Skip to main content

Growing up with Anne Shirley

Anne Shirley portrayed by various actresses over the years. (L-R) Mary Miles Minter in the silent comedy film Anne of Green Gables (1919). Image by Paramount Pictures via Wikimedia Commons ||  Megan Follows in the TV movie Anne of Green Gables (1985). Image from IMDb || Mandy Harmon in the YouTube modern adaptation Green Gables Fables (2014-2016). Image from their Facebook page. || Amybeth McNulty in the Netflix series Anne with an E (2017). Image from IMDb (c) Northwood Productions, Sophie Giraud, CBC.

In 2011, when I was packing for my move to London, I decided to put only one book that I had already read in my suitcase. I would be living in a different country and away from my family for the first time, and Anne of the Island, I thought, would be like a friend when I felt alone, especially for the first few days while I got used to my new life.

But this third installment of L.M. Montgomery's Anne series, by far my favourite, remained unopened on a shelf in my tiny but cosy new room for much longer than I'd anticipated. I gained friends within a few hours of landing, so that on my first night  much like Anne when she first arrives in Kingsport after calling Avonlea home for so long  I found that I was not miserable, and went "calmly and sensibly to bed and to sleep."

However, in many ways, Anne was a great comfort that year. It felt a bit like we were living parallel lives. Though I had recognised her as a kindred spirit since the day I picked up Anne of Green Gables at the age of 13, I had never quite felt that our lives were anything alike. This may sound rather obvious – she is an orphan, living on an island off Canada, and her story is set more than a century before I first picked up the book. I, meanwhile, have lived most of my rather sheltered life in the capital of India, where pristine beauty is hard to find.

L: Anne's room, Green Gables House, Cavendish, P.E.I. Photo by Natulive Canada [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons || R: My room, Paul Robeson House, London, June 2012.

That year in London, however, I could relate to Anne: she left a place she knew to study in a new one, finding a new world and circle, and growing through learning  not just in classes but through experience. This was an Anne who wasn't told what to do by an adult, she was one. She still had her daydreams and playfulness and fancies, but she also grew into responsibility, and learned that the imagination has its pitfalls, and that we have to make and fix our own mistakes if we get second chances. I turned to this book for its familiarity and advice, for answers (especially during flat hunting the next summer, Priscilla's words brought empathy: "houses, houses everywhere, and not one for us.") I remembered how much I loved walking and nature, and that there was nothing better than having a tree outside my window to greet me every time I entered my room. I named it, of course. I even had my own favourite graveyard nearby where I often went for a ramble.

This year, I decided to re-read the first three books in the series, and was reminded again how soothing they are to the soul. If I had to pick one word to describe the series, it would be "wholesome"  much like Anne's character once she grows into it, and a lot like her life. Not much like mine, but I hope I'll get there.

The cover (L) and first page (R) of Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, published 1908, with illustrations by M.A. and W.A.J. Claus. (Below) Two illustrations from the same book. Images via Wikimedia Commons.

Anne of Green Gables is my favourite coming-of-age book. Growing up, I could empathise with a girl who daydreamed and talked too much; who could "see poems" with "beauty-loving eyes"; who kept wishing away her red hair much like I wished to We both had a love for literature and fantasy, and imagined ourselves as characters in stories (movies in my case), and as writers one day. We both sometimes offended people with our big mouths and snippy sarcasm. We were both innately ambitious, and wanted to know what there is to know about things. Re-reading the books, I realised how much they have influenced my own writing and thinking, and I basked in those familiar turns of phrase that I've come to use so often over the years  kindred spirits, the bend in the road, an epoch in my life.


From these books, I learned to appreciate the little things, the everyday blessings, the detours and the anecdotes that life is made up of.

I believe the nicest and sweetest days are not those on which anything very splendid or wonderful or exciting happens, but just those that bring simple little pleasures, following one another softly, like pearls slipping off a string.

– Anne Shirley in Anne of Avonlea

They gave me some of the strongest, most unconventional female heroes I've come across in literature, and probably taught me about feminism before I knew what the word meant. It's not just that the women are more than supporting characters because the stories are told from a woman's point of view; it's because we are given many instances of how they and their success was viewed by the wider community. Financial independence and further education for women is an important theme Anne is the first woman from Avonlea to go to university, and Marilla tells her when she's still in high school that she believes "in a girl being fitted to earn her own living, whether she ever has to or not."

Female friendship takes centre stage for the first three books, superior to any romance (yes, even Gilbert "Dreamboat" Blythe). These women aren't passive and submissive. They support each other, whether it's the calm steadiness of Diana, or the matriarchal household managed by Marilla and Mrs. Lynde. There's the clan at Patty's Place: the wisdom of Priscilla and Stella, and the delightful defiance of Philippa. There are peers, but there are also mentors and enablers, from Marilla to Josephine Barry and Aunt Jimsie. Where would Anne be without them? Reading the books, I felt thankful to have inspiring women among my own friends, though we may not see each other often, and to have worked mostly with intelligent, motivated women since I started my career.

