I first encountered Anne Shirley-Cuthbert, an imaginative, high-spirited red-haired orphan, in the pages of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. My first memory of reading the Canadian author’s debut novel dates back to the seventh grade, over a decade ago. Let me say this: I have never known such warmth as I have while reading this book. It has been 113 years since its release, and the book has sold over 50 million copies worldwide. Anne’s story has been adapted for stage, film, television, and radio over 35 times. Never once has it gone out of print.

Very few know how this fictional, feminist character inspired solidarity in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Over the last century, Anne of Green Gables has been embraced by many cultures around the world. Anne’s talent for imagination is limitless. Her joie de vivre fearlessness and optimistic outlook in life are infectious. Anne is as sincere as she is stubborn. She’s loyal, honest, and more than anything wants to be a good person despite everything she has gone through. Anne’s story is timeless. With its many adaptations, it dominates pop culture today. But very few know how this fictional, feminist character, who was way ahead of her time, inspired solidarity in the aftermath of the Second World War. Not only did Anne capture the hearts of Polish soldiers and inspire Japanese women to reject traditional gender roles, but she also provided an emotional escape for children left orphaned by the war.

When the First World War ended, the Anne of Green Gables series became an indispensable part of Polish life. Screen-writer Barbara Wachowicz says that the series appealed to Polish citizens because it offered “practical romance” and “cheerfulness,” which were desperately needed at the time. The first-ever Polish edition of the novel was published in 1912, and between 1919 and 1939, the book was printed again. The CBC reported that because the series was so popular, the Polish military gave soldiers copies of the novel during World War II to remind them of the values they dearly fought for, such as “love, home, and family.”

While Anne’s character is incredibly diverting, I can’t help but wonder if the landscape of Prince Edward Island and the fictional, close-knit community of Avonlea also contributed as an escapist fantasy for its readers. The Island could have appeared to soldiers as an imaginary place encouraging freedom and, at the same time, seem like a real-world far away from the battlegrounds of war. The combination of Anne’s unlimited power of imagination, the pastoral lands, and the meadows of Prince Edward Island allowed the novel to become something of a paradise, a potential reality within which one can resist anything, national and personal despair included.

Anne also played a profound, influential role in Japan during World War II. In 1939, Hanako Muraoka, a translator of children’s literature, was given a keepsake by Loretta Shaw, a missionary friend from New Brunswick. It was a copy of Anne of Green Gables. Shaw left Japan due to ill health shortly before the war erupted, and Hanako spent the next few years reading the book and secretly translating it into Japanese. English was now the enemy’s language, so she had to continue to work in hiding, protecting Anne’s story while weapons annihilated her home. 

The Polish military gave soldiers copies of the novel during World War II to remind them of the values they dearly fought for, such as “love, home, and family”.

When the war ended, the publishing industry in Japan found itself in chaos. Censorship from allied occupation forces and lack of capital put publishing in jeopardy. In the early 1950s, things began to change. Japanese publisher Mikasa Shobo took a chance on the Canadian author and her book about a fire-haired orphan, whose hard work helped conjure the reality of her dreams. Anne came to Prince Edward Island as a young orphan struggling to find her place in the world, an idea that resonated with the orphaned population in Japan following the war. It’s why the novel has been a mandatory part of the Japanese public school curriculum since 1952

Anne is a person of her own. She isn’t the ideal Victorian-era girl, but she valued little things like dresses with puff sleeves. She enjoys cooking and aspired to fit in with other girls her age. But Anne proves that she never had to choose. She can long for beautiful dresses while staying at the top of her class. She challenges traditional norms by repeatedly stating she can do anything, regardless of her gender. Anne encourages everyone around her to do the same, which is why her character inspired Japanese women to free themselves from traditional gender roles. Anne provided them‍ with both inspiration and encouragement, and they admired her outspokenness. A Japanese scholar has pointed out, “Japanese women admire Anne Shirley’s feistiness as an antidote to the passivity instilled in Japanese women.”

Anne’s story was published over a hundred years ago, during the very beginning of first-wave feminism. There’s much to learn from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s plucky red-headed heroine, who earned her achievements with hope and perseverance. Anne’s consistent refusal to be limited by her gender is a timeless quality, that struck a chord with female readers even though they were a century apart. 

Click here for the full Anne of Green Gables Collection by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

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