Margaret Atwood on the centenary of “Anne of Green Gables”

By on

If you fancy some Canadian-on-Canadian literary action, you might want to take a look at this recent article in U.K. newspaper the Guardian. To celebrate the centenary of Anne of Green Gables (first published in 1908) author Margaret Atwood has written a long, wide-ranging article that takes on the life of Anne‘s author, L.M. Montgomery, as well as 100 years of cultural response to the book and her own personal feelings about it.

I’m a fan of both Montgomery and Atwood. But since Atwood is known for such dark, troubling adult novels as Cat’s Eye and The Handmaid’s Tale, I was initially a little apprehensive as to what she might make of bright, cheery Anne. Was this going to be a hatchet job on maudlin sentimentality?

Admittedly, there are some traces of Atwood’s sardonic humor in the article. She describes Anne as “hit[ting] Prince Edward Island’s Green Gables farmhouse in a splatter of exclamation marks, apple blossoms, freckles and embarrassing faux pas.” And reflecting on the likely real-life fate of a Victorian orphan, as opposed to Anne’s fairy-tale ending, she writes:

In my sourer moments, I confess to having imagined yet another Anne sequel, to be called Anne Goes on the Town. This would be a grim, Zolaesque epic that would chronicle the poor girl’s enticement by means of puffed sleeves, then her sexual downfall and her subsequent brutal treatment at the hands of harsh male clients.

Overall, though, it’s a surprisingly appreciative article, with some interesting suggestions about and insights into a book that many readers may feel they know back to front. Atwood recounts the answers that were given when she asked a Japanese audience about Anne’s popularity in Japan, for example: “Anne has a passion for apple blossoms and cherry blossoms — the latter are especially dear to the hearts of the Japanese — so her brand of aesthetic sensibility was very sympathetic.”

Atwood also offers the interesting theory that it is really Marilla, not Anne, who is the central character of Green Gables, since it is Marilla who most develops and changes over the course of the book — from repressed and forbidding guardian into a woman almost more emotional and vulnerable than Anne herself.

Like Atwood, I admit to sobbing like a wuss when Marilla tells her adopted daughter after Matthew’s death: “I love you as dear as if you were my own flesh and blood and you’ve been my joy and comfort ever since you came to Green Gables.”

As for many other modern readers of the books, my mental images of Anne and Marilla are all tied up with the 1985 Canadian television movie and its 1987 sequel, starring Megan Follows and Colleen Dewhurst in the roles of Anne and Marilla, respectively. Recently I had the chance to re-watch these movies, and I was much more put off this time around by all the ways in which they differ from the books. But I was also much more struck by the romantic overtones in the friendship between Anne and Diana Barry (played by Katharine Hepburn‘s great-niece Schuyler Grant):

Back in 2000, Canadian professor Laura Robinson caused something of a furor when she wrote a paper called Bosom Friends: Lesbian Desire in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne Books. An “expert” on Montgomery was even brought in to react to the claim in a radio interview you can listen to here. I’ll admit that personally I don’t find Anne and Diana’s friendship particularly lesbianish in the books, and from Montgomery’s repulsed response to a lesbian fan, recorded in the fourth volume of her journals, it seems fairly clear that subtext of that nature wasn’t what she had in mind, but I know that other readers have seen it the way Robinson does.

If I was to add anything to all the fascinating information contained in Atwood’s article, it would be a strong recommendation — for those who haven’t already — to read Montgomery’s journals. But be prepared that Montgomery’s life was much more difficult than Anne’s, and in many ways closer to that of her less famous but no less interesting heroine, Emily Byrd Starr of the Emily books.

I’d also recommend the Anne of Green Gables thread over on TelevisionWithoutPity.com. Although ostensibly created to talk about the first two television movies (and to groan over the third and upcoming fourth one, which leave Montgomery’s plotlines behind), it’s also got lots of analysis about the entire series of Anne books, up to Rilla of Ingleside.

Are you an Anne fan? Did you see her as secretly in love with Diana? Or do you prefer the Emily books?

More you may like