Saturday 19 October 2019

'Anne of Green Gables': feminist icon for our times

A new Netflix show about the adventures of a red-headed orphan reveals an unlikely role model for our daughters

Back on our screens: Irish actress Amybeth McNulty is the new incarnation of Anne - the feminist icon and patron saint of female outsiders
Back on our screens: Irish actress Amybeth McNulty is the new incarnation of Anne - the feminist icon and patron saint of female outsiders
Megan Follows as Anne with Jonathan Crombie as Gilbert in the 1985 TV adaptation
Fiona Ness

Fiona Ness

'Which would you rather be if you had the choice: divinely beautiful or dazzlingly clever or angelically good?"

My sister and I devoted a disproportionate amount of our childhood to debating this philosophical question, posed by orphan Anne Shirley in LM Montgomery's 1908 novel, Anne of Green Gables.

In my eight-year-old heart I wanted more than anything to be divinely beautiful. The rest, I figured, I could work on myself. In fact, I intended to achieve lots through hard work and against the odds - while getting into scrapes and developing my love of poetry along the way. Anne Shirley - "Anne with an E" - helped me formulate that plan too.

The book begins with Anne having been plucked from an orphanage by an aging farmer and his sister, who believed they were getting a boy to help on the farm. The farmer, Matthew, is so taken with Anne's chatter, he wants to keep her. His sister Marilla - who wears the trousers - says she must go back.

By starting her story with this mistake, Montgomery opens a space in which a conversation about gender - the mistaken assumptions we make about boys and girls - can take place.

Marilla finally capitulates and the beguiling story begins. We follow Anne through a series of mishaps (including a drastic change of image), adventures (a poetic near-drowning), triumphs over adversities and adversaries (mean girls and boys) and the first buds of love (with her intellectual equal, Gilbert Blythe) that bring Anne from childhood through to young adulthood. Anne shows girls that you can have both daring ambition, and a desire for puffed sleeves.

This week, as Netflix launches its new TV series based on the book, titled Anne with an E, I'll be in the metaphorical front row of viewers, to introduce my young daughters to the 'Anne' effect.

The series, starring Irish-Canadian actress Amybeth McNulty, comes from writer-producer Moira Walley-Beckett of AMC's Breaking Bad. It promises to be a "darker shade of Green" than previous incarnations of Anne on film.

In Canada, where the series has already aired, reviewers say Walley-Beckett has taken the themes of the novel - such as identity, feminism, bullying, individuality and prejudice - and enhanced them for 21st-century viewers.

Still, my daughter isn't sure about Anne. She is reading the Harry Potter series. It is immensely thrilling, and she's not sure she wants to devote any of her eight-year-old downtime to an old-fashioned girl like Anne. But she does have a question about Harry Potter: is the author a man or a woman? And why, if she's a woman, did she make the hero a boy? Actually, why is the hero always a boy?

This is why, as a parent, the idea of Anne is so appealing. At the turn of the last century, when Lucy Maude was writing her series of Anne books in the small Canadian outpost of Prince Edward's Island, few fictional females were heroes, but Anne was on the cusp of change.

According to Dr Jane Suzanne Carroll, assistant professor in Children's Literature at Trinity College Dublin, Anne of Green Gables was written at a time when traditional gender roles for women were changing.

"Periodicals like The Girl's Own Paper offered advice on careers and tips on ways for young career women to manage their own budgets. Along with this increasing independence and confidence, there was increasing appetite for stories that reflected these new models of girlhood - and womanhood - for young readers."

Carroll says that Anne Shirley is a perfect example of this "new woman".

"She is assertive, intelligent and ambitious. Although she works hard to prove herself, she also has a lot of fun. She shows us that nice tea and puff sleeves aren't incompatible with being clever or having a career. I think that's an important lesson for young readers, particularly young girls."

In the fictional town of Avonlea, where the Anne books are set, women are the key players - the farm managers, matriarchs and architects of a cohesive society.

Today, girls have a plethora of fictional role models from which to choose, from Ada Twist, Scientist to The Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen. Next to them, Anne of Green Gables is not such an obvious feminist trope.

Yes, she has a successful career, but within a typically 'female' profession. And as the series progresses, Anne gives up her career and becomes a devoted wife and mother.

Importantly, Carroll says, this is presented as a choice.

"Anne offers young readers a model of the independent young woman with the determination and drive to become a successful career-woman.

"Though Anne makes choices, and ultimately sacrifices, to support her family, Montgomery allows us to see that it is an empowered choice."

Anne is proof, too, that you don't need to be popular, cool or edgy to be awesome. So we'll give Anne with an E a whirl. I hope my girls adopt her as their very own "bosom buddy". And in the words of Anne, "It's been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things, if you make up your mind firmly that you will."


* Helen Graham, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne Bronte, 1848)

Lesson: you don't have to stay suffering in an abusive relationship.

* Jo March, Little Women (Louisa May Alcott, 1868)

Lesson: equality is the ideal of womanhood.

* Mary Lennox, The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1911)

Lesson: you don't need anyone to look after you, and you can project manage at the same time.

* Lucy Pevensie, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (CS Lewis, 1950)

Lesson: girls can save the world (with the help of a lion).

* Margaret Simon, Are You There God It's Me, Margaret (Judy Blume, 1970)

Lesson: women can be upfront about sexuality.

* Sophie Hatter, Howl's Moving Castle (Diana Wynne Jones, 1986)

Lesson: always be yourself, even if you've been turned into an ancient hag by a jealous witch.

Irish Independent

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