When Lucy Maud Montgomery created Anne Shirley, she contributed a memorable character to the rich literature of orphans: Jane Eyre, Tom Sawyer, and Huck Finn, along with Dickens’s Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Pip of Great Expectations. Each of these children is tested again and again by cruel adults and brutal circumstances, yet each manages to triumph over adversity, and see and shape a kinder world along the way.
Anne Shirley’s situation follows a similar storyline—a young girl without family or friends, bounced from one bad situation to another, and then sent, unwanted, to a grim and crowded orphanage. By an odd stroke of luck, she finds herself en route to Avonlea, on Prince Edward Island, in response to Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert’s request for a child to help with the work of their farm. Though not the boy the brother and sister had expected, once there, Anne proves wildly successful at winning over her detractors and does so in a way that sets her apart from the other literary orphans. While the English moors, the Mississippi River, and the London underbelly are integral to their respective novels, Anne’s relationship with the land of Prince Edward Island soon proves to be a critical source of inner strength.
As in the novels that preceded it, the strong draw of Anne’s story is due as much to the orphan’s charisma as to the setting where it takes place—in her case, the wooded paths, the orchards in bloom, the fields stretching out toward the sea. But the lasting gift of Anne of Green Gables is how the landscape also fuels Anne’s prodigious imagination; it’s where she goes when she needs sustenance; it’s the example she’ll hold onto for what is beautiful, what is possible. Anne’s creator, Maud Montgomery, makes this abundantly clear in the ways she writes about the natural world. In such passages, her writing soars, every sentence imbued with the kind of sensory detail that could only be rendered by someone who knew the scenes intimately and loved all she found there. In giving Anne such a connection to Avonlea, Montgomery reveals the way place can fire the imagination, and imagination, in turn, is what enables a skinny red-haired girl not only to survive but to thrive. It’s no wonder that so many people associate the landscape of Prince Edward Island with transformative, nurturing power.
In the journals she kept throughout her life, Maud Montgomery reveals so many similar experiences to those of Anne Shirley that much of the novel appears to be autobiographical. Even so, she insists that Anne was not based on anyone she knew. “I have never drawn any of the characters in my books ‘from life,’” she writes, “although I may have taken a quality here and an incident there. I have used real places and speeches freely but I have never put any person I knew into my books.” Yet her journals suggest that she is overlooking the most significant influence, for it’s clear that the life that most shaped the beloved Anne is the author’s own; she herself was the inspiration for the spirited girl whom readers came to love.
Montgomery may have believed that Anne’s characteristics were different enough from her own to deflect a sense of personal story—Anne’s particularly awful childhood (the author was never in an orphanage), the curse of red hair (the author’s was brown), kindly elders to raise her (the author’s were not), and the letter “e” as part of her name (“I never liked Lucy as a name,” Montgomery writes in her journal. “I always liked Maud—spelled not ‘with an e’ if you please.”). And she may have believed that other, obvious similarities lacked significance—both had potted geraniums named “Bonny”; both had the same names for their favorite haunts (the Lake of Shining Waters, Lover’s Lane, the Haunted Wood, the Birch Path); both had the same imaginary friends reflected in clear glass—Katie Maurice, Violetta; and both lived with women who were known for their red currant wine.
Or perhaps Montgomery did see the common themes of their lives but chose never to admit that to anyone, including herself.When I am asked if Anne herself is a “real person” I always answer “no” with an odd reluctance and an uncomfortable feeling of not telling the truth. For she is and always has been, from the moment I first thought of her, so real to me that I feel I am doing violence to something when I deny her an existence anywhere save in Dreamland ... She is so real that, although I’ve never met her, I feel quite sure I shall do so some day—perhaps in a stroll through Lover’s Lane in the twilight—or in the moonlit Birch Path—I shall lift my eyes and find her, child or maiden, by my side. And I shall not be in the least surprised because I have always known she was somewhere.
In ways that matter most to readers of the novel, that “somewhere” resides solidly within the author’s very being. Like Anne Shirley, Maud Montgomery valued the imagination almost as much as life itself. Like Anne, she deliberately chose to emphasize beauty—desiring, always, both to see it and to make it. And perhaps most important, like Anne, she found solace and sustenance in the natural world. The love they express for Prince Edward Island—its farms and forests, its flowers and fields, its past and its people—has imprinted the region on the novel’s readers, allowing us to believe that, in a place of extraordinary beauty, we, too, can learn to access the best parts of ourselves.