The Métropolitain

The Audacious Little Redhead of PEI

By Sharman Yarnell on June 26, 2008

Little did she know the affect she'd have on the province's tourist trade and economy when she wrote the story so beloved by Canadians and others in so many countries the world over. She couldn't have conceived that her story and its sequels would be turned into movies, award winning television series and a musical that is staged to sold out houses every year in her home province. (Indeed, it has become the longest running musical in Canada.) Through no stretch of the imagination - even Anne's (that's Ann with an 'e', please) could she have envisioned the tourists that would flock from Japan every summer to marry on the lush greens of the little gabled house.

The story of a little redhaired orphan on Prince Edward Island inspired all of this. 

Lucy Maud Montgomery's story, Anne of Green Gables, was published June 20, 1908, one hundred years ago, when the Island's main claim to fame was cultivating our the time honored basic food staple the potato. And the only way to reach the Island, back then, was by ferry.

Times have changed.

 Anyone who has visited Prince Edward Island by car knows that the proliferation of straw hats with red braids attached, along with the red glint of the sand by the side of the road, grows more dense the closer you get to Confederation Bridge. In fact, the hats appear almost as soon as you pass the New Brunswick border. The hats, the smooth, well-maintained roads are all a sure sign that Quebec is behind you.

While many Islanders complain that the Island is simply too 'Annified', there's no doubt that Anne Shirley put Prince Edward Island on the map.

Many actors have thrown themselves into the role of Anne - as they have into those of Matthew and Marilla. The BBC recently found its television production of the story, starring Canada's Barbara Hamilton as Marilla. The most popular of all the adaptations of the book, though, is that by director/writer Kevin Sullivan in1985. He wrote, directed and produced the television series that starred Colleen Dewhurst as the definitive Marilla, Richard Farnsworth as Matthew, Megan Follows as Anne Shirley and Schuyler Grant as her bosom buddy Diana Barry.

Grant is the great neice of Katherine Hepburn. Sullivan told me in a recent interview that Hepburn actually called him personally when she heard about his project and said she wanted her neice to play Anne. In fact, Hepburn admitted that she, herself, would have loved to have played Anne sometime during her illustrious career. She could have . One of the first movies on the book was done in 1919 - now considered a lost film. It starred Mary Minter as Anne. The next movie was in released 1934. With a stretch of the imagination, one can actually visualize a young Hepburn in the role, with that red hair and her acerbic wit. But there was nothing dreamy about Hepburn. She was far too brittle. I can't imagine her having a 'bosom buddy'. (Unless, of course, it was Spencer Tracy!) I can, however, imagine her walking along the eves of a roof on a dare.

Touching on iconic status, the phenomenal rise to popularity of Anne of Green Gables is an enigma - perhaps because most of us can relate to the feelings of this little, unwanted orphan. Maud herself (she was rarely called Lucy) was a sensitive child and abhorred any teasing or being made fun of. Her cousins often tormented her, her aunts and uncles criticized her. She often felt unwanted, even by her grandparents, convinced that they had taken her in only out of a sense of duty to her parents.

Not an orphan herself, her mother died when she was only two and her father relocated to Saskatchewan where he remarried. Little Maud was sent to live with her grandparents in Cavendish. The old homestead still stands and has a museum on the site. And what a site it is. You can amble through the woods all the way over to Green Gables—a walk Maud made many a time to visit her cousins. And it's on these walks in the surrounding countryside that she developed her imagination by giving names to places and landmarks, like the “Haunted Wood” and “The Lake of Shining Waters”.

The story of Anne and Maud are somewhat parallel: Montgomery's grandparents were staunch Pres-byterians, strict and unrelenting in punishment for the slightest mis-demeanor, which is probably why the need to be wanted and loved is so predominant in the Anne books. Her grandmother was likely the role model for Marilla. Maud grew up to be a teacher just like Anne, wrote stories and was published at a young age. Both enjoyed fertile imaginations and were happily in tune with nature. It was probably Maud's way of surviving with her grandparents. However, while extremely focused and deter-mined, there is no record of Maud having the temper that Anne is famous for—and she certainly didn't have red hair.

One might recognize Anne to be one of the forerunners of the Women's Liberation movement. Unlike the demure and male-serving females of the day, she was fiesty, faced adversity head on and stood up to the young men in her life - especially ones who yanked her pigtails. For that, she broke writing slates over their heads.

Maud faced many sorrows in her life, starting with her early years with her grandparents. She didn't marry until she was thirty-seven because, after her grandfather died, she felt it her duty to care for her grandmother. It was during this time that the story of Anne took root. (The book was actually rejected by several publishers and Maud packed it away in an 'old hat box' for four years.) Her first love, Herman Leard, a local farmer, died of influenza and Maud was devastated. One of her children, a boy, died soon after birth. Her later years were spent caring for her husband, who suffered from 'melancholia'. And in 1938, she suffered a nervous breakdown from fatigue and nervous exhaustion.

Anne of Green Gables is timeless. The era is clearly depicted by 'puffed sleeves' and the horse-and-carriage drives around the beautiful PEI countryside. Yet, Anne really could be any little girl, in any country, of any place, of any time. The book speaks loudly of the importance of friendship. The importance of nurturing the spirit. The need to be loved and wanted. We all can relate to that. This child breathes life as we seek it. She is a medicine our spirits can share and on which to grow.

We may better understand Maud's amazing success through the words of her journal:

“I wrote it for love, not money, but very often such books are the most successful, just as everything in the world that is born of true love has life in it.”