin, was published in Boston in 1903. An early sketch of the story appeared in Wiggin’s first published piece "Half-a-dozen Housekeepers", serialized in 1878-79 (Butler 1976: vii). Wiggin herself said the idea for Rebecca came to her in a dream (Wiggin 1923: 351-52). The book was extremely popular, becoming "one of the most widely read books in America" at the time: "Men were writing love letters to Rebecca, and little girls throughout the country were identifying with her" (Butler 1976: v).
Lucy Maud Montgomery began writing Anne of Green Gables in 1905 and the final version of the work was published in Boston in 1908 (Rubio and Waterston 1985: 330). Like Rebecca, Anne was an immediate success, both at home and abroad.
Both books belong to a popular genre of works dealing with imaginative, relentlessly optimistic orphans – a genre which Eleanor Porter would take to its sentimental height in 1913 with the widely-read Pollyanna (Cadogan and Craig 1976: 89-110). It would not be surprising, therefore, to find that Anne and Rebecca resemble each other, particularly as they are placed in similar settings: late nineteenth-century small-town Prince Edward Island and small-town Maine. Nonetheless, a careful comparison of the two books shows the resemblance to be too close to be merely circumstantial. Ater bringing out many (by no means all) of the similarities between the two books and establishing the American origins of Anne of Green Gables, however, we will go on in this chapter to try to reclaim a Canadian identity for Anne.
Anne of Sunnybrook Farm?
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm opens with eleven-year-old Rebecca Rowena Randall’s journey by stagecoach from her family’s farm to her aunts’ house in the Maine village of Riverboro. Rebecca’s father has been dead for three years and her mother is unable to cope with the financial burden of raising seven children. Miranda and Jane Sawyer, her mother’s spinster sisters, have offered to take the eldest child, a dull, sensible girl, into their home, but Mrs. Randall instead sends them Rebecca, "a thing of fire and spirit". Rebecca, who declares, "I haven’t done anything but put babies to bed at night and take them up in the morning for years and years," thus finds her life abruptly changed (Wiggin 1917: 27, 12).
In Anne of Green Gables elderly Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, sister and brother, of Avonlea, Prince Edward Island, send to an orphanage for a boy to help them on their farm. When Matthew goes to the train station in his buggy to pick up the boy, he finds that they have been sent instead eleven-year-old Anne Shirley, "full of spirit and vivacity," who has spent her childhood looking after babies in foster families (Montgomery 1968: 8).
The two girls present a similar appearance as they embark on their journeys to their new homes. Wiggin writes of Rebecca:
The buff calico was faded, but scrupulously clean and starched within an inch of its life … the head looked small to bear the weight of dark hair that hung in a thich braid to her waist. She wore an odd little vizored cap …. Her face was without color and sharp outline (9-10).
Anne is described as:
…. garbed in a very short, very tight, very ugly dress of yellowish gray wincey …. She wore a faded brown sailor hat and beneath the hat, extending down her back, were two braids of very thick decidedly red hair. Her face was small, white and thin … (12).
The outsanding feature of both girls is their large, expressive eyes (Rebecca, 10-11; Anne, 12, 13, 25 et passim). Jeremiah Cobb, the stagecoach driver, says of Rebecca, "her face is all eyes" (42), while Anne describes herself as "nothing but eyes" (42, also 118).
Rebecca is introduced when Jeremiah drives her to her aunts’ home, "the Brick House"; Anne is introduced when Matthew drives her to his and Marilla’s home, "Green Gables". Both Jeremiah and Matthew are plain and practical-minded (although Matthew is considerably more timid), and both are overwhelmed by the constant and extraordinary chatter of their respective passengers. Jeremiah "had a feeling that he was being rushed from peak to peak of a mountain range without time for a good breath in between" (13), while Matthew "felt as he had once felt in his rash youth when another boy had enticed him on the merry-go-round at a picnic" (18). Rebecca rhapsodizes on why she calls her family farm "Sunnybrook" (16) while Anne makes up names such as "Lake of Shining Waters" (21) for the places she passes en route. Jeremiah tells Rebecca, "I guess it don’t make no difference what you call it so long as you know where it is" (15-16). Marilla will later admonish Anne for taking pride in her parents’ euphonious first names with "I guess it doesn’t matter what a person’s name is as long as he behaves himself" (42).
Anne desperately wants to stay at Green Gables, while Rebecca longs for home; nonetheless, their responses to the cold receptions they receive in their new homes are the same. Alone in her room,
… Rebecca stood her sunshade in the corner, tore off her best hat, flung it on the bureau … precipitated herself into the middle of the bed and pulled the counterpiece over her head (40-41).
When Anne was left alone in her room,
… she hastily discarded her garments … and sprang into bed where she burrowed face downward into the pillow and pulled the clothes over her head (30).
