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October 20, 2018

Encountering the Canadian Island of Anne Shirley

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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"You don't want me!" cried the child, dropping her worn-out suitcase. "You don't want me because I'm not a boy! I might have expected it! Nobody ever did want me. Oh, what shall I do? This is the most tragical thing that ever happened to me! I'm going to burst into tears."

These are the words of Anne Shirley, one of the world’s best-loved literary characters, created by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1942) in her classic novel Anne of Green Gables.

That novel made Montgomery one of Canada's best-known authors and her birthplace, Prince Edward Island, a top Canadian tourist destination for people from as far away as Japan and, in my case, Waterloo, Ontario.

PEI has a charm all its own and the fictitious but realistic Anne Shirley could only add to it, which she has done in abundance.

Charlottetown, the island province’s capital and birthplace of Canadian confederation, could probably even get away with changing its name to something like Anneshirleytown.

While Canadian and international fans have come to know and love the precocious, endearing Anne Shirley as if she were family, do they know or even care who the “Charlotte” in Charlottetown was? (She was a real person in history, the German-born Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Queen Consort to King George III.)

Before my first-ever visit to PEI a week ago, I decided to become better acquainted with the classic 1908 novel and its author.

Not surprisingly, Anne of Green Gables is “among the world’s best-known and most enduringly popular novels in English,” writes Dr. Cecily Devereux, English professor at the University of Alberta and editor of the novel’s 2004 edition. Dr. Devereux has also researched and written about Montgomery’s The Way to Make a Book in which she expresses views on topics such as writing technique and gender issues.

Since its first publication, Anne of Green Gables has sold more than 50 million copies and been translated into at least 36 languages.

It is especially popular in Japan, where it is known as Red-Haired Anne and been part of the national school curriculum since 1952.

On July 18, 1908, The New York Times Saturday Review of Books wrote: “[It] is no exaggeration to say that she is one of the most extraordinary girls that ever came out of an ink pot. “Despite the fact that she had almost no schooling she talked to the farmer and his wife as though she had borrowed Bernard Shaw’s vocabulary, Alfred Austin’s sentimentality and the reasoning powers of a Justice of the Supreme Court.”

Several days later, the July 21, 1908 Montreal Daily Herald described Anne of Green Gables as “a charmingly-told story of life on the north shore of PEI, but the local coloring is most delicately placed on the canvas and in no respect weakens the impression created by the central figure, Anne. The book is an ideal volume for growing girls, being as pure and sweet as the wild flowers of the Island which Miss Montgomery describes so lovingly. In fact, one of the great attractions of the story is the author’s love of nature which finds expression everywhere, without once appearing exaggerated or forced. The story is one which will give profit and pleasure to all its readers.”

Lucy Maud Montgomery was born and raised on PEI and deeply loved Canada’s smallest province, which she described as being “very near to a kingdom of ideal beauty. Between it and me hung only a very thin veil.” It was only natural that she would set Anne in the same nurturing pastoral environment.

After touring the PEI island myself, I can see why she told of writing her novel at twilight, sitting at a window that overlooked the fields of Cavendish. A deeply spiritual woman, Montgomery found those moments when she experienced “the flash” of creative inspiration some of the most beautiful, moving and intense of her life.

In 1895 at the age of 21 she left her beloved island home to study literature at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The iconic novel she created just over a decade later recounts the adventures of Anne Shirley, an imaginative, talkative red-headed orphan, who at age 11 is mistakenly sent to brother and sister Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert.

The middle-aged siblings were expecting to adopt a boy to help them run their farm near the fictional PEI town of Avonlea. But Anne gradually wins them over and the reader follows her life with the Cuthbert’s, her experiences and friendships in the local country school, and her adventures as she grows up from inquisitive child to strong-willed young woman.

As readers and fans know only too well, Anne Shirley’s life is not all idyllic and carefree.

She faces tragedy when Matthew dies of a heart attack after learning that all of his and Marilla's money is lost in a bank failure.

And at the age when many young women leave home to start their own lives, she puts her dreams on hold to remain at Green Gables and help Marilla, whose eyesight is failing.

At the end, however, Anne Shirley’s life takes on a new dimension when she reconnects with former classroom tease Gilbert Blythe.

In some ways Montgomery’s own girlhood mirrored that of her most famous character.

Like Anne Shirley, she described herself as having “early dreams of future fame” and becoming “a little local celebrity.”

At age 13 submitted a poem for publication. It was rejected and Montgomery wrote in her diary; “Tears of disappointment would come in spite of myself, as I crept away to hide the poor crumpled manuscript in the depths of my trunk.”

Later she recalled that “down, deep down, under all the discouragement and rebuff, I knew I would ‘arrive’ someday.” And of course, she did.

Anne of Green Gables has been adapted for films and made-for-television movies, as well as animated and live-action series.

Stage musical versions have also been produced annually since 1964 and the first of these toured Canada, the United States, Europe and Japan.

Montgomery followed her first novel with a series of sequels featuring Anne as the central character.

She went on to publish 20 other novels, as well as 530 short stories, 500 poems and 30 essays. Most of her novels were set in PEI. Green Gables Farm eventually became PEI National Park, a literary landmark and popular tourist site.

In her 1917 autobiographical work, The Way to Make a Book, Montgomery advises would-be writers:

“My own experience is that books – real ‘live’ books – are not written … they ‘grow’. The function of the author is simply to follow the growth and record it! Perhaps it may turn out a song. Perhaps turn out a sermon. Never mind what it turns out. As long as it grows out of your life it will have life in it, and the great pulse of humanity everywhere will thrill and throb to that life … Before attempting to write a book, be sure you have something to say – something that demands to be said. It need not to be a very great or lofty or profound.”

Today, souvenir shops throughout Prince Edward Island offer numerous products based on the Anne Shirley novels. Straw hats for girls with sewn-in red braids are common, as are bottles of raspberry cordial. In the first book, Montgomery established the cordial as Anne’s favorite soda beverage when she declares, “I just love bright red drinks!”

On April 29, 1896 Montgomery’s article “The Thirty Sweet Girl Graduates of Dalhousie University” was published in the Halifax Herald. She was 22 at the time and attending Halifax Ladies’ College at Dalhousie.

Montgomery specialist Cecily Devereux notes; “The article presents the full ambivalence of Montgomery’s feminism, conveying her sense of the importance of advancement for exceptional women, and of the maintenance of the status quo for everyone else.”

Now that I have truly “met” Anne Shirley in her own world, I hope that my first visit to PEI will not be the last.

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