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Anne of Green Gables | Context

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Prejudice against Redheads

L.M. Montgomery was occasionally asked why she'd decided to make Anne Shirley's hair red. She always answered, "I didn't. It was red." And that fact caused a lot of trouble for the fictional heroine.

Anne's red hair is practically a character in itself. In Chapter 2 of Anne of Green Gables, Anne tells Matthew her hair is the one thing that keeps her from being perfectly happy: "It will be my lifelong sorrow." Anne may sound melodramatic, but she means what she says. Over and over the color of her hair—and people's reactions to it—brings Anne problems.

Unfortunately there's good reason for Anne's misery. Prejudice against red hair has been part of both Western and Eastern culture for centuries:

  • According to a theory in Ayurvedic medicine (an Indian healing system), redheaded women are more prone to disorders of the reproductive system, and redheaded people tend to be angry, arrogant, and impatient.
  • In ancient Egypt the god of war, Set, was believed to have red hair.
  • Roman historian Livy, describing the Thracian people, wrote, "Their tall stature, their long red hair, their huge shields ... all these things are intended to terrify and appall."
  • In medieval European art, the biblical betrayer of Jesus, Judas, was often portrayed as a redhead. For centuries thereafter the French referred to red hair as poil de Judas (hair of Judas).
  • A 9th-century biography of king of the Franks Charlemagne tells the story of a man who insists on wearing a hat in church. When someone yanks off the hat, the priest in the pulpit shouts, "The boor is redheaded."
  • In 1659 Oxford professor Obadiah Walker decried the "common yet causeless calumniation: viz. the vilifying of red-hair'd men ... merely because of the native color of the excrement [hair] of the head."

Anti-redhead bias remained strong throughout the 19th century. An 1887 geography book cited the Romanian belief that when redheads died, their souls came back as bloodsucking fleas or bedbugs. A line in an 1890 humorous novel, The Philosophy of Red Hair, reads, "A very curious trait with authors is that the red of the red-haired girl is transmuted to auburn ... when she becomes an interesting young lady, whereas the red of the red-haired boy remains red to the end of the chapter." And the celebrated French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923) commented, "Redheads are ill-natured."

Anne gradually comes to terms with her hair, though she never fully accepts its color. In a later book, Anne's House of Dreams, she gives birth to a boy and is furious to hear he has red hair. In the real world Anne's hair continued to attract attention years after the book was published. When L.M. Montgomery sued her American publisher in 1920, part of the court battle involved the exact color of Anne Shirley's hair. "Three grave lawyers and myself wrangled all day over the question of the exact color of 'Anne's' hair," Montgomery recalled. The publisher's lawyer "was determined to prove that Titian hair was dark red and that I knew it was dark red ... I always supposed Titian-red was a sort of flame-red and I stuck to it through all his badgering."

Red hair and freckles are recessive traits. As a result redheads make up less than 2 percent of the world's population. The scarcity of red-haired people may be one reason for bias against them—not that that's an excuse. Incidentally the bias is stronger in Great Britain than North America. In an era when many Westerners are working to rid themselves of racism and cultural stereotyping, "gingers" remain an object of curiosity and often mockery. In 2007 a British family of redheads had to change houses twice because the children were being attacked. In 2010 a British politician caused outrage by labeling her opponent "a ginger rodent." In 2012 a Birmingham man was beaten up for having red hair. Even Prince Harry has been bullied for his red hair.

Home Children and Orphans in Life and Literature

In about 1892 Montgomery noted in her journal the strange story of a young sister and brother who came to Prince Edward Island. Pierce Macneill, a farmer, drove to the Hunter River Train Station to pick up the two small boys he and his wife, Rachel, had decided to adopt. To Macneill's surprise, the children waiting for him were a three-year-old girl and her younger brother. The Macneills adopted both children anyway, and the girl, Ellen, dated her birthday from the day she went to live with them. Montgomery jotted down a story idea.

The idea that two children under four could be put onto a train and sent to a new province may seem incomprehensible to modern readers, but shipping children to new homes was common in the 19th century. In the case of the Barnardo children, "shipping" was what literally took place. The Barnardo children were part of the Farm Immigration Programme, a joint Canadian-British project. Informally they were known as "home children." A British charity, the Barnardo organization took orphaned, abandoned, and pauper children off the London streets, found homes for them in Canada, and sent them across the Atlantic. The effort was well meant, but the children were more likely indentured as servants or cheap labor than adopted. The would-be parents occasionally were sent a different child from the one they'd requested. More useful on farms, Barnardo boys were more desirable than girls, and it was as a cheap source of labor that many of these children were sought.

Between 1869 and the late 1930s, more than 100,000 juvenile migrants were shipped to Canada. The few children adopted into families often fared well; the bulk taken in as workers sometimes did not. In 1875 the British Poor Law Board sent an inspector to Canada. He found homes in which the "Canadian child migrants" were abused or kept out of school. He also found many Barnardo children were stigmatized as the children of criminals. After one of the home children was beaten to death by his adoptive mother, the Canadian government passed the Juvenile Immigration Act to better protect the children under its care.

In Chapter 1 of Anne of Green Gables, Marilla tells Mrs. Lynde she and Matthew don't want to adopt a "London street Arab." She means a Barnardo boy, and her attitude is typical of the period. One Canadian newspaper editor complained, "A greater outrage never was perpetrated upon a community than that controlled by Dr. Barnardo, of London, whose great aim seems to be to gather up the waifs and offscourings of that great city and to dump as many of them upon this country as it can possibly receive." What the Cuthberts want is a child from a Canadian orphan asylum.