Rebecca’s Aunt Miranda, "just, conscientious, economical, industrious, at church … without one likable failing" (34), treats Rebecca with the grim severity she believes necessary for the proper upbringing of a child. Her Aunt Jane is softer-hearted and, although dominated by her elder sister, is often able to intercede on Rebecca’s behalf.
In Anne of Green Gables Marilla, "a woman of narrow experience and rigid conscience" (5), is similar in character to Miranda, but not as dour: "there was a saving something about [Marilla’s] mouth which, if it had been ever so slightly developed, might have been considered indicative of a sense of humour" (5). While Matthew resembles Rebecca’s devoted admirer Jeremiah Cobb, in relation to his sister, he plays the same submissive, tempering role as Jane with Miranda.
Miranda and Marilla keep Rebecca and Anne dressed in plain, dark clothes. Jane and Matthew respectively intervene to provide them with pretty dresses. Miranda tells Jane:
"Handsome is as handsome does" says I. Rebecca never’ll come to grief along of her beauty, that’s certain, and there’s no use in humoring her to think about her looks. I believe she’s as vain as a peacock now … (68).
Marilla scolds Anne, "You shouldn’t think so much about your looks, Anne. I’m afraid you are a very vain little girl," and, when Anne protests that she can’t be vain when she’s so homely, adds "handsome is as handsome does" (80).
Although neither girl is conventionally attractive, both stand out against prettier girls. When Rebecca is spoken of as plain, Jeremiah exclaims, "Look at Alice Robinson, that’s called the prettiest child on the river, an’ see how Rebecca shines her ri’ down out o’ sight!" (114). Anne’s neighbour, Rachel Lynde says, "when Anne and them [other girls] are together, though she ain’t half as handsome, she makes them look kind of common and overdone" (265).
In character, Rebecca and Anne prove to be even more alike than in appearance. Wiggin describes Rebecca as "full to the brim … of clever thoughts and quaint fancies" (55).
She was willing to go on errands, but often forgot what she was sent for … her tongue was ever in motion … she was always messing with flowers, putting them in vases, pinning them on her dress, and sticking them in her hat (65).
This portrayal applies equally well to Anne, who also brims over with imaginings (41), forgets her chores (128), chatters continuously (36) and "messes" with flowers, putting them in vases and in her hat (84, 127).
Both girls dote on romantic novels, act out stories with their friends, recite poetry to themselves, delight in nature. Rebecca is said to be one of "the souls by nature pitched too high, by suffering plunged too low" (164). Montgomery writes that: "The downfall of some dear hope of plan plunged Anne into `deeps of affliction’. The fulfillment thereof exalted her to dizzy realms of delight" (190). When Rebecca learns Jeremiah Cobb will take her on a trip to a neighbouring town she is ecstatic:
A thrill of delicious excitement ran through Rebecca’s frame … she pressed Mr. Cobb’s knee ardently and said in a voice choking with tears of joy and astonishment, "Oh, it can’t be true….It’s like having a fairy godmother who asks you your wish and then gives it to you" (18-19).
Similarly, when Anne finds out there is to be a Sunday school picnic she grows "cold all over with excitement" (99).
"Such a thrill as went up and down my back, Marilla! I don’t think I’d ever really believed until then that there was honestly going to be a picnic. I couldn’t help fearing I’d only imagined it" (99).
Rebecca’s adoring bosom friend is pretty, plump, rosy-cheeked, dull Emma Jane, daughter of a prosperous neighbouring blacksmith. Anne’s adoring bosom friend is pretty, plump, rosy-cheeked, dull Diana, daughter of a prosperous neighbouring farmer. In Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm it is Rebecca who has the romantic name and black tresses, and her best friend, the sensible name and red hair. In Anne of Green Gables the situation is reversed, Anne has the red hair hair and her friend Diana the romantic name and black locks. Montgomery’s inspiration for Anne’s renowned red hair, indeed, may have come from the character of Emma Jane, who, encouraging the plain Rebecca to hope for prettier days, says "I was a dreadful homely baby, and homely right along till a year or two ago when my red hair began to grow dark" (152). A neighbour similarly reassures Anne: "I knew a girl once … whose hair was every mite as red as yours when she was young, but when she grew up it darkened to a real handsome auburn" (79).
Walking to school, both Rebecca and Anne turn off the main route to cross flowery fields: "buttercups and white-weed and groves of ivory leaves and sweet fern" in the case of the former (50); "ferns and starflowers and wild lilies-of-the-valley and scarlet tufts of pigeon berries" (113) in that of the latter. Within their schools, Rebecca discovers her adversary in the smug, spiteful Minnie Smellie; Anne in the equally obnoxious Josie Pye. Each girl also finds a suitor among her classmates. Rebecca’s is Seesaw Simpson, who can’t keep his eyes off her "although she snubbed him to the verge of madness" (56). Anne is courted by Gilbert Blythe whose attempts at friendship she similarly spurns.
