If you’ve read Anne of Green Gables, you probably remember that scene near the beginning when Matthew Cuthbert is driving Anne Shirley from the train station to Green Gables for the first time. Anne chatters away almost without a pause, and Matthew listens, replying only when asked a direct question, and then only briefly.
Everything Anne sees is a marvel to her. A plum tree in bloom puts her in mind of a bride all in white (in spite of the fact that she has never actually seen a bride all in white). She renames the places whose names seem insufficiently delightful. An avenue of blooming apple trees becomes the White Way of Delight, and Barry’s Pond becomes the Lake of Shining Waters.
“Yes, that is the right name for it,” she says when she christens the Lake of Shining Waters. “I know because of the thrill. When I hit on a name that suits exactly, it gives me a thrill.”
Is this girl a writer, or what?
When Anne asks Matthew if things ever give him a thrill, he answers, “Well, now, yes. It always kind of gives me a thrill to see them ugly white grubs that spade up in the cucumber beds. I hate the look of them.” Matthew is a good sort, but quite a bit more pedestrian and earthbound than Anne.
As for the White Way of Delight, Anne tells Matthew,
“It just satisfied me here”—she put one hand on her breast—”it made a queer funny ache and yet it was a pleasant ache. Did you ever have an ache like that, Mr. Cuthbert?
“Well, now, I just can’t recollect that I ever had.”
“I have it lots of times—whenever I see anything royally beautiful.”
Anne sees royally beautiful things everywhere because she always has her eyes open for beauty and delight. “Isn’t it splendid that there are so many things to like in the world?” she asks Matthew. That particular declaration is occasioned by the “jolly rumbling” of the wagon on a wooden bridge.
Anne is unusually sensitive to what C. S. Lewis called “joy,” “the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing” that brings more satisfaction than any earthly consolation every could. Sehnsucht, as you may know already, is the German word for this longing.
If Anne seems out of touch with reality, it is because she is in touch with a deeper reality. Matthew and Marilla are good people, but they are pragmatic people, in bad need of a reminder that there is more to their world than meets the eye.
Within a day of Anne’s arrival, Marilla is concerned that Anne has bewitched Matthew, and that she will soon cast a spell on her, Marilla, too. She’s not wrong. Anne is a little enchantress, re-enchanting a world that enchants her. Even after a first night of heartbreak, Anne can’t help but rejoice in the morning when she looks out the window and sees another cherry tree in bloom.
“Oh, isn’t it wonderful?” she said, waving her hand comprehensively at the good world outside.
“It’s a big tree,” said Marilla, “and it blooms great, but the fruit don’t amount to much never—small and wormy.”
“Oh, I don’t mean just the tree; of course it’s lovely—yes, it’s radiantly lovely—it blooms as if it meant it—but I meant everything, the garden and the orchard and the book and the woods, the whole big dear world. Don’t you feel as if you just loved the world on a morning like this?”
Marilla, the pragmatist, has her defenses against Anne’s bright arts. But a pragmatist as good and honest as Marilla is really no match for Anne’s kind of enchantment. “Pragmatism is a matter of human needs,” wrote G. K. Chesterton, “and one of the first human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist.”
If Anne seems out of touch with reality, it is because she is in touch with a deeper reality.Jonathan Rogers
Robert Farrar Capon talks about amateurs, appealing to the etymological sense of the word: an amateur is a person who loves. An amateur makes and plays and works from motives of love rather than self-interest or pragmatism. And the world, according to Capon, needs all the amateurs it can get. I have quoted the following Capon passage before in this space, but it seems so relevant to Anne Shirley that I’m just going to have to ask you to indulge me:
[The world] needs all the lovers—amateurs—it can get. It is a gorgeous old place, full of clownish graces and beautiful drolleries, and it has enough textures, tastes, and smells to keep us intrigued for more time than we have. Unfortunately, however, our response to its loveliness is not always delight: It is, far more often than it should be, boredom. And that is not only odd, it is tragic; for boredom is not neutral—it is the fertilizing principle of unloveliness.
In such a situation, the amateur—the lover, the man who thinks heedlessness is a sin and boredom a heresy—is just the man you need. More than that, whether you think you need him or not, he is a man who is bound, by his love, to speak…
There, then, is the role of the amateur: to look the world back to grace.
That’s why I love Anne Shirley so much. She is the consummate amateur, forever looking the world back to grace. She’s a model for everyone who does creative work—not just as “the arts,” but all work and play that tells a truer story about the world where we find ourselves, from hospitality to entrepreneurship to computer programming to child-rearing to friendship to gardening. And, goodness knows, we need truer, better stories these days.
[Editor’s note: Starting September 14th, Jonathan Rogers’s “Writing with…” series of online creative writing courses continues with Writing with Anne of Green Gables.
Mark Twain, that old curmudgeon, said, “Anne is the dearest and most loveable child in fiction since the immortal Alice.” He went on to say that Anne of Green Gables is “the sweetest creation of childlife yet written.” Yes. Exactly.
How does Lucy Maud Montgomery create such a vivid, alive character as Anne Shirley? How does she make us care so deeply about the goings-on in a little neighborhood outside a tiny village in the smallest province in a remote corner of Canada? Those aren’t rhetorical questions. Those are exactly the kind of questions that will be asked—and, hopefully, answered—in Writing with Anne of Green Gables.
Register at TheHabit.co/Anne.]
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.