I hadn’t seen my uncle in 7 years. He lived in New Jersey and we lived in the UK. The family reunion was both joyous and strained as most as are, but the trip was a success in my mind. Because I found and bought the last two books in the Anne of The Green Gables canon, ‘Rainbow Valley’ & ‘Rilla of Ingleside’. Puffin had only ever published the first 6 out of the 8 in the UK and Amazon wasn’t yet a twinkle in Jeff Bezos’ eye.
Anne Shirley is an orphan who grows up on Prince Edward Island, moves away and experiences the joys and troubles of family. She endures the tragedy of losing a child and the inevitable ups and downs of marriage. She fears failure and suffers despair but through it all sustains the sparkle of life.
Lucy Maud Montgomery created Anne as an outlet for her own painful experiences and successfully moved millions through the power of her writing. But Anne is enduringly popular not only because these books recount the beautifully scripted highs and lows of a life well lived, they also present a definitive guide to life with lessons as true now as they were when the books came out in the early 20th century.
1. The Power of Positive Thinking
I was a Josie Pye in my childhood. Unhappy and resentful. I found Anne and her constant positivity annoying and patronizing.“It’s been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will.” says Anne on her way to being returned to the asylum.
Nevertheless I enjoyed Anne because I identified with her struggle of not knowing her place in the world and her sadness at the loss of her parents. Soon after I realised that Anne had adopted the most successful strategy of coping with her abusive childhood. She had somehow avoided the trap into which I had fallen – that of victimhood. She was joyful, not in spite of it, but because she made herself the optimistic heroine of her own narrative.
Luckily, Anne like a true friend, persisted in staying with me over the years until my own emotional maturity was able to realise the truth and value of her words. And in my own battles I also now know that sorrows ‘won’t get the better of you if you face them together with love and trust.’
2. The Ability to Enjoy Life without Money
Likewise Anne has always been rich in the things that matter. Her best friend has a rich aunt, another marries a millionaire. But she’s not immune to the comfort that money brings (can we ever forget her all encompassing desire for a dress with puffed sleeves?). And yet she also knows its place.
“Look at that sea, girls–all silver and shadow and vision of things not seen. We couldn’t enjoy its loveliness any more if we had millions of dollars and ropes of diamonds.”
How often do we stop to appreciate the ‘vision of things not seen’? How often do we look in wonder with our heart and allow it to enhance what our eyes only perceive? Anne’s ability to marvel at the things the rest of us only glance at, is what allows her to enjoy life beyond the pleasures that money brings. She knows that ‘sunbursts and marble halls may be all very well, but there is more ‘scope for imagination’ without them.’
3. The Importance of a Purpose in Life
As a child Anne lives in the now, enjoying in every moment she can (and letting her anger rip when anyone criticises her hair). But as she grows up, she realises that whilst appreciating the little things in life brings great happiness, there is a deeper purpose to life. One which makes life worth living. The death of her one of her friends barely out of teenhood, is one of the most profound chapters of her own personal book of revelations. Her friend Ruby fears death because she has not lived anything but a superficial life. And it’s too late to change it. When you come to the ‘end of one life it must not be to face the next with the shrinking terror of something wholly different […] The little things of life, sweet and excellent in their place, must not be the things lived for; the highest must be sought and followed; the life of heaven must begin here on earth.’
The life of heaven is not clouds and angels. The life of heaven is the realisation of our part in a greater, a much greater whole. It’s the ‘interconnectedness of all things’, the greater vision and how your actions have far reaching effects. It’s not living for the next car, the next promotion or the next smart phone (even if I am too excited about iPhone 6 in September). Because at the base of every human life is the fundamental desire to make a difference. To create meaning. And to be guided by a purpose that we ourselves forge.
4. The Value and Nature of Friendship
I’ve heard the phrase ‘just friends’ more than I want to. Thankfully in an open relationship like mine, I recognise the validity of love in all its forms. I recognise its pure abundance; love is as Anne knows, everywhere and there are many ‘kindred spirits’ in the world.
It’s early on that her mentor Mrs. Allen teaches her that the foundation of true friendship is truth and sincerity. Through 8 books, Anne finds love and friendship in many and they all have a different flavour. No friendship is created equal. From Diana, her first kindred spirit, to Phil her crony during university whose intellect and passion for life matches her own. Then as a new mother Anne makes a friendship which changes her life; in her friendship with Leslie she finds something that she has ‘never found in anyone else.’ She says of Leslie ‘You have more to offer me in that rich nature of yours and I more to give you than I had in my careless girlhood.’ It is friendship with passion.
