I liked this book, though this review will get way, way more into it than it would had I read it when I was in its target demographic. If I had read it as a young girl, I would have longed to live on a quaint Canadian island in the early 20th century. Anne is the kind of girl who lives her life to the fullest, a near caricature of someone who is grateful for every breath, the kind of girl who’s biggest problem in life is that she’s too thin and she has naturally red hair. It’s pure, escapist fantasy. Can you imagine thinking that being too thin and having naturally red hair is actually a problem?
It’s also great escapist fantasy in that Montgomery describes the countryside with the eye of a lover. Everything is beautiful beyond measure, which her protagonist fixes on. There’s always some new blessing of the changing seasons, some glorious flower or atmospheric wonder to behold. Anne is enrapt with poetry, and so pleased by the most banal of delights–such as having a dress with puffed sleeves. She’s also very “feminine” by which Montgomery means “vain.”
The best thing about this book is Anne’s delight in everything. I can’t imagine a life in which fantasizing about a Sunday School picnic would put a smile on my face for weeks, or where going to a recitation and choir concert at a hotel would make me feel as though my life had surpassed all capacity for joy. That sounds like a very dull life, if such things counted as blissful entertainment.
Which brings me to the worst thing about this book: as I am a literalist with an active imagination, I couldn’t help but imagine what life would be like living in that time and place, and it sounds quite dreadful. These are people who refuse to tell loved ones that they love them because of some backwards Calvinist delight in eschewing any kind of pleasure. Anything which marks you as different from anyone else is “wicked.” Dyeing your hair? Wicked. Thinking the minister is boring? Wicked. Brewing red currant wine for medicinal purposes? Wicked. Gossiping or reading exciting novels or writing stories or doing anything else even remotely entertaining? Wicked. They are also very, very keen on preserving ones rigid place within the highly stratified hierarchy. If you are very “good” you might become a minister’s wife and serve as an example to other women on the virtue of being predictable and conventional. Education is wasted on women, Mrs. Lind says, because it makes them unfit to serve in their roles. Anything that makes people seek for more than the small place allotted them is wicked and disruptive. When Anne is trying to be “good” what she is really doing is trying to shove herself into a small box to please those with more power than her, such as Marcella and Mrs. Lind. When Mrs. Lind is rude to Anne and Anne says sharp things in return, it’s Anne who has to apologize, not Mrs. Lind. When Anne stops making up stories and daydreaming she writes it off as growing up, instead of excising the parts of her that make her most interesting in order that she might fit better within the rigid and stratified conservative life on the island.
So, it’s a sweet and charming book, as long as you don’t put yourself into it too deeply. It’s probably a great book for the children of your most conservative friends, to espouse on the virtue of making yourself small and dull so that you can fit in with simple people who have small lives. It’s a love letter to homogeneous societies, wrapped in romanticism.