One day in school, through a remark of Seesaw’s, Rebecca is forced by the teacher to stand beside the boy in a corner of the classroom. Wiggin writes:
Rebecca’s head was bowed with shame and wrath. Life looked too black a thing to be endured. The punishment was bad enough, but to be coupled in correction with Seesaw was beyond human endurance (58).
The teacher notes that her face is "pale save for two red spots glowing on her cheeks" (59).
As punishment for flying into a temper at a remark of Gilbert’s, Anne is also made to stand in front of the class (119). The following day the teacher compels her to sit beside Gilbert, "heaping insult on injury to a degree unbearable … Her whole being seethed with shame, anger and humiliation" (122). A classmate describes her face as "white, with awful littled red spots on it" (122).
The school day over, Seesaw’s glance of penitence is "answered defiantly by one of cold disdain" by Rebecca (61). Gilbert’s apology for his offending remark is likewise met with scorn: "Anne swept by disdainfully, without look or sign of hearing" (120).
The parallels continue thoughout the works. Rebecca and Anne turn into good, little housekeepers. Rebecca is encouraged and guided in her development by her sympathetic, intelligent teacher, Miss Maxwell; in Anne’s life her revered teacher, Miss Stacy, does the same. The two go away for higher schooling, Rebecca hoping to complete the four-year course in three (250), Anne, the two-year course in one (295). They have both become attractive, stately girls; Rebecca is notable for "her tall slenderness, her thoughtful brow, the fire of young joy in her face" (301), Anne is "tall, serious-eyed" with "thoughtful brows" and a "proudly poised little head" (270).
Neither Rebecca nor Anne lacks male admirers in her adolescence. Rebecca, however, "was in the normally unconscious state that belonged to her years; boys were good comrades, but not more" (224). Similarly, "Boys were to Anne, when she thought about it at all, merely possible good comrades" (301). In Rebecca this innocence is contrasted with the worldliness of the flirtatious Huldah Meserve who has "merry eyes and a somewhat too plump figure for her years" (224). In Anne, it is beau-mad Ruby Gillis with "large, bight-blue eyes and a plump showy figure" (300) who plays the same role.
The girls do well at school (although Anne exceeds Rebecca in the brilliancy of her achievements), excelling in creative writing and public recitations. A firm in which Rebecca’s aunts had invested goes bankrupt, leaving them with little money. Miranda suffers a stroke and dies soon after Rebecca’s graduation. Shortly after Anne’s graduation, Matthew learns that the bank in which he and his sister have their savings has failed and dies of the shock. While Marilla is ill from her stroke, Rebecca offers to renounce her dreams of college and take a job teaching at a nearby school in order to be able to help out at the Brick House. After Matthew dies, Anne makes the same offer in order to help out at Green Gables.
Anne of Green Gables ends at this point, but Rebecca goes on to discover, after Miranda’s death, that her aunt has willed her the Brick House and all its property, alowing her to lead a more comfortable existence than she had expected. Despite this difference, the thoughts of the two girls are much the same at the closing of the two books. Seventeen-year-old Rebecca sits on the front step of the Brick House possessed by a "sense of thankfulness and peace" (431) and sixteen-and-a-half-year-old Anne sits at the window of her room in Green Gables "companioned by a glad content" (329). Both are contemplating their futures. In the last line of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm Rebecca whispers, "God bless Aunt Miranda; God bless the brick house that was; God bless the brick house that is to be" (342). In the last line of Anne of Green Gables Anne whispers "God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world" (329).
It is suprising that the numerous parallels between Anne of Green Gables and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm have not received more public attention. The references to these parallels tend to be few and muted in studies of children’s literature. An important exception to the rule is the British study of girls’ fiction You’re a Brick, Angela! which bluntly states that Montgomery "openly appropriated, or modified only slightly, a great many qualities for her heroine from the earlier book [Rebecca]" (Cadogan and Craig 1976: 94; see also Townsend 1974: 84). Likewise, in an article entitled "L.M. Montgomery and the literary heroine: Jo, Rebecca, Anne, and Emily," T.D. MacLulich has noted that it seems unlikely "that the numerous and striking parallels between Anne’s story and Rebecca’s story are purely coincidental" (MacLulich 1985: 10). He provides two instances of what appear to be "verbal echoes" of Rebecca in Anne: both Miranda (154) and Marilla (77) use the expression "what under the canopy"; and at crisis points in the upbringing of Rebecca and Anne respectively, Miranda remarks "We have put our hand to the plough, and we can’t turn back" (255), and Marilla, "I’ve put my hand to the plough and I won’t look back" (106) (MacLulich 1985: 10).
