Revisiting Anne of Green Gables and Her Creator

Kathleen A. Miller

Kathleen Miller is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Delaware, where she is at work on a study of female artist figures in Victorian gothic fiction.

Every year, tourists invade Prince Edward Island looking for “Anne’s land,” the fictional landscape of Avonlea, as depicted in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908) and its seven sequels. While scholars and enthusiasts still make pilgrimages to England for Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon or the Brontë’s Haworth, that little island in Canada is one of the most visited sites of literary tourism centered on a character from a novel, rather than an author. (It is also one of the few related to literature of the twentieth century.) As I can attest from my own visits, all throughout Prince Edward Island, Anne’s image is emblazoned on everything from potato chip bags to license plates. But the 350-million-dollar tourist business there has a distinctly gendered aspect, selling a variety of items pitched to the novel’s largely female readership, such as jewelry boxes, tea towels, and embroidery kits. There is something about Anne that has appealed to millions of girls. Now a new scholarly industry is trying to widen that appeal and to extend it beyond Anne to include the author behind her.

Anne’s creator, Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1942), called “Maud” by friends and family, was born and raised on Prince Edward Island. Her life story reads like something designed for an inspirational brochure at a tourist site--a tale of disadvantages overcome by pluck and talent and of a suffering artist who kept writing through her pain. A sensitive child, Montgomery never felt that she received sufficient love or support. After her mother’s death, she was cared for by her grandparents, Alexander and Lucy Macneill, both stern and emotionally distant guardians. As a gifted student, however, she found acceptance and encouragement through her studies. At the turn-of-the-twentieth-century, a time when there were few acceptable occupations for an intellectual woman, she became a teacher and later a journalist. Still unfulfilled, she began writing her most famous novel, Anne of Green Gables and enjoyed success in literature that she never achieved in her personal life. Her marriage was an unhappy one, her two sons caused her much grief, and she experienced periods of mental instability. Yet she was amazingly prolific, turning out over 500 poems, twenty novels, and countless short stories.

Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables was an enduring bestseller from the moment of its release in 1908, and it has never been out of print. It is arguably Canada’s most famous work of fiction. The novel’s plot is easy to sum up: imaginative, irrepressible orphan Anne Shirley arrives at Avonlea on Prince Edward Island by mistake--the brother-and-sister pair adopting her had asked for a boy--and proceeds to make the best of her circumstances. Ultimately, this red-headed girl introduces everyone around her to the joys of creativity, spontaneity and, eventually, romance. Fans of the novel can recall in loving detail such key episodes as Anne dyeing her hair green, sinking a boat while pretending to be the Lady of Shalott, and falling off a roof. Throughout her adventures, she is a tomboy and proto-feminist, challenging the rigid gender expectations of a Canadian social world still under the sway of Victorian propriety.

In 2008, Anne of Green Gables--The Musical marked its 45th consecutive year on the Charlottetown stage. An “Avonlea Village,” which opened in 1999, provides a replica of the town as described in Montgomery’s books, in addition to the “real” Green Gables--a house owned by Margaret and David Macneill Jr., who were cousins of Montgomery's grandfather. With its mix of historical buildings moved from their original locations, including the Belmont schoolhouse where Montgomery taught, the Green Gables Heritage Site, much like Avonlea Village, embodies the conflation between creator and creation so often found in discussions of Montgomery and Anne. According to Irene Gammel in Making Avonlea: L.M. Montgomery and Popular Culture (2005) Montgomery…

 …has been able to create and sustain an industry that has supported an entire provincial economy for decades through tourism, consumer items, musicals, and films. No other author has had Montgomery’s sustained power to export Canadian literature and culture around the world. No other author has come to be associated so forcefully and emotionally with the nation’s cultural heritage. (3)

Although Montgomery’s work is commonly associated with Canadian children’s fiction, it has reached far beyond specific age and national borders. It has produced, for example, commercially successful film adaptations: Anne of Green Gables (1985) and Anne of Green Gables The Sequel (1987) directed by Kevin Sullivan, which led to Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story (1998) and a prequel, Anne of Green Gables: A New Beginning (2008). The recent explosion of critical and popular interest in Montgomery and her texts, fueled by the 2008 centenary of Anne of Green Gables, shows Montgomery's ability to cross boundaries and appeal to global audiences. In particular, Anne has had a special relationship with the Japanese. A Canadian missionary named Loretta Shaw first brought Anne to Japan in the 1930s. She gave a copy of the novel to her friend Hanako Muraoka, who translated it as Akage no An, literally “Anne of the Red Hair.” To expose Japanese children to Western literature after World War II, the novel was added to the national school curriculum in 1952, at Muraoko’s suggestion. Today, thousands of Japanese tourists travel to Cavendish each year to visit Anne's fictional home.