Anne of Green Gables 1919-scene2
A lobby card for the 1919 silent film Anne of Green Gables, adapted by Frances Marion and directed by William Desmond Taylor. Image by Realart Pictures via Wikimedia Commons.

(L-R) Priscilla (Marium Raja), Anne (Mandy Harmon), Stella (Vanessa Agnelli), and Philippa (Robyn Matuto) in the amazing YouTube series Green Gables Fables. It's a modern transmedia adaptation of the Anne books, so the characters also had real-time social media channels (the above picture is a screenshot from Gilbert Blythe's Instagram account.) Seriously, watch it. Video at the end of this post!

Then there's Anne herself, as good a role model as anyone could ask for, despite  or because of  all her rough edges. She is, as Josephine Barry says in the recent Netflix adaptation titled Anne with an E, "a person with many possible outcomes", or as Montgomery writes in Anne of Avonlea,

Those who knew Anne best, felt, without realising that they felt it, that her greatest attraction was the aura of possibility surrounding her [...] She seemed to walk in an atmosphere of things about to happen.

I confess that I think of her as someone to emulate: her warmth, her humour, her sense of righteousness and goodness. But I think what has always charmed me most about Anne is her grace, which is as much as part of her as her fire. She taught me softness, how silent sympathy helps in times of grief and loss, how to strip the superficial but still be occasionally silly. It's as though all the dreaming and looking into faraway stories have caused her to know something more than the rest of us.

But as I read the books this time, I found myself becoming envious; Anne may have come from struggle – and her life had its share of tribulations  but from the time we enter into her story, she finds and retains a feeling of belonging. All the titles bar one feature the word "of", reiterating this: Anne of  Green Gables, of Avonlea, of  the Island. The world she belongs to grows as she does, but each place is within, is part of, the larger, and she considers herself a part of them.

It's disconcerting to feel such a sense of unbelonging in my own life. I'm still in search of a place I want to call mine. Delhi has never been it; even before I had experienced other lands, I have a memory of watching the planes pass my window and wishing I was on them. It wasn't so much about wanderlust as it was about escape, an awkward disconnectedness that I haven't ever been able to overcome here. For a while I felt like I could belong in London – that hum of harmony that a place which inspires curiosity and creative stimulation can bring.

It would be nice to wake up and feel excited about what's out there.

Green Gables House backyard
Green Gables House, Cavendish, Prince Edward Island. A cultural heritage site in Canada. Photo by Markus Gregory [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons.

Once again, I found refuge in Anne of the Island. As much as it's about adventure and friendship and love and learning, it's a book of lessons, of broken dreams and ideals, of moving on and letting go. Like Anne, I still build castles in the air, but also feel the rumpling of spirit when yet another ideal is less than I'd hoped, and the dreariness of the mundane. I suppose that's what it means to grow up: there's always something else to worry about.

It's fun to be almost grown up in some ways, but it's not the kind of fun I expected, Marilla. There's so much to learn and do and think that there isn't time for big words.
– Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables 

It's not that I don't appreciate what I have, because I do. I've been very lucky and very loved, and I've put down some roots. Being in the depths of despair after my return from London, combined with other events at the time, meant that for a while I lived with one foot here and one elsewhere, thus living nowhere. I learned my lesson. I know now that home is probably more a feeling than a place, and that it requires effort (in some places more than others, but there's "scope for the imagination" there!) to make it your own. The later books in the series perhaps illustrate this: Anne belongs to Avonlea, but wherever she goes, she makes it hers too: Anne of Windy Willows, of Ingleside, and even, with barely a stretch of the imagination, of Redmond, of Patty's Place, of her House of Dreams.

Reading at O2 - The Plant Cafe in Jaipur, December 2017.

And then there's laughter. Growth is a well-developed sense of humour, a theme I noticed more keenly this time.

[...] He said, 'Humour is the spiciest condiment in the feast of existence. Laugh at your mistakes but learn from them, joke over your troubles but gather strength from them, make a jest of your difficulties but overcome them.' Isn't that worth learning, Aunt Jimsie? 
Yes, it is, dearie. When you've learned to laugh at the things that should be laughed at, and not to laugh at those that shouldn't, you've got wisdom and understanding.
– Phillipa Gordon and Aunt Jamesina in Anne of the Island

So here's to more laughter, more big words, more bends in the road, more "pruning down and branching out."

And yes, more dreaming.