The recent annonated edition of Anne of Green Gables, while acknowledging "resemblances between Rebecca and Anne", however, ultimately plays down the importance of Rebecca as a model for Anne by indicating that Wiggin’s book was just one of many literary influences on Montgomery, such as "the stories… of Dickens and Twain" (Doody 1997: 12). To refer to Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm as just one of many literary influences on Anne, does not do justice to the exceptional parallels between the books. This apparent reluctance to dwell on the similarities between the two books may reflect the fact that Anne scholars do not want to seemingly diminish the importance of Anne of Green Gables by digging up its roots in Rebecca, and perhaps also that, apart from being a Canadian cultural icon, Anne has become a lucrative Canadian industry which makes millions from Anne tourism and product sales.
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is no longer widely read. However, at the time of Anne of Green Gables‘ publication it was at the height of its popularity and the similarities between the two books must have been noticed by the readers of the day. This was, in fact, the case, judging by the comments of contemporary reviewers. One American reviewer called Anne of Green Gables "a sort of Canadian `Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm‘" (MacLulich 1985: 10). A British reviewer stated that "We can pay the author of Anne of Green Gables no higher compliment than to say that she has given us a perfect Canadian companion picture to Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" (cited in Barry, Doody, and Doody Jones 1997: 489). Mark Twain, who knew how to build a story out of an imaginative child’s rebellion against a repressive adult world himself, spoke in glowing terms of both works. He found Rebecca "beautiful and moving and satisfying" (Smith 1925: 134), and called Anne "the dearest and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice" (Eggleston 1960: 80).
Lucy Maud Montgomery herself stated that the idea for her book grew out of an entry in her journal: "Elderly couple apply to orphan asylum for a boy. By mistake a girl is sent them" (Ridley 1956: 89). This, in turn, she said arose out of her speculation about the identity of a girl who arrived at the home of the owners – sister and brother – of a neighbouring farm (Ridley 1956: 89). It appears probable that this idea became linked in her mind with the story line of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm to form – together with her own recollections of childhood – the basis of Anne of Green Gables.
Of course, some of Rebecca’s influence may have reached Montgomery indirectly though spin-off stories on the same theme. Montgomery mentions just such a story in a journal entry of March, 1905:
One … story in a magazine brought vividly back an odd fancy of my early childhood. The story was of a lonely little girl who lived with two grim aunts; having no real companion she evolved one from fancy. This companion, whom she called Elizabeth "lived’ in a grove on the hill, and the child shocked her unimaginative aunts by persistently relating "lies" to them concerning her talks and adventures with Elizabeth.
She goes on to say that she too indulged in such fantasies as a child, a trait which she would attribute to Anne (63). It seems likely that Montgomery identifed with the character of the imaginative Rebecca, as she did with the protagonist of the magazine story. Like Rebecca, Montgomery grew up with stern, elderly foster parents; in Montgomery’s case her maternal grandparents. Like Rebecca, Montgomery felt her hopes and ambitions blighted when she had to renounce her dreams of university and stay at home to fulfill her duty as a caretaker (See Wiggin 1917: 321; Rubio and Waterston 1995: 38).
The author of Anne and Wiggin’s heroine are alike even in their love of colour. In a letter to a friend written in the summer of 1905, Montgomery states:
Everyone likes color; with me it is a passion …. On my table is a color effect of yellow, California poppies that makes me dizzy with delight every time I look at it.
Compare this to the following passage in Rebecca:
"Does color make you sort of dizzy?" asked Rebecca.
"No," answered Emma Jane after a long pause; "no, it don’t; not a mite."
"Perhaps dizzy isn’t just the right word, but it’s the nearest. I’d like to eat color, and drink it, and sleep in it" (142).
When Montgomery came to write Anne, Rebecca probably served as a guiding influence not only in its affecting parallels with her own life and emotions, but also in its amazing popular success; for Montgomery was as concerned with selling her works as she was with writing them.
With Montgomery keeping her readership of romantic girls in mind, Anne is a much lighter and sweeter work than Rebecca, which, while leavened with humour, is shot throughout with accounts of poverty, theft and dreary small-mindedness. On the other hand, Rebecca, with its hard edges, rings truer than Anne. For example, although Miranda grows to be proud of Rebecca, "never, to the very end, even when the waning of her bodily strength relaxed her iron grip and weakened her power of repression, never once did she show that pride or make a single demonstration of affection" (216). Marilla, however, is eventually completely won over by Anne, confessing to her, "I love you as dear as if you were my own flesh and blood and you’ve been my joy and comfort ever since you came to Green Gables" (316). (Even the redoubtable Mrs. Lynde, who at first finds Anne "terribly skinny and homely" , ends up gushing over the orphan’s charms .) With regard to her protagonist’s academic abilities, Wiggin remarks that "Rebecca came off with no flying colors – that would have been impossible in consideration of her inadequate training" (250). Nothing less will do for Anne than to win one of her school’s top prizes for academic excellence (307).
