Anne Shirley’s New Reach

Reviewed by M. Sean Saunders

I took great pleasure in reading Anne’s World, a collection of compelling essays which situates the culturally familiar Anne Shirley within a range of perhaps unfamiliar and, at times, unexpected disciplinary and theoretical contexts. Engaging Anne’s status as a classic and an international brand, these contexts include fashion theory, early childhood education, clinical psychology and bibliotherapy, feminist ethics, cultural geography, and globalization studies. Linking such diverse critical perspectives is the volume’s focus on the expansion of [Anne’s] world, both during the last century (into realms such as film and television, tourism, and post-war colonialism) and in the present, as Anne’s expanding world carries her into new spheres of critical inquiry, and new digital markets and media.

The careful curatorial work of editors Irene Gammel and Benjamin Lefebvre provides intellectual coherence to the book’s diverse approaches, with several of the book’s threads of inquiry appearing in Carole Gerson’s opening chapter. For example, because Gerson is concerned with a century’s worth of cultural and institutional interventions which helped to establish Anne as a Canadian icon, her work gives readers an initial glimpse into the creation of Anne as a brand. Subsequent chapters return to this idea, including Benjamin Lefebvre’s important theorization of the Anne brand and Jason Nolan’s fascinating analysis of present-day educational uses of this brand. Nolan, first observing that Montgomery’s fiction often displays well-informed support for learning environments that allow children imaginative scope and opportunities to challenge conventions, then asks whether Montgomery-related educational web sites reflect similar values. He includes in his analysis a social networking site which uses fingerprint reading to control user access, and he concludes that this site appears designed to minimize the opportunities for the kind of rebellion that is at the core Anne’s personality in the novel, instead entic[ing] participants into a culture of corporate surveillance [which] models both acquiescence and consumerism.

Another of the book’s threads again begins with Gerson, who mentions the federal government’s 1936 acquisition of the supposed Green Gables farmhouse, which required alterations (including painting the gables green) to align it with public expectations. Later, Alexander Macleod returns readers to the farmhouse and its environs, drawing connections between the ways that the fictional Anne re-visions the landscape—as when she over-writes local place names with romantic names of her own devising—and the ways that L.M. Montgomery’s fictional world has, in turn, shaped the real-world landscape and social spaces of Prince Edward Island. Such implicitly colonial impulses receive explicit attention in other chapters, with Anne’s presence in Nigeria, Iran, China, Japan, and Germany all receiving discussion.

Both Huifeng Hu and Andrew O’Malley, writing respectively on China and Iran, conclude, in contrast to earlier scholarly views, that Anne is popular with readers in these countries not because her rebellious qualities represent something that their own cultures lack (but which they nevertheless admire), but because these readers recognize their own cultural values in Anne’s dedication to family and community. Such analyses offer opportunities to read Anne’s popularity not simply as a westernizing influence, but to understand it, as O’Malley writes, through an approach that tries to understand the adaptive and appropriative readings of Anne generated in the contexts of cultures elsewhere. By contrast, Ranbir K. Banwait provides a fascinating account of Anne’s introduction into post-war Japan. During the Allied occupation, written material was strictly controlled, and literature—including Anne of Green Gables—was used as an ideological tool for disseminating American values.

While there is insufficient space here to acknowledge the work of all the contributors to this excellent volume, I cannot leave Anne’s World without mentioning Helen Hoy’s potentially contentious chapter, in which Hoy builds her argument from the initial observation that Anne’s behavioural characteristics are consistent with what we now call Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). Although I was skeptical at first, as I read the chapter and better understood Hoy’s project, I found her argument increasingly compelling, in large part because Hoy’s interest isn’t really in convincing her readers that Anne suffers from FASD. Rather, she foregrounds the extent to which concepts of impairment are contingent and temporally located, thus suggesting that the possible presence of FASD in Anne of Green Gables helps to trouble the all-too-familiar distinction between fully human people and deficient people, and highlights the degree to which the meaning of disability is a product of the social imagination. Hoy’s chapter, then, reminds us that as Anne’s world begins its second century it remains a powerful tool for reading and understanding the realities of our world.

This review “Anne Shirley’s New Reach” originally appeared in Spectres of Modernism. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 209 (Summer 2011): 157-159.

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