And yet, as with many of her friends, this friend isn’t heard of much more throughout the series. Anne also knows that friendship means the freedom for others to live and evolve in their own journeys, even if those journeys mean a physical, emotional and geographic separation.
We’ve had a beautiful friendship, Diana. We’ve never marred it by one quarrel or coolness or unkind word; and I hope it will always be so. But things can’t be quite the same after this. You’ll have other interests. I’ll just be on the outside.’
It’s a sincere and sad acknowledgement of the end of an era. Not the end of the friendship, but the transformation of their relationship and an ending of that period of their lives. And with the acceptance of this, they both move forward towards the next ‘bend in the road’.
5. The Joy in Recognising Every Day Miracles
“It always amazes me to look at the little, wrinkled brown seeds and think of the rainbows in ’em,” said Captain Jim. “When I ponder on them seeds I don’t find it nowise hard to believe that we’ve got souls that’ll live in other worlds. You couldn’t hardly believe there was life in them tiny things, some no bigger than grains of dust, let alone colour and scent, if you hadn’t seen the miracle, could you?”
Miracles are all around us. And in later books in the series Lucy Montgomery’s wisdom is sometimes spoken by other characters in dialogues with Anne. The miracles of every day life and nature described by Anne and her friends have made Prince Edward Island a primary tourist destination for many (Anne is indeed, big in Japan). But as much as it might be enjoyable to visit the spots we’ve read about during childhood, the lesson is deeper. Because Anne teaches us that miracles are to be found on our doorstep.
In wondrous allegory, the Anne books are themselves are a very ordinary kind of miracle. There is no magical land inside a wardrobe, nor an evil and powerful wizard to thwart. The miracle of Anne is that she herself is ordinary, but she still manages to awaken a very extraordinary wonder. In the first 6 books she grows up, gets married and has children. Hardly a plot driven John Grisham but ultimately far more powerful.
6. The Transformative Power of Love
In Anne’s world even flowers have names. Much to Marilla’s chagrin she names the geranium on the windowsill ‘Bonny’ because she finds even at the age of ‘about’ 11, that it is much easier to love something when you don’t objectify it. Her fanciful use of language therefore serves a deeper purpose. It enables her to love more. Because love transforms.
Anne’s adventures with a variety of people have one common thread. Despite their many misgivings, everyone who meets Anne is transformed by their interaction with her. People who are starved of love and long for connection are brought into a world full of joy and laughter. She enables relationships, eradicates bitterness and brightens the lives of anyone and everyone in her world. There is little action unless the action is the transformation of the countless lives she touches as a character in the books and as a symbol of hope for her readers.
“Oh, but I’ve left out the transforming thing,” said Anne softly. “There’ll be love there, Phil—faithful, tender love, such as I’ll never find anywhere else in the world—love that’s waiting for me. That makes my picture a masterpiece, doesn’t it, even if the colors are not very brilliant?”
7. The Slavery of Living in Fear
Are you afraid of the future? Would you be if you knew what trouble was ahead? It’s one of our best and most trusted psychological reactions. It enables fight and flight. But so many of us live in it as opposed to keeping it as a tool in our belts. Anne’s life has joy and sorrow in abundance. Life is like that. But she ‘dances to meet life and all it can bring [her]’. Because ‘being frightened of things is worse than the things themselves.’
Gilbert darling, don’t let’s ever be afraid of things. It’s such dreadful slavery. Let’s be daring and adventurous and expectant.
Anne wouldn’t have such a revered place on my bookshelf if her attitude to life was one of fear. It is because she has found freedom from fear even in her darkest moments that I have looked to it time again for its hope, courage and joy. The Anne books were an escape for my troubled childhood and now as my soul seeks to heal and rewrite my own stories, I am still reading them. Anne adored stories. She wrote like her creator, as an outlet for her curiosity and pain. She’s a gift who continues to inspire me with her wisdom, and will remain in my heart as the very best example of the power of creative self-expression.
“I’d like to add some beauty to life,” said Anne dreamily. “I don’t exactly want to make people KNOW more… though I know that IS the noblest ambition… but I’d love to make them have a pleasanter time because of me… to have some little joy or happy thought that would never have existed if I hadn’t been born.”
As my own mother read it to me in her lap, so I hope to take my copies with their bent spines and their dog-earred pages to read to my children. To pass on the lessons that Anne has taught me and to millions around the world. Anne’s presence in my life has left it more beautiful and me more fearless. She has taught me to see the world differently and I hope she will do the same for them.