Montgomery herself stated that "Anne’s success at school is too good for literary art. But the book was written for girls and must please them to be a financial success" (Eggleston 1960: 73). In "The Bogus Ugly Duckling: Anne Shirley Unmasked", Lesley Willis writes: "What L.M. Montgomery really wants is to engage for Anne the same kind of sympathy which might be given to a fairy-tale heroine, but without making her undergo the same trials" (Willis 1976: 251). However, it was precisely because Montgomery was more interested in entertainment than plausibility that she is able to place her heroine in situations which would be improbable for Rebecca in her more constrained setting. Anne breaks her slate on a classmate’s head and refuses to return to school (118), she dyes her hair green and has to have it cut off (229), she accidentally intoxicates her best friend (136), and so on. Rebecca, at her worst, can do little more than wear her good dress without permission (92) and throw her parasol down a well in a fit of self-mortification (122). Anne certainly has the edge over Rebecca when it comes to adventure.
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is the more period-bound of the two works. Its passages of cloying sentimentality and depictions of missionary meetings and puritanical repression are apt to try the sympathy of the modern reader. Anne of Green Gables, on the whole, deals with subjects (school rivalries, concern over personal appearance, escapism through fantasy, etc.) which remain accessible to the reader of today. Montgomery’s book undoubtedly has a more fluid story line than Wiggin’s, which is broken up, in the style of the time, by intrusive elements such as letters written by various of the characters. As well, the sheer extravagance of Anne’s flights of fancy, the piquant characterizations, and the idyllic descriptions of rural life, combine to give Anne a freshness and charm lacking in Rebecca.
Notwithstanding these original elements in Montgomery’s work, a comparison of Anne of Green Gables with Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm leaves little doubt that the former was strongly influenced by the latter, and that "our best-known fictional export" has as its model an American import. Ironically, when Matthew and Marilla are considering what kind of child to adopt, they decide on a "born Canadian" boy (7). They end up with a girl born – as regards authorial creation – in the States.
The Canadian in Anne
Despite the fact that it is modelled on Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Anne of Green Gables is not just a fanciful copy of that book. It is rather an interpretation of Rebecca in the light of Montgomery’s own distinctive experiences and dreams, experiences and dreams which were rooted in a Canadian cultural environment. In her seminal study of what makes Canadian literature Canadian, Margaret Atwood presents Anne as unCanadian in nature. In fact, Atwood suggests reading Anne as a kind of antidote to "morbid" Canadian literature (Atwood 1972: 35). Let us now consider here what, if anything, is Canadian about Anne of Green Gables.
An intriguing answer lies in Anne’s refusal to glorify her Canadian identity. Rebecca exalts and is exalted by the symbols of American nationalism. When asked to draw a picture on the blackboard at school for a class recital, Rebecca draws the American flag and a figure of Columbia. During the recital, the whole class sings "Three Cheers for the Red, White, and Blue", pointing to Rebecca’s flag when they come to the chorus. One cannot imagine Anne drawing a picture of the Canadian flag (the Red Ensign at that time) on the blackboard together with, say, a beaver. The very idea makes one smile, it is so un-Canadian. Montgomery may have taken the characters and plot of Rebecca for her own story, but she left the showy nationalism behind.
A good example of Anne’s and Rebecca’s different approaches to issues of national identity occurs when both girls participate in an event centred around the national flag – the making of a new flag for a village flagraising in the case of Rebecca, a fundraiser to buy a school flag in the case of Anne.
Rebecca (now in the 1906 sequel, New Chronicles of Rebecca), turns the occcasion of the flag-raising into a paean to American nationalism. She, along with other local ladies and girls, helps to sew the flag. When Rebecca is told that she can think of the star she is to sew on the flag as representing her own state, she glows with enthusiasm: "`My star, my state!’…. `Oh, Mrs. Baxter, I’ll make such fine stitches you’ll think the white grew out of the blue!’" (Wiggin 1907: 127). For the flag-raising tableau, Jeremiah Cobb plays the role of Uncle Sam; the schoolteacher that of Columbia, and the older girls the States. (The boys, who also want a part to play in the proceedings, form a fife and drum corps.) When Rebecca is chosen to represent her home state of Maine, her cup runneth over: "Nobody could be good enough, but oh, I’ll try to be as good as I can!" (Wiggin 1907: 130).
Rebecca indeed proves herself good enough when she saves the new-made flag from being carted off by the local thief the night before the flag-raising. To cap it all, on the glorious day "The State O’ Maine Girl" mounts the platform to recite a poem that she herself has written about the flag:
"For it’s your star, my star, all the stars together,
That make our country’s flag so pround
To float in the bright fall weather!"
(Wiggin 1907: 163).
For Anne, by contrast, the fundraising recital is basically an agreeable excuse for good fun. "It’s just filling your heads up with nonsense and taking time that ought to be put on your lessons", Marilla grumbles (204).
"But think of the worthy object," pleaded Anne. "A flag will cultivate a spirit of patriotism, Marilla."
"Fudge! There’s precious little patriotism in the thoughts of any of you. All you want is a good time."
"Well, when you can combine patriotism and fun, isn’t it all right?" (205).
