When asked why she had decided to give red hair to her famous heroine, Anne Shirley (better known as Anne of Green Gables to legions of little girls the world over), author Maud Montgomery replied, “I didn’t. It was red.” The question of whether Anne, the passionate orphan with a temper and a penchant for puffy sleeves, really sprang fully formed from her creator’s head—Athena to Montgomery’s Zeus—is the driving force behind Irene Gammel’s new book, Looking for Anne of Green Gables, published in time for the first novel’s centenary. Gammel dismantles that legend both exhaustively and lovingly (as befits a former chair of the L. M. Montgomery Institute) to show how the “elusive” author, who had written numerous stories and at least one failed novel before she arrived at Anne, “brood[ed] up” her characters, one freckled dreamer in particular.
Though Gammel notes that everything Montgomery left behind was as tightly controlled as her fiction (the novelist even wrote her diaries with an eye toward posterity and burned documents that showed herself in a more candid light), she digs deep between the lines of whatever she can get her hands on—journals, correspondence, fashion plates, magazines Montgomery would have read—and comes up with a surprising amount of detail about both Anne and her creator. Some of it, like Gammel’s exploration of Montgomery’s difficult childhood on Canada’s Prince Edward Island (her mother was dead and her father absent) and her youthful relationships, is fascinating, while other parts, such as information about the way women framed magazine clippings and Gammel’s application of graphology to Montgomery’s handwriting in the original manuscript of Anne of Green Gables, are just unnecessary. Still, Gammel’s conclusion, that Anne Shirley was created as a kind of sacred repository for all of Montgomery’s fondest memories, is compelling and surprisingly moving.
As an adult, saddled to her aging grandmother, whose home she had grown up in but would never inherit, Montgomery became an inveterate rereader of her old correspondence and journals as a way of escaping, and in them she found inspiration. Anne’s world, Gammel writes, is one of “girls holding hands, writing love poetry to each other, and swearing everlasting devotion”—a world borne directly from Montgomery’s own. Though she eventually married (unhappily, it turned out) and had two sons, it was women who were the kindred spirits (as Anne calls them) of Montgomery’s life and women who sustained her. Even after her engagement, she wore her ring only at night and received letters from her closest friend that expressed a territorial yearning: “How I envied Ewan Macdonald for winning you. I wanted you to be alone like myself but I’m sorry now for feeling so stingy, because you are just the same as when we last slept together on Friday night.” Such physical closeness was not out of the ordinary for women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, segregated from men as they were, but Gammel gives the sense that there was something more at work.
Not that this is by any means the focus of the book. Why obsess over potential lesbian love affairs when there is the vivacious Anne to dwell on? That the flame-haired heroine got all of her good qualities and some of her bad ones straight from her creator (“I hate people, in books or out of them, who haven’t any faults!!” Montgomery wrote in her journal in 1904) seems like very good fortune for those of us who missed out on the original.