Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

Garrulous Girls and Other Orphans


I am revisiting my childhood obsession with Anne of Green Gables by reading it aloud to my two enraptured daughters. I’m loving how the book is working its magic on my girls, just as it did on me. My grandmother worked as a school librarian and I was allowed to sit in the library while she worked, or wonder quietly amongst the shelves trailing my hands along the lovely cool spines of the books. Since it was a high school, many of the books were too advanced for me, but then I found Anne and fell in love. I was delighted by her zest, and learnt many useful phrases (“kindred spirit”, “scope for imagination”, “bosom friend”) which I immediately incorporated into my daily life.

It has been interesting reading Anne of Green Gables, which was published in 1908, directly after Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903) and Pollyanna (1913), since they all have the same synopsis: garrulous orphan girl goes to live with spinster and bachelor/spinster aunts and eventually wins their chilly unyielding hearts with her unique optimistic world-view and amusing talkativeness. In all three books, the orphaned child must enter a rather adult world and learn to live in it, but not without bringing her own charm to warm the childless household. The orphan gets a family; the spinster a child, and all is well with the world. It was clearly a formula that worked, as all three books were popular in their time and are classics now.

Much of children’s literature centres on the symbol of the orphan. In order for a book to grasp a child’s imagination, the small protagonist must battle alone in an unfriendly or fantastic world, without the help of adults. This gives the reader a chance to imagine herself into that situation and live with the thrilling possibility of a world with no grown-ups, where she has to make decisions and take the consequences. There are three main categories: orphans in the real world like the three books above, orphans in a fantastic world like Peter Pan or Harry Potter, or where children function in the real world but are left to their devices by their parents (most of Enid Blyton’s books, Swallows and Amazons, the Just William series). It is necessary for adults to be dead or absent or threatening in order to make the reading experience a thrilling one.

One book that springs to mind where an adult is present and part of the action is Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World, but even there Danny’s father is a renegade fighting the status quo (a poacher), and the positive outcome of the story depends on Danny alone. There is a scene where Danny must drive his father’s car alone, which resulted in many childhood nightmares for me – clearly a little too much autonomy for me to cope with.

In all good children’s books, the child protagonist must effect a change – defeat an evil wizard, beat the pirates, escape the wicked aunts, win the chocolate factory, find the missing parents – and this allows the powerless child reader to enjoy the vicarious pleasure of being in control, making adult decisions and being given free reign. In last night’s chapter from Anne of Green Gables, Anne’s temper got the better of her and she lashed out at the dreaded Mrs Rachel Lynde:

‘I hate you,’ she cried in a choked voice, stamping her foot on the floor. ‘I hate you – I hate you – I hate you -‘ a louder stamp on each assertion of hatred. ‘How dare you call me skinny and ugly? How dare you say I am freckled and red-headed? You are a rude, impolite, unfeeling woman!’

I can’t tell you how much my children enjoyed that.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

19 thoughts on “Garrulous Girls and Other Orphans

  1. Great post, Charlotte! It sounds like we read a lot of the same children’s books and I love your analysis.
    I too had a nightmare about having to drive the car when I was a child, but I think that was before I ever read Danny.

  2. Mrs. Lynde needed to be taken down a peg or two! I still have a hard time reading the first one, near the end where Matthew…you know. It’s just too sad, every time.

    I had nightmares as a child about having to drive a car that suddenly turned into a pedal car, or the brakes or steering stopped working. I’ve always thought that was about the child’s (my) inability to truly control the world and their small body. Like the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak, sort of.

    Your description of these orphan stories and how they function reminded me strongly of fairy tales. Isn’t it always the youngest and therefore weakest or most foolish sibling who is forced to confront some powerful force (witch, ogre, impossible task) and master it? Or the protagonist has been abandoned by a dead mother and/or a feckless father (Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella) and must use their innate wisdom and goodness to win the day. I think that’s why fairy tales, and later, stories like Anne, are so healing for children.

  3. thanks for the book idea, I have completely forgotten about this book. I will put this on the list for next year. My oldest is 5 and I’m struggling for some books to read to her. Would love you to keep the recommendations coming.

  4. Lovely post, Charlotte. I definitely read and enjoyed the other books you mention , but I absolutely adore ‘Danny, the Champion of the World’, and it still retains its appeal.

