The news that Netflix has just picked up a series based on Lucy M Montgomery’s 1908 novel has got Hazel Davis dribbling in anticipation (and possibly foaming with jealous rage).
I’m not exaggerating when I say that when I was a child, the very thought that anyone else had read Anne of Green Gables filled me with a rage and jealousy I have rarely seen the like of since.
It almost kills me that people reading this might go, “Oh yeah, I loved that too,” either in a non-committal way unbefitting of it or a too-proprietorial way (I WILL fight you). As far as I had understood, Lucy M Montgomery had written Anne Shirley exclusively for me.
No, in fact, Anne Shirley wasn’t a literary creation. She was real. She was so real to me. Despite the fact she was an early 20th-century redheaded Canadian orphan with a button nose, something about her spoke directly to this 10-year-old Kentish non-orphan with a slightly more generous nose.
Ann-with-an-e bowls into Prince Edward Island’s Avonlea, having been sent to help out on Green Gables farm. Smart, feisty and funny, she upends the worlds of Marilla and her brother Matthew Cuthbert, who believed they were getting a boy.
“Gilbert laughs at Anne’s pratfalls and loves her for her brain. How many novels that old – or even new – feature a boy falling in love with a girl because she can spell better than him?”
She’s a talkative dreamer. She’s vain (obsessed with her nose and the prospect of puffed sleeves), hot-headed, stubborn and prone to drama. She has lofty literary ambitions. And she gets life wrong, a lot. She disastrously dyes her hair green instead of raven black, gets her best friend wazzocked on currant wine and when Gilbert Blythe crosses her she smashes a slate over his head (reader, she OBVS marries him).
Like Anne, from the moment I ‘met’ Gilbert Blythe, I was head over heels in love with him too. And not just the one off the film (RIP Jonathan Crombie; you made a woman of me).
He laughs at Anne’s pratfalls and loves her for her brain. How many novels that old – or even new – feature a boy falling in love with a girl because she can spell better than him? None of your modelling-future-relationships-on-your-father for me. All men in my life have had to match up to Gilbert’s smarts (“I wouldn’t want to marry anybody who was wicked, but I think I’d like it if he could be wicked and wouldn’t”) or, failing that, Matthew Cuthbert’s taciturn kindness.
Anne was big on bosom friends and kindred spirits and I, too, have spent my life looking for them. She taught me that they can take the most unlikely forms; an elderly aunt, an old man from the other side of the world, a cheeky toddler. In Anne’s words, they’re not so scarce as you think. Anne’s bosom-est friend is Diana Barry, no match intellectually but beautiful and loyal and a willing foil to her friend’s foolish enactments.
Anne is full of profound observations, couched in pompous, childish statements. I mean, check this out for words of comfort for a troubled early teen: “There’s such a lot of different Annes in me. I sometimes think that is why I’m such a troublesome person. If I was just the one Anne it would be ever so much more comfortable, but then it wouldn’t be half so interesting.”
And there are absolute nuggets that make me long for my own girls to be old enough to read them:
“Ruby Gillis says when she grows up, she wants to have a line of beaus on a string and make them crazy for her. I’d rather have one, in his rightful mind.”
And: “It is ever so much easier to be good if your clothes are fashionable.” Still relevant, still relevant.
Thanks to Anne Shirley, I memorised Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott. Thanks to Anne Shirley, I too spent my days scratching nonsense with a pen. Pretty sure I also spent longer than I should pretending to drown in various Kentish water outlets.
I’d already hoovered up the first couple of Anne books when I first saw the (1985) film adaptations, so perfectly pitched they are inextricably bound with the novels. Megan Follows is so gorgeously Anne that she almost stepped into the books after she’d finished and stayed. They got it SO right. The music, the atmosphere, the casting, the tone.
So when I read that Netflix had picked up a new TV adaptation, I don’t think I’m being overly Anne Shirley when I say that my life is now a perfect graveyard of buried hopes and that I am in the depths of despair.
I read, and then I stopped reading, that the new series will tackle wider issues of “identity, sexism, bullying, prejudice, and trusting one’s self”. I want to say this is laudable and I want to say that’s just what the books did anyway (they totally did) but I mostly want to say if you fuck it up… “A pale, pale corpse she floated by, deadcold, between the houses high…”
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Hazel Davis is a freelance writer from West Yorkshire. She has two tiny children but the majority of her hours are taken up with thinking about Alec Baldwin singing sea shanties and the time someone once called her "moreishly interesting".