As is fitting for an icon whose ubiquity rivals that of Mickey Mouse, Anne received a major birthday celebration in 2008.The heirs of L.M. Montgomery and the Anne of Green Gables Official Licensing Authority authorized two commemorative stamps (based on paintings by Ben Stahl and Christopher Kovacs), and the Canadian mint issued a 25-cent coin. Penguin books served as the official publisher of the Montgomery anniversary editions, which included a collector’s edition of Anne of Green Gables, modeled on the first printing, and Budge Wilson’s Before Green Gables, a prequel to Anne of Green Gables. Elizabeth Epperly’s Imagining Anne: The Island Scrapbooks of L.M. Montgomery reproduces pages from Montgomery’s scrapbooks from roughly 1896-1903, years in which the young writer attended and taught school and struggled to find her authorial voice.

Scholarly interest in Montgomery’s novels is a relatively new phenomenon, but an active one. Critical studies of Montgomery’s work began in 1966 with Elizabeth Waterston’s contribution to The Clear Spirit: Twenty Canadian Women and Their Times. Books devoted to Montgomery’s work followed: Such a Simple Little Tale: Critical Responses to Montgomery’s ‘Anne of Green Gables,’ edited by Mavis Reimer (1992), The Fragrance of Sweet-grass by Elizabeth Epperly (1992), Harvesting Thistles: The Textual Garden of L.M. Montgomery by Mary Henley Rubio (1994) and L.M. Montgomery and Canadian Culture by Irene Gammel and Elizabeth Epperly (1999). In 1993, the University of Prince Edward Island established the L.M. Montgomery Institute with a three-year grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada and subsequent five-year funding from the Macdonald Stewart Foundation and funding from Leadership Sponsor Aliant.Since 1994, the Institute has held a biannual international conference on the writer and her fiction, with topics ranging from Montgomery’s impact on popular culture, through the significance of landscapes in her novels, to Anne’s status as a children’s “classic.” In December 2008, the Modern Language Association’s Children’s Literature Division sponsored a panel titled “Return to Prince Edward Island: Anne of Green Gables at One Hundred.”

Many of the first studies of Montgomery focused on her fiction and its relationship to literary studies. However, in 1986, Elizabeth Waterston and Mary Rubio published their edition of The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery and sparked interest in Anne’s creator. Four more volumes of the journals have followed. Montgomery was an avid diarist who, aware of her growing literary celebrity, self-consciously revised her journals with an eye to publication. With the availability of Montgomery’s journals, scholars began to turn to her biography and life writings, as Irene Gammel did in Making Avonlea and The Intimate Life of L.M. Montgomery (2005).  

Now, almost as much of the new scholarship focuses on Anne’s creator as on Anne. For example, Gammel’s Looking for Anne: How Lucy Maud Montgomery Dreamed up a Literary Classic (2008)offers a dual biography of Anne and of the author behind her, as Gammel speculates about the biographical factors and popular influences that shaped Anne’s development. Gammel says her book is “a literary mystery about the life of a beloved fictional character who mirrored, according to L.M. Montgomery’s account, her own dreams and fantasies, her memories and emotions” (15). However, Gammel’s most compelling and original arguments center less on biography alone and more on cultural history, as she explores Montgomery’s fascination with the glamorous women’s magazines of her era. In fact, by examining fashion magazines and American mass market periodicals, Gammel supplies a theory about the identity of the woman who eventually inspired the “face” of Anne, drawing on a photograph of the notorious actress Evelyn Nesbit (the so-called “Girl in the Red Velvet Swing”) that appeared in Metropolitan Magazine in 1903. Similarly, Elizabeth Rollins Epperly’s Imagining Anne: The Island Scrapbooks of L.M. Montgomery (2008) highlights Montgomery’s passion for fashion, reproducing pages from Montgomery’s scrapbooks that show collections of images of beautiful women from history set alongside fabrics and dress illustrations in advertisements of the 1890s. From both recent critical studies, readers receive a picture of Montgomery as a very modern figure, interested in contemporary fashion and the cult of celebrity. According to both Gammel and Epperly, these influences led her to create a literary icon from a complicated pastiche of popular images and texts.

Heightened interest in Montgomery’s life has also resulted in the release of Elizabeth Waterston’s Magic Island: The Fictions of L.M. Montgomery (2009) as well as Mary Rubio’s Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings (2008), the most comprehensive biography of the author to date, based on Rubio’s painstaking research since the 1970s. These books are designed to be read alongside each other. Magic Island emphasizes the imagination, wit, drive, and humor that gave Montgomery her “magic,” or creative genius. Waterston draws parallels between Montgomery’s internal “island” of imagination, her personal life, her professional career, and the characters in her novels in order to reconsider Montgomery’s fiction in light of new information regarding her personal life.

Undoubtedly, Rubio’s biography provides much of that new information and insight into Montgomery’s personal life. The Gift of Wings contains previously unreproduced photographs and reconstructs periods in Montgomery’s life for which the journal entries are scant. The figure that emerges from Rubio’s biography is complex—ambitious and talented, but deeply troubled. In particular, Rubio does a fine job of detailing Montgomery’s hardships, including fights with her publishers, marital troubles, reliance on prescription drugs, and despair over the decline in her prestige as literary tastes, with the rise of modernism, shifted away from “local color” and sentiment. Rubio also makes some provocative claims about possible romantic attachments, suggesting that Montgomery may have had an extramarital affair. Regardless of such speculation, both Waterston and Rubio shed new light on Montgomery’s fiction through further considerations of her professional and personal life.