  1. What a beautiful article. Anne has been to me many of the things you mention in your article - softness, support of others, that air of potentiality that you write of, striving for goodness, seeking goodness. Very important to me is her vulnerability - that is to say, that beautiful courage to show her heart to others even when she might be derided by others or meet with their 'prickles' (thinking of Katherine Brooke here, among others).
    I, too, find Anne a character to emulate, and it doesn't bother me in the slightest that Anne is woman and I am a man. The virtues of forgiveness, love and kindness are surely applicable to us all, whoever we are.
    This year, I am writing a book about Anne's (based on the first 4 books) influence on me and the virtues espoused through the character - to be dedicated to my young 6-year old daughter, who I hope will read it in a few years' time. Anne Shirley has not relinquished her grasp on my ethics for the past 30 years, and I don't expect she ever will.
    Thank you for this terrific article. You sound like a kindred spirit.

    1. Thank you, fellow kindred spirit, for this beautiful comment. Some fault in the universe has made it so that I don't know who you are and can't see your name, but I hope you'll return. These books are the true definition of timeless, and I'm always so glad to meet someone else who loves them as much as I do. Your book sounds fascinating, and what a lovely gift to your daughter - and the world. I would love to follow along or know when it comes out, and I wish you the best for this journey of writing and reminiscence.

  2. Thank you Kriti. I've made some changes and hopefully you can see my name now? I am in the process of setting up a website/blog as part of my project, so I will have a url to share with you shortly, if you'd like.
    Thank you for your interest. The book is to be organised around certain themes in the books, including but not limited to forgiveness, romanticism, imagination and nature. To do this, I've first been annotating the first four books (heavily), so I can pick the themes and citations when writing. As I did so, however, I realised rather immediately that there is so much there that I'll never be able to fit my thoughts into the book, so I am creating the website to put all else on - short videos and essays based on fragments / extracts from the books. Some of these can nonetheless be weaved in later into the books itself, but they're never going to be the same. I am hand-writing the book itself rather than typing it. I am finding my pen to be a bit too scratchy.
    This project is my first attempt at such personal writing, so time will tell how successful I will be at this task - particularly given the poignancy accompanying even just reading the books, let alone the writing itself. It's a very introspective process, like coming back home.

    1. Hi Kamil, I see you now! I'd love a link to your blog once you've set it up. I can understand having a lot to say, but it's probably a better problem to have than being stuck... maybe you'll write two books :) I periodically re-read Anne, more recently alongside events in my life that are similar to hers (read the 5th book shortly after I got married, for example) and I find them as rich, if not more, each time.

      If you ever need an editor, do look me up at All the very best – I'm sure it'll be a rewarding experience.

      PS. Was just writing my journal and changed pens 3 times. I empathise.

  3. Thank you Kriti! I agree entirely - in these books, you find something new every time. On this last re-read of Anne of Avonlea and Anne of the Island, I have found a whole new meaning in the relationship between Anne and Davy, a whole new layer of poignancy of his love for her that I had not consciously registered before.
    My "scratchy pen" remark was actually in jest and in reference to Anne writing in Anne of Windy Poplars that because she had a scratchy pen, hers wouldn't be a lovely letter at that time!
    I write my own diary as well, though, so your comment about pens is still relevant!

    Thank you for your offer of editing. I'll definitely keep this in mind. In the meantime, when my website is finalised, I'll send you the link to your email address, which I've just found on your website.

    1. Oh no, I completely missed that! I blame the late hour and the fact that I've only re-read book 4 once. To my younger self, it wasn't as interesting (perhaps because it lacked Gilbert!) but when I read it again a couple of years ago I appreciated it so much. Anne successful, doing her own thing, and charming people even when it seemed impossible.

      I'm also doing a little project where I try to make food from books, and I made biscuits from Anne of Green Gables - I didn't even remember them until I paid attention! In case you'd like to have a look, here's the link:

      Look forward to receiving your email in the near future!

  4. I'll write you properly later in the week in an email, but just to quickly say I really love your project. Interestingly, I am gearing up to do the same, although at this moment, I am getting ingredients and energies together to bake some plum puffs! (I am quite certain they would, in fact, minister to a mind diseased!) I am afraid I am stricken too often by the same affliction as Anne was - that is to say, my mind wanders far too much - but a few attempts always make perfect.

    In the blog post you shared, in the photos there is a beautiful green hardback Anne of Green Gables book. Which edition is it? I am planning to get some truly beautiful editions of the books this year.

    I noticed a typo in my yesterday's message; I meant "love letter", not "lovely letter".

    1. Plum puffs sound great! I'd be too intimidated to attempt them...!

      The green edition was published by Canterbury Classics/Baker and Taylor in 2013. It's actually not strictly a hardback, and is quite beautiful. The material of the cover is not holding up well in the humidity of Bombay, however. Sigh.

  5. Thank you - I managed to find it on a British bookstore website today - very helpful. Shame re humidity... on another hand, it tends to be too cold here most of the time here in Yorkshire!

  6. Well, I've tried plum puffs! True! - it's not easy! They taste great, but they were not very shapely coming out - I am sure Marilla and Anne were far more proficient at it than me! Try and try again, I suppose!


Post a Comment