In Chapter 2 Anne tells Matthew the four months she spent in the Nova Scotia orphanage were the worst of her life: "You can't possibly understand what it is like. It's worse than anything you could imagine." Anne is probably right. In 1875, 35 percent of the children at the Halifax Infants' Home died. By 1890 the figure was lower—26 percent—but still appallingly high. In 1891 the Toronto Girls' Home granted its medical adviser the right to use inmates for his medical demonstrations. The girls wouldn't be embarrassed, he said, because they were "callous both morally and physically." Children adopted from 19th-century Canadian orphanages could be returned at any time, as Anne knows all too well, and had no legal rights within their adoptive families; they could not inherit if a relative died.

Stories about orphans being adopted and making good were popular in the 19th century. Classics in this vein include British novelist Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist (1838) and David Copperfield (1850) and English novelist Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (1847). A more ephemeral piece of fiction, "Charity Ann," was published in 1892 in Godey's Lady's Book, a popular magazine. Montgomery occasionally wrote for the same magazine, and it seems likely she read the story. Certainly several similarities exist between Anne and Charity Ann.

In the M.A. Maitland story, a little girl named Ann runs away from the local poorhouse and begs to take refuge with an elderly couple, the McKays. Charity Ann is an unattractive child who has helped raise several sets of twins. She's willing to work for her keep. She's also covered with bruises from being struck by the asylum matron. Her adoptive parents treat her well, and at the end of the story her long-lost father turns up to claim her. "'Charity Ann' no more, but Love Ann," the last line gushes.

A short story titled "Lucy Ann" by J.L. Harbour was published in the July 1903 issue of Zion's Herald. Montgomery definitely knew about Lucy Ann: her own story, "The Little Three-Cornered Lot," appeared in the same issue. Lucy Ann Joyce, a red-headed 12-year-old orphan, lives in the workhouse of a large city. She is sent to take a vacation at the country home of a severe old woman, Miss Calista May. Lucy Ann is entranced by country life, especially wildflowers. Miss Calista gradually warms to her, and when Lucy Ann saves her life, she decides to let the girl stay at the farm with her.

Yet another Ann(e) starred in James Whitcomb Riley's poem "Little Orphant [sic] Annie," published in 1885. "Little Orphant Annie's come to our house to stay," it begins, "An' wash the cups an' saucers, an' brush the crumbs away." Little Orphant Annie was based on a real child, a 10-to-12-year-old orphan girl who came to live with the Riley family in 1862. Her name was actually Mary Alice, nicknamed Allie, but this name morphed to Annie in the finished version.

Modern children may occasionally come across "Little Orphant Annie," but Charity Ann and Lucy Ann are forgotten today. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is better known. The American book of that title, by Kate Douglas Wiggin, was published in 1903 and became very popular. Rebecca Rowena Randall's father is dead, and her mother is unable to care for her seven children. Two prim, elderly aunts offer to take Rebecca in, and she's picked up at the train station by a nice old man to whom she chatters compulsively all the way home. Gradually the sterner of the two aunts, Miranda, warms to Rebecca—Aunt Jane has always loved her—and by the end of the book, Sunnybrook Farm has become Rebecca's permanent home.

Montgomery never spoke of inspiration from these works. Whether or not Anne Shirley evolved from the stories of the various Anns and Rebecca, it was Montgomery's book that would become the best known. Montgomery did mention little Ellen Macneill but only to disclaim her as an influence: "There is no resemblance of any kind between Anne and Ellen Macneill, who is one of the most hopelessly commonplace and uninteresting girls imaginable." Montgomery wrote in her journal, "Ellen Macneill never crossed my mind when I was writing the book."

Canadian Nationalism

In his Literary History of Canada (1965), the Canadian scholar and writer Northrop Frye writes, "Canada developed with the bewilderment of a neglected child, preoccupied with trying to define its own identity." He could have been talking about Anne Shirley, and perhaps on some level he was.

Anne of Green Gables was first published by a Boston firm but only because Montgomery had been unable to find a publisher in Canada. A loyal Canadian, she made her heroine the same. Throughout the Anne books, Montgomery is careful to plug Canada whenever appropriate. Although a few Americans make it into the series, there aren't many, and they are deplored as Yankees—"rich Yankees," when someone like Mrs. Lynde is talking.

When this book begins, Marilla and Matthew are determined to adopt "a born Canadian," someone like themselves with British ancestry. Marilla makes it clear she would never consider a French Canadian. Indeed she is biased against using "stupid, half-grown little French boys" as hired hands. And although Canada is part of the British commonwealth, Marilla is not interested in a child from London: "I'll feel easier in my mind and sleep sounder at nights if we get a born Canadian." A few paragraphs later Marilla confidently points out Nova Scotia, site of the orphanage, "is right close to the Island. It isn't as if we were getting him from England or the States. He can't be much different from ourselves."

Montgomery is poking fun at Marilla's parochial thinking. As the Cuthberts are about to discover, the child who will soon arrive is very different from them. But Anne is an unfailing Canadian loyalist and—like her creator—especially fond of Prince Edward Island: "I've always heard Prince Edward Island was the prettiest place in the world, and I used to imagine I was living here." Anne does not realize at first that living on the island—and especially in Avonlea—will force her to become tamer, bleaching out some of her wildness and making her less interesting. But she never regrets the process.

In an afterword to Montgomery's book Emily Climbs (1925), featuring an Anne-like, literary-minded heroine, scholar Jane Urquhart writes leaving Prince Edward Island "would be roughly equivalent, for this Canadian girl, to committing literary suicide." Anne and Emily identify so strongly with the island that leaving it feels impossible to them. They stay put while their readers seek them out by the millions. It might have amused Montgomery to learn the island her literary creations refuse to leave would one day become a popular travel destination for Japanese Anne fans in particular, ranking only after New York, Paris, and London.

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