In a different sort of reclamation of Montgomery as an influential female author, her heirs released, for the first time, what could be her possible suicide note. Mary Rubio’s 2008 biography provides a persuasive reading of the document, disputing that it is a suicide note and asserting instead that it is merely a page of “grumbles” from her journals. Montgomery’s name for her journal was her “grumble book,” and she viewed it as a safe space to air her frequent disappointments and grievances. But no one is sure of the truth. If Montgomery begins to receive more attention for the mystery of her death, it may be that she will become the new poster child for female artists suffering from mental illness, a biographical topos that fetishizes the depression and suicides of figures such as Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath.

Regardless, increased interest in Montgomery’s life seems to be recasting the author as a feminist heroine. As early as 1992, in “ ‘Subverting the trite’: L.M. Montgomery’s ‘room of her own’,” Mary Rubio had suggested that Montgomery and Woolf shared many similarities--especially, with their roles in the empowerment of women in the twentieth century. The character of Anne has long been an icon of girls’ culture, but increased interest in her creator seems to be putting Montgomery in a league with the “big girls”--not only adult readers, but also the heavy-hitters of feminist literature such as Woolf and Plath.

Montgomery has always seemed poised for just an elevation. Rubio’s biography reveals an author who was acutely aware of her celebrity and her status as role model. However, like many women writers, she often experienced contradictory feelings about her fame and the demands it placed on her. At the same time that she resented having to live up to the expectations for a minster’s wife and an international female celebrity, she also relished her impact on her readers. In The Gift of Wings,Rubio quotes an entry from 1922 in Montgomery’s journal, one written to an imaginary great-granddaughter:

I lived a hundred years before you did; but my blood runs in your veins and I have lived and loved and suffered and enjoyed and toiled and struggled just as you do. I found life good, in spite of everything. May you find it so. I found that courage and kindness are the two essential things. They are just as essential in your century as they were in mind. . . . I hope you’ll be merry and witty and brave and wise; and I hope you’ll say to yourself, ‘if Great-great-Grandmother were alive today, I think I’d like her in spite of her faults.’

Although seemingly written to one young woman of the future, the note appears to be addressed also to later generations of readers, especially to women readers. Montgomery wishes that the memory of her individual qualities--her wit, courage, kindness, and even her failings--might survive alongside her literary creations. Since Montgomery anticipated that her journals would be published, she plotted to ensure that the adult author, not just the girl-child Anne, would be remembered. The recent proliferation of Montgomery scholarship focusing on her biography and life writings promises that her wish will be fulfilled.

At the end of Anne of Green Gables,the protagonist Anne Shirley says, “[My] future seemed to stretch out before me like a straight road. I thought I could see along it for many a milestone. Now there is a bend in it. I don’t know what lies around the bend, but I’m going to believe that the best does.” In light of the growing interest in L.M. Montgomery’s life, a bend in the road has appeared in Montgomery’s reputation, and scholars and enthusiasts alike wait to see what lies around it for Anneand her creator.           
Meanwhile, however, Anne of Green Gables continues to draw new generations of readers and new visitors to Prince Edward Island. Just when they need it, they encounter a heroine who embodies the spiritedness, passion, and creativity of the woman who invented her. And that is something you cannot get from a tea towel or a potato-chip bag.


Works Cited

Epperly, Elizabeth. Imagining Anne: The Island Scrapbooks of L.M. Montgomery. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2008.

---. The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass: L.M. Montgomery’s Heroines and  the Pursuit of Romance. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.

Gammel, Irene. Looking for Anne: How Lucy Maud Montgomery Dreamed Up a Literary Classic. Ontario: Key Porter Books, 2008.

---. Ed. Making Avonlea: L.M. Montgomery and Popular Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

--- and Elizabeth Epperly. Eds.. L.M. Montgomery and Canadian Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

Reimer, Mavis. Ed. Such a Simple Little Tale: Critical Responses to L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Metuchen, N.J.: Children’s Literature Association Scarecrow Press, 1992.

Rubio, Mary. Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings. Canada: Doubleday Canada, 2008.

---. Harvesting Thistles: The Textual Garden of L.M. Montgomery. Guelph: Canadian Children’s Press, 1994.

---. “Subverting the trite: L.M. Montgomery’s ‘room of her own’.” Canadian Children’s Literature 65 (1992): 6-39.

Waterston, Elizabeth. Magic Island: The Fictions of L.M. Montgomery. New York: Oxford UP, 2009.

---. “Lucy Maud Montgomery 1874-1942.” The Clear Spirit: Twenty Canadian Women and their Times.  Mary Quayle Innis, Ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966. 198-220.


Kathleen A. Miller

Volume 13, Issue 2 The Looking Glass, May/June 2009

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