Anne of Green Gables and Jo March, Little Women
The heroines of “Anne of Green Gables” and “Little Women” have inspired generations of young girls, but their messages are actually quite different. Images courtesy of Sullivan Entertainment (left) and Sony Pictures (right).

“Anne of Green Gables”—clear eyed and unsentimental

I was talking to my mother recently about “Anne of Green Gables” and said, “I think my favorite moment is when we learn that …” I started to get teary eyed, just trying to name the scene. And my mother, with no other context than what I’ve written here, her own tears welling up, said, “When we learn how much Marilla loves Anne.” The scene is a distinctly not-sentimental moment. Because AGG is not a sentimental book. It is rather a clear-eyed story of a young girl, Anne Shirley, who, at the age of eleven, is adopted by a middle-aged brother and sister, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, to be of help around their farm. They are expecting a boy. So, right from the outset, Anne is out of place; initially as lonely as a girl can get.

Anne is at once dreamy and fierce; hard working and scatter brained; self-critical and independent, sensitive and no-nonsense. 

Not only is she not a boy, she’s twice blighted—an orphan and a redhead (more on being a redhead later). Yet Anne knows already how to take refuge in her imagination, a lively, richly textured place, far different from the reticent, stiff upper lip environment of her new home. Anne is at once dreamy and fierce; hard working and scatter brained; self-critical and independent, sensitive and no-nonsense. 

Written by Lucy Maud Montgomery and published in 1908, the book is a picture of a girl filled with the vivacity and joy of creative imagination. In the scene that my mother and I both remembered with our whole bodies, Matthew has just died and Marilla’s austere carapace cracks. We see how much Anne means to her, how this scrap of a girl has taken root in Marilla’s starved heart. The love is hard earned. There is no gushing. There is a glimmer. Anne needs no more. She has enough ebullience to go around.

Jo March of Little Women
Little Women’s Jo March, played by Saoirse Ronan in the 2019 movie by writer-director Greta Gerwig. Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.

“Little Women”—on the sweet side

By contrast, in Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” published in 1868 and ‘69, Jo March is surrounded by love and support. Alcott’s principal character is all work and no play, or very little anyhow. Even though Jo writes plays, the focus is on the effort she puts in to produce her work. The emphasis is on her intellect and solidity.  Her creativity is earned through the sweat of her brow and springs less from a wayward and wandering imagination. And Jo is an insider. She belongs where she is, both in her family and in the society around her.

The Canadian character, if there is such a thing as a national tendency, takes pride in the ordinary, whereas American exceptionalism flavors the country’s character.

While Anne was a character of my childhood, I came to “Little Women” much later in life. After living in the U.S. for more than twenty years, I finally thought I ought to read the book in my late forties. Even though I am a writer, Jo did not win my heart. Jo was too perfect for me. Her struggles felt perfunctory, even though I know they were not. Her and her family’s goodness was too seamless. The word “treacle” comes to mind. 

How Canadian and American culture informed the girls’ stories

At times I wonder if Jo would have resonated more for me, had I encountered her at the age I encountered Anne (around 8 years old). Maybe. And I think my reaction is more than that. There’s a cultural element. Canadian culture is more reticent around love and approbation than American. The Canadian character, if there is such a thing as a national tendency, takes pride in the ordinary, whereas American exceptionalism flavors the country’s character. I feel their respective countries in Anne and Jo’s characters. Anne is a modest, complicated girl. Jo is an exceptional ideal. 

Anne of Green Gables
Anne of Green Gables. Image courtesy of Sullivan Entertainment.

Why I still love Anne

What draws me still to Anne is her outsider-ness and the way she models the possibility of rigor and creativity. Even as I write that, I realize for the first time how much I still identify with Anne. I, too, have spent the most part of my career, attempting to find the harmony between my seemingly contradictory tendencies—one toward creativity (writing and theatre) and the other toward organization and discipline (first in the practice of law and now in my editorial work, coaching and group facilitation). 

Yet, I still struggle to straddle these two worlds. Always worrying if I truly belong in either one, or am I doomed to perpetual outsider-ness?

These urges I feel inside myself have often felt oppositional, as if one necessarily blocks the other. Yet, as a writing and creativity coach, I encourage the discipline of regular writing and even structured freewriting exercises as a way of inspiring the imagination. I believe in the power of rules as a way to free our creative energy. The Oulipo group of writers was all about the constrained writing approach. They set each other seemingly impossible tasks, like this one—write a whole novel without the letter E. You don’t even have to imagine this, you can read George Perec’s novel “La Disparition” (In English translation: “A Void”). 

Yet, I still struggle to straddle these two worlds. Always worrying if I truly belong in either one, or am I doomed to perpetual outsider-ness? I have Anne to remind me that I am not alone. And having written all that glowing text about Anne, I see how I identify with Jo, too. My creativity comes from the sweat of my brow, at least as much as from my imagination. 

The redhead factor

There’s a last connection to Anne that I haven’t mentioned. I am a redhead (or more properly, I was in my younger years and continue to brighten my life by dyeing my hair red). This begs the question—do I just identify with Anne because of our shared ginger tops? After all, redheads make up less than 2% of the world population, so it wouldn’t be surprising to have an affinity for one another.

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s book broke the mold in every important way.

Well, Anne (of GG) was the first of a series of red-headed orphan girls we know and love. She was followed by Little Orphan Annie, Madeline and Pippi Longstocking. Do I identify with these gingers, too? Not in particular. To begin with, I’d forgotten that Madeline had red hair. As for Pippi, I didn’t really know her all that well, though I love the idea that she was superhumanly strong. And for Little Orphan Annie? I recall being disappointed when I didn’t get cast for the role at summer camp and instead got the tertiary role of Bert Healy (I was at an all-girls camp, so we were cast across the genders). But that was just because I wanted to be the star and thought I was a shoo-in for the role, not because I had a particular affinity for Annie. 

Anne is (to use her expression) a literary bosom friend, because of her spirit, not her hair. 

Breaking the mold

While I was writing this, someone told me that they had always wondered if Lucy Maud Montgomery had read “Little Women.” I was surprised by my defensive reaction. What? Are you saying that Canadian authors can’t write their own coming-of-age stories for young women without having been influenced by American culture? I don’t know the answer. I’d like to imagine that if Lucy Maud Montgomery read Louisa May Alcott’s book, then she decided that it did not tell the story she wanted for girls and set out to write something quite different. She was almost certainly influenced by the popular and formulaic orphan stories circulating on both sides of the border and in Europe at the time, in which young orphan girls (frequently named Ann) proved their worth through service and a sweet temper.

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s book broke the mold in every important way. Anne (with an e!) was lousy at housework and fiery in temperament. And unlike the formula orphans, Anne doesn’t get a simple, happy ending. Life is about hard choices and complexity, after all. Anne’s realness is what keeps girls coming back to her story, and why women like me continue to carry the flame for her. 

Just as Anne continues to touch a chord in me, Jo does the same for many other women. Anne and Jo are different models of the possibilities of girlhood. May there be many more and bolder still.