Review by Alix MacLean
I didn’t know until I read Lucy Maud Montgomery’s biography last year that Anne of Green Gables was her first published book. I also didn’t know that she was 33 when it was published. Although I’m not sure why, I had assumed she was some sort of wunderkind and published it some time in her early 20s. It feels like a younger woman’s story, which is a testament to her wonderful imagination. (As a fellow 33 year old with an almost-finished novel languishing on a hard-drive, it certainly put a little spring in my step).
Anne of Green Gables is an extraordinary debut novel. I can see why it’s so widely beloved all over the world. Reading it, you desperately want Anne to stay at Green Gables, to succeed, to win everyone over.
I read it with the musical in the back of my mind, and I was interested to see where the book diverged from the show, and what I had been missing all these years. Indeed, the differences between the musical and the book were some of the most interesting parts for me.
For one, much to my surprise, Matthew is somewhat underwritten in the book. Anne the musical has beautiful addressed the character; where he really doesn’t say much in the novel, he gets two whole songs about how he doesn’t (and can’t) say much in the musical. I guess I expected more of his inner thoughts throughout the book. His death is a bit sad in the novel, but nothing like the gut punch it is on stage.
Secondly, the character of Josie Pye is not featured in the book much. The use of Josie in the musical as Anne’s main foil and major villain of Avonlea shows that the writers of the musical had great instincts for adapting the source material.
But where the book really shines in a way the musical can’t quite capture is in the character of Marilla. So much of the book’s beauty lies in Marilla’s thawing heart. It may be because I’m a mother now, but I found Marilla’s inner thoughts, worries, and love for Anne to be the most moving part of the book. Montgomery is at her best while creating characters (although she’s also an expert at describing nature, which to be honest isn’t so much my thing). When she introduces Marilla, she says so much about her character in one delightful sentence: “Here sat Marilla Cuthbert, when she sat at all, slightly distrustful of sunshine, which seemed to her too dancing and irresponsible a thing for a world that was meant to be taken seriously.”
Mrs. Lynde is an incredible creation as well, and Montgomery makes a clever choice to open the book with Mrs. Lynde’s all-seeing eyes watching over Avonlea and noticing that something is amiss with the Cuthberts. Montgomery peoples Avonlea with lots of lively characters (and some very bland ones—the musical’s creators made a great call leaving that boring Mrs. Allan, the minister’s wife, out of the musical).
Reading Anne after reading Montgomery’s biography has been an illuminating (and somewhat sad) experience: Anne gets to win over the Cuthberts, one shy and one stern, both reticent. Montgomery was raised by her grandparents, and according to her biography, not very happily. Anne’s happy life in Green Gables is likely so vivid and heart warming because its author spent a great deal of time wishing for a life just like it.