And that’s the last we hear of the flag or of Canadian patriotism in Anne. The actual performances in the recital have nothing to do with either. Like Rebecca, Anne is "the bright particular star of the occasion" (215) but the tableau she participates in is not one of Ottawa and the provinces, but of Faith, Hope and Charity, while the dialogues she plays in are "The Society for the Suppression of Gossip" and "The Fairy Queen".
One American review of Anne of Green Gables stated that "There is nothing in the book distinctive of the place. The scene might as well be laid in any New England village". (Eggleston 1960: 72). The answer to that is, no it could not, because if it were – out would come the references to the Red, White and Blue, and Liberty, and George Washington, and the American Revolution. When Montgomery does refer to Canadian national politics it is in a very prosaic fashion: a local visit by the Prime Minister is eagerly attended by the inhabitants of Avonlea, both Tory and Grit. "Mrs. Lynde says Canada is going to the dogs the way things are being run at Ottawa, and that it’s an awful warning to the electors" (149). No mythologization there. In any case, the P.M.’s visit just serves as a plot device to get the adults out of the way so that Anne can heroically save a neighbouring baby from dying of croup.
The one bit of overt political symbolism in Anne of Green Gables occurs when Anne and Diana name an island in a nearby stream after Queen Victoria because, as Anne explains, they are "very loyal" (173). Here home-grown Canadians take over the colonial role of the English and continue the process of colonizing their land and themselves. The political virtues expressed by this are not, as in the case of Rebecca, independence and liberty, but subordination and loyalty.
Both Anne and Rebecca romanticize nature, friendship and love, but when it comes to national identity, the Canadian parts ways with the American. Anne is too Canadian to make a cult of her nationality. It is ironic that Anne herself should have become a Canadian cultural icon.
Anne of Green Gables is not just Canadian by its absences, however. Although the importance of national identity is not obvious in the book, it is nonetheless underlined in a number of ways. Anne is sprinkled with passing references to Canadian themes, such as the Canadian climate and Canadian politics. It’s true that Anne reads an American novel (like her fellow English-Canadians at the time, almost all of Anne’s literary influences are American or British) while pretending to study Canadian history. Nonetheless, at least Montgomery gets across the idea that there is such a thing as Canadian history. Montgomery is therefore not trying to produce either an American or a "placeless" story, which would not disturb readers anywhere (including in Canada) with untoward references to an unknown Northern territory. She is writing a deliberately Canadian story. This act was not without courage at a time when Canadians themselves customarily looked down on Canadian literature.
The most important reference to Canadian identity comes at the beginning of Anne of Green Gables when Marilla tells her neigbour Rachel Lynde that she and Matthew want to adopt a Canadian child, not one from "England or the States" (8). (Although by "Canadian" Marilla definitely means English-Canadian: not a "stupid half-grown little French [Canadian]" 7.) This tells the reader that there is something distinctive, and evidently desirable, about being Canadian.
One of the novel’s ironies is that Marilla thinks that by adopting a Canadian child, she and her brother will be getting someone who ressembles themselves. When Mrs. Lynde warns Marilla that an adopted child might burn down the house, Marilla answers that the child, coming from their own country – and their own region of the country (Nova Scotia) – "can’t be much different from ourselves" (8). The joke is that Anne turns out to be very different from them, and does end up, metaphorically at least, setting the house – and indeed the whole town – on fire with her imaginative and engaging personality.
Americans play a marginal, but nonetheless interesting, comparative role in Anne of Green Gables. In contrast to the native Islanders, they are the rich tourists who invade Prince Edward Island in "heaps" every summer (46). Near the end of the novel Anne participates in a concert offered to an audience made up in good part of Americans at the nearby White Sands Hotel. Sitting beside Anne in the audience is a "scornful looking" and presumably American girl who talks loudly about the local country bumpkins in the audience and on the stage. Anne, however, fulfills the Canadian dream and wins the Americans over, offering a moving recital of poetry. Afterwards "the wife of an American millionaire [takes] her under her wing and introduce[s] her to everybody; and everybody [is] very nice to her" (289). This is a telling commentary on the power of Americans to make the world "nice" for lowly Canadians. On the way back home one of Anne’s friends, the "extremely sensible" Jane Andrews, offers a portrait of Americans from a local perspective when she says "I just wish I was a rich American and could spend my summer at a hotel and wear jewels and low-necked dresses and have ice-cream and chicken salad" (289). Anne, however, responds to Jane’s American-envy by saying "We are rich…. we’ve all got our imaginations, more or less" (290).