  5. Fantastic post! Enid Blyton was the first authoress I read independently and from then on my ‘nose has always been buried in a book’. I have slid down the ‘slippery slip’, gone on adventures with ‘The Famous Five’ and tasted ‘Wonka Bars’ with ‘Golden Tickets’. I agree that reading provides children with a freedom to take a leading role in their imaginative destinies. I like to read to enrich my life, but I still love to read stories that will take me on an imaginative adventure! I can’t wait to read Roald Dahl to my boys!

  6. Nice post! If you’ve enjoyed the orphan stories you’ve mentioned, check out The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry. I’m not so good with reviews, but I first heard about it from Heidi at Mt Hope Chronicles…you can read her review here:
    It’s one you might enjoy reading to your kids too.

  7. I love your enthusiasm. And I don’t have to think too hard about what notes you are making to yourself. Dream, Sailplane, dream and you’ll make it a reality. Kind thoughts.

  8. Oh, nice artwork too at the mast-head. Congrats.

  9. I’ve never read Anne of Green Gables, but I did love reading books to my son and still miss doing it regularly now he’s nearly 14. Have you read The Child that Books Built by Francis Spufford, Charlotte? He talks about the way children’s books enlighten, excite and develop their minds and it’s brilliantly done.

  10. I remember reading Call of the Wild by Jack London, to Sarah and Jude when they were 11 and 9 years old. I was surprised by how enraptured they were. Luke and Isabela loved Despereaux by DiCamillo. He wasn’t technically an orphan, but was disowned by his parents for a while for being too different. It really was a lovely story.

    We have Anne of Green Gables but I’ve never read it. Now I’m excited to read it to Isabela and Luke.

  11. Yes, yes, yes. I adored the term “kindred spirit” and found ways of using it in my diary. We Canadians girls are force-fed Anne of Green Gables from an early age. I haven’t read it to my boys, who are too old now for that stuff, and who wouldn’t have enjoyed the garrulous girls. But who love the wickedness of Roald Dahl. Especially The Twits.

  12. Anne Of Green Gables is one of mine, and my best freinds, all time favourites. Her daughter is only 10 months old but I am looking forward to reading this one to her over and over again! I am very fortunate to have my grandmother’s copy of the book – very precious considering it is one of the few books she ever owned as a child. What a classic book!

  13. I loved Anne of Green Gables as well as all the other books in the series. My best bit was the hair-dye episode, very funny!
    I remember watching the Anne movie with my parents and when Matthew “left”, we had to turn the movie off and sob for a couple of minutes… I still miss Matthew whenever I read the book. 🙂

  14. How odd to come over this way and see Anne of Green Gables mentioned: a fabulous bloggy friend has recommended that I watch the tv series version of it (from the 70s I believe) – I’m led to believe that although I might not think it’s my kind of thing, it doesn’t matter because it’s good enough to transcend that.

  15. I remember Anne for being the book that really got me into poetry with her obsession with “The Lady of Shallot” and her recitation of “The Highway Man”. I envied her ability to quote just the right bit of poetry for the right moment when she got older.

    That defiance in the face of authority is what I love best about the Harry Potter books, to be honest. 🙂

  16. Hey there,

    First of all, I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, and I absolutely adore it!

    Just wanted to add that Nancy & Plum was personally my most beloved childhood book about orphans. The author, Betty MacDonald, weaves a fun story about two smart and spirited sisters embarking on quite an adventure…. although often ubelievable, it’s always light hearted and entertaining, and might be a hit with your daughters : ) .

    Keep up the wonderful writing & best regards from across the Atlantic,


  17. What a wonderful take on children’s literature. I have to say that Peter Pan is a favourite, and Anne Shirley always delighted me. Perhaps I should revisit them too.

  18. It’s kind of the hero’s journey, isn’t it? Old as literature – I’m reading Robert Fagle’s (marvelous) Aenid at the moment and its the same plot – orphan boy finds new home and persuades natives to accept him (with diversions!)

  19. I loved Anne, and Rebecca, and Pollyanna. I also loved the Boxcar Children, and used to spend hours pretending to be like them using the things I found at the abandoned mining house halfway down our valley. At the same time I was reading these books I was also reading about Horatio Hornblower, learning all sorts of nautical terms, and British Navy vernacular. However, I admit I was a rather peculiar child.

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