A continual, and very Canadian theme which is presented in Anne of Green Gables is that of the duality of wilderness and civilization. The inhabitants of Avonlea, the children and grandchildren of homesteaders who had to struggle to impose order on the wilderness, have tried to expunge wildness from their lives. Anne brings a degree of wildness back into the community, albeit in the relatively safe form of a "biddable" little girl. Green Gables is a suitable location for the "uncivilized" Anne because it is border country, lying on the "furthest edge of [the] cleared land" (4). Behind it looms the forest. (The very greenness of Green Gables associates it with the wilderness.) While Green Gables itself is rigidly ordered, without even "a stray stone [or] stick" to be seen in the yard (4), the novel makes it clear that the farm is too close to the edge for safety. If Marilla won’t allow a stray stick or stone into her yard, she does allow a stray girl into her house and heart. The results are seen near the end of the novel when Marilla breaks down "in a passion of sobs" at the thought of Anne going away (294).
Mrs. Lynde, guardian of communtity norms, notes the uneasy proximity of Green Gables to the woods: "It’s no wonder Matthew and Marilla are both a little odd, living away back here by themselves. Trees aren’t much company, though dear knows if they were there’d be enough of them" (4). For Anne, the "wild child", however, trees are company. She talks to trees, and hears them talking to her: "they’re always rustling and whispering to you" (112).
As a wild child, it is to be expected that Anne will find herself at odds with those two great instruments of civilization: school and church. Thus one school recess sees Anne
wandering happily in the far end of the grove [outside the school], waist deep among the bracken, singing softly to herself, with a wreath of rice lilies on her hair as if she were some wild divinity of the shadowy places (121).
Similarly, for her first visit to the local church, Anne decides to decorate her hat with "a golden frenzy of wind-stirred buttercups and a glory of wild roses" (84). For both of these transgressions of propriety Anne ends up being severely scolded: no wilderness divinities are to be allowed in civilization.
Anne is eccentric not only because she talks to trees, but because she talks to herself. She tells Marilla that when she was younger she used to pretend her reflection in a bookcase was a little girl called Katie and that her echo in the valley was another little girl called Violetta (63). Anne is continually creating other identities for herself. When Marilla asks her what she knows about herself, Anne responds that she’d rather tell her what she imagines about herself (41). Anne, indeed, has a split personality. This is partly due to her status as an orphan who has two sets of parents (birth parents and foster parents) and two lives (pre- and post- Gables), but it is mostly due to her inner division between factual and fictional selves. On arriving at Green Gables Anne asks Marilla to call her Cordelia, because "it’s such a perfectly elegant name" (26). Marilla refuses, but later on we see Anne signing herself in a letter to a friend: "Anne or Cordelia Shirley".
Anne’s double-mindedness is regarded with suspicion in narrow-minded Avonlea. The "hired boy" at Green Gables reports that "she talk[s] all the time to herself or to the trees and flowers like a crazy girl" (85). Anne’s craziness ends up being catching, however. She starts a story-writing club among the girls of Avonlea in which everyone writes under a nom-de-plume, and she convinces her companions to dramatize Tennyson’s "Lancelot and Elaine", with each girl taking a different part. "`Well, I’ll be Elaine,’ said Anne, yielding reluctantly" (236).
Given her negotiations between different identities and different domains (i.e. wilderness and civilization), bridges are very important to Anne. Green Gables is reached by crossing a bridge over a pond, and as Anne travels over it for the first time she remarks: "I’m always afraid going over bridges. I can’t help imagining that perhaps, just as we get to the middle, the’ll crumple up like a jack-knife and nip us" (22). The frightening element in negotiating different terrains is that one’s bridge between them might fail and one might not be able to return. When Anne is playing the dead Elaine and floating down the stream alone in her "funerary" boat, she finds herself in danger of drowning when the boat springs a leak. She is only able to save herself from literally emulating Elaine and dying by clinging onto a bridge pile as the boat passes under the bridge (238). Another incident of potential absorption into the "other" occurs when Anne has to cross the bridge which leads into the "Haunted Wood" after dusk. In the dark hours of the evening the "wilderness" becomes too powerful for Anne, she feels it about to possess her as it "reaches out [its] cold, fleshless hands to grasp the terrified small girl" (176), and she "stumbles" back across the bridge to Green Gables.
"Well, so nothing caught you?" said Marilla unsympathetically.
"Oh, Mar-Marilla," chattered Anne. "I’ll b-b-be con-t-tented with c-c-commonplace places after this" (176).
As the above quotation suggests, Anne of Green Gables is not just about how Anne brings the wilderness into Avonlea, it is also about how Avonlea "civilizes" Anne. One sign of this occurs when Anne tries to assume one of her other identities by dying her hair black, and finds that instead it has turned green (again the association with the wilderness). As a result Anne has to have her hair cut off, an act which symbolizes the loss of freedom. She punishes herself for her misdeed by forcing herself to look in the mirror at her "real" self every time she comes into her room (229-232). Another sign that Anne is learning not to publickly manifest her other selves occurs when she announces that the story-writing club is finished. Her teacher, she says, "sometimes has us write a story for training in composition, but she won’t let us write anything but what might happen in Avonlea in our own lives" (271). The new, reformed Anne notes that "it’s nicer to think dear, pretty thoughts and keep them in one’s heart" than to display one’s eccentricities to the world (271). As Mrs. Lynde predicted of Anne near the start of the book: "She has a queer way of expressing herself… but she’ll likely get over that now that she’s come to live among civilized folks" (79).
As the reader will have noted from the above discussion, Anne manifests a number of traits characteristic of the Canadian imaginary. These include her identification with and fear of the wilderness, her preoccupation with crossing borders, and her double-mindedness (indeed, to say that a Canadian is "single-minded" seems like a contradiction in terms), which expresses itself through the creation of alter egos. When Anne looks in a mirror it is not so much to see how she looks, as to ascertain who is there. In his study of the Canadian imagination Northrop Frye states that "Canada developped with the bewilderment of a neglected child, preoccupied with trying to define its own identity" and haunted by "adolescent dreams of glory" (Frye 1971: 221). This could also be an apt description of Anne, the orphan who tries on different identities and dreams of a glorious destiny; the orphan who, like Canada, has a "queer way of expressing of herself", but who tries to overcome her difference by patterning herself after more "civilized folks".
It is true that the American Rebecca shares some of Anne’s character traits and history. Like Anne, Rebecca is presented as an "ignorant, fantastic child" who brings fresh life into her dour new home but who needs to be civilized (Wiggin 1917: 196). Unlike Anne, however, Rebecca has no fears (or secret hopes) of being absorbed by the "other" while skipping through the woods and no concerns that a bridge might collapse under her when she pauses in the middle to admire the scenery (Wiggin 1917: 121). Rebecca, in fact, has a considerably more unified and confident personality than her Canadian cousin. While she enjoys play acting and making up stories, she is not preoccupied with assuming other identities. This makes Rebecca a much more straightforward book than Anne with its complex interrelations between the various "Annes" and the roles they act out.
It is important to note that Anne not only has a number of alternate identities herself, she is also an alter ego for her creator, L.M. Montgomery. Like Anne, Montgomery had a neglected childhood and like Anne she created other identities for herself and made friends out of mirror images. As Gabriella Ahmansson points out in her biography of Montgomery, A Life and its Mirors, the author of Anne was, in fact, a federation of selves – her literary selves, her public self, her family self, and her private self – all of which reflected different aspects of her life. When her children read Montgomery’s diaries after her death they were taken aback by the dark unknown side of their mother revealed therein (Rubio and Waterston 1995: 118).
Like Anne, Montgomery also experienced a strong inner tension between "wilderness" and "civilization", and like Anne, she felt herself circumscribed by the latter. Montgomery, for example, would write of her marriage to a prosaic Presbyterian minister: "Something in me – something wild and free and untamed… rose up in one frantic protest against the fetters which bound me" (cited by Rubio and Waterston 1995: 54). This statement by Montgomery indicates an association between the forces of civilization and the forces of patriarchy.
Anne, in fact, can be read as portraying the domestication of the female mind, as well as the colonization of the Canadian imaginary. Due to contemporary interest in the former subject, feminist interpretations of Anne are much more plentiful than Canadian interpretations of Anne (see, for example Ahmansson 1991; Drain 1992; Doody 1997). Scholars of children’s literature have not shown an interest in exploring possible Canadian motifs within Anne, while scholars of Canadian literature have tended to exclude Anne on the grounds that it is not "serious" literature (i.e. Atwood 1972). At the time of its appearance, however, Canadian reviewers hailed Anne as a milestone in Canadian literature and "thoroughly Canadian" in its setting (Barry, Doody and Doody Jones 1997: 484, 488).
Anne of Green Gables opens with a description of a stream which has "dark secrets of pool and cascade" when in the woods, but which turns into "a quiet, well-conducted little stream" when it enters Avonlea (1). This stream stands for Anne herself, who undergoes a similar transformation when she comes to live in Avonlea. When she is first introduced Anne too has her "dark secrets of pool and cascade" and her wild meanderings. In the last paragraph of the book Anne comes to the, not unhappy, realization that "the path set before her feet [is] to be narrow" (329). This new "well-conducted" Anne, who keeps "dear, pretty thoughts" to herself, would seem to be suffering from that "frostbite at the roots of the Canadian imagination" which Northrop Frye attributes to the colonial position of Canada (Frye 1971: 134), but which also results from the pioneer drive to maintain control within an apparently wild world.
If Anne had not become domesticated by the end of the novel, if she had continued to struggle against her bonds, the story could not have had its happy ending. (Rebecca, by contrast, has a much rosier ending: where Anne finds her future closing down, Rebecca finds hers opening up.) Yet Montgomery makes it clear that Anne – and perhaps, by extension, her community and country – still has a few vital sparks within her: "Nothing could rob her of her birthright of fancy or her ideal world of dreams" (329). As Anne tells Marilla when the latter wonders at the disappearance of her foster child’s queer ways: "I’m only just pruned down" but "the real me [is] back here", in the backwoods of the imagination.