The Year of Anne

What happens when exploitation goes way over the top.

In midsummer of this 100th year of Anne of Green Gables, the Government of Prince Edward Island’s Department of the Environment announced that “anoxic events” had occurred in at least 20 island waterways. An algae commonly called sea lettuce, fed by an excess of nitrogen coming mostly from the runoff of phosphate-laden fertilizer applied in large doses to rejuvenate the fertility of potato fields, had sucked up all the oxygen in the water, killing off every form of marine life.

There are those of us living on this island who somewhat balefully suggest that another such event—Anneoxia—created by the surfeit of literary and commercial opportunism suffocating the centennial of the publication of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel—has sucked most of the oxygen out of whatever literary sensibilities have hitherto survived in the novelist’s home place.

Anne Shirley has been everywhere on Prince Edward Island this year: an overbearing presence in every conceivable exploitive way, expressed at every imaginable level of taste—in bookstores, on theatre stages, in gift shops, fronting tourism advertising and as an excuse to stage quasi-events.

Some of this stuff bears the imprimatur of academic research. Much is clearly motivated by avaricious dollar seeking. Whichever, poor old Lucy Maud and her creation have been analyzed, bowdlerized and proselytized to death, sucking out the magic the author intended in her novel about the orphan girl who arrives unannounced to change the lives of the bachelor and his spinster sister who give her love and a place to call home.

It is a simple story, simply told. It has resonated with young women the world over, especially those living in restrictive societies like Japan. There and elsewhere, Anne Shirley embodies an escape from societal norms, a yearning for individual freedom. It is that which makes her a universal character.

There is no particular mystery here. Nor is there any need to read into Lucy Maud and her writings any more than she set down on paper by lamplight in that old MacNeill farmhouse in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island, more than a century ago. Anne of Green Gables has prospered nicely on her own for 100 years. But this year the literary dam broke.

My own association with Anne of Green Gables began with the adaptation of the novel to the stage musical written by Donald Harron and Norman Campbell, with contributions from Mavor Moore and Elaine Campbell, first produced at the Charlottetown Festival in 1965 and, a couple of generations later, still drawing sellout audiences. The musical story hews closely to the novel, including choice bits of dialogue, which explains in part why it has been so successful. It has now been produced in many languages in many parts of the world.

I produced the Charlottetown Festival version for eight years, with Alan Lund as director/choreographer, and I thought it an almost ideal theatre piece: too sentimental by half for some jaded souls, but with script, music, costumes and sets all coming together in near-perfect fusion.

This summer, a continuation of the original story titled Anne and Gilbert was playing in Summerside’s Harbourfront Theatre for a third year, and doing good business. It too is an entertaining evening of theatre.

Down in the eastern part of the province, a train wreck of a production curiously entitled The Nine Lives of Lucy Maud Montgomery was on stage at Georgetown’s historic King’s Theatre. It is a mess of faulty concept, bad writing, dumb costumes, inept direction and murky lighting. God willing, it has run out of lives, and will never be reincarnated in this or any other world.

Then there have been the special events, including one at Confederation Centre in June, a sort of cheerleading rally called ANNE-imated—get it? It featured the Anne cast in costume singing music from the musical, Don Harron autographing his book, raspberry cordial and hot dogs. And oh yes, you could don an Anne costume and have your picture taken.

I did not avail myself of the opportunity.

If that was not your bag, you could take in the Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert Reunion in Summerside, complete with an evening cookout featuring baked beans and corn on the cob. As Blaine Corkum, the tourism guy for the City of Summerside, put it: “We’re trying to theme it around activities that would take place in 1908 when they didn’t have gas barbecues.”

Way to go, Blaine. Nice eye for historical accuracy there.

And then there are the books, the authors and the publishers using the centennial occasion to launch their entries on an unsuspecting public.

Budge Wilson gets a head start by writing a prequel (and what an awful quasi-word that is) called Before Green Gables, in which she imagines what Lucy Maud might have written if Lucy Maud had wanted to begin her novel differently. Obviously, Lucy Maud chose otherwise, leaving us to imagine what Anne Shirley’s early life must have been like through the snippets recalled by the imaginative little girl. The point, it seems to me, is that Lucy Maud wrote what she wrote for good and sufficient reason. She did what writers of creative fiction should do—waken our curiosity and our own imagination.

In any case, the publisher reports breathlessly, copies of Before Green Gables are “flying off the shelves.”

Don Harron’s collection of anecdotes and personal experiences will never capture accolades for total historical accuracy, but who cares? Anne of Green Gables, The Musical: 101 Things You Didn’t Know is a good-natured, entertaining and sometimes revealing backstage romp through 40-plus years of the musical, with the man who adapted Lucy Maud’s language for the stage. Mr. Harron interviewed a great many performers and others for the book, including me (in the “others” category). The stories are by times insightful, raucous and fascinating: “By the second season, the cast members were writing crude parodies of the songs of our show, mostly of a sexual, nay homosexual nature: ‘we queerly requested a boy … did you hear, did you hear, Gilbert Blythe is turning queer’ … etc.”

It’s a great book for the loo.

Harron’s book is apparently for grownups. Prince Edward Island–based author Deidre Kessler is after the kiddies market, with her adaptation of the original entitled Anne of Green Gables: Stories for Young Readers, with illustrations by David Preston Smith, aimed at six-year-olds and others “too young for chapter books.” What Ms. Kessler does is further simplify Lucy Maud’s original, already simple prose, as in this sample:

“A child of about eleven waited at the railroad station. She was very thin. Her small face was white and freckled. Two thick braids of very red hair hung down the back of her very ugly dress. The girl was an orphan. Her parents had died when she was tiny.”

Ms. Kessler’s original writing is spiced here and there by a line lifted directly from the original novel, as in Anne’s pronouncement to Matthew Cuthbert that: “Mrs. Spencer said my tongue must be hung in the middle, I talk so much.”

The line always gets a laugh in the musical.

Imagining Anne: The Island Scrapbooks of L.M. Montgomery has been assembled by Elizabeth Rollins Epperly from the “Blue” and the “Red” scrapbooks kept by Lucy Maud between 1893 and 1910. The handsome coffee-table–sized book exists on two levels: to fascinate the casual reader with glimpses of a time long gone and to function as a mother lode for academics mining for insights into the mind and motivation of Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Maud herself, in an autobiography she titled The Alpine Way, recorded that she “always kept a notebook in which I jotted down … ideas for plots, incidents, characters and descriptions.” In 1904, she came across the “what if” idea that germinates every story: “Elderly couple apply to orphan asylum for a boy. By mistake a girl is sent to them … Anne … flashed into my fancy already christened … She appealed to me … then the thought came … ‘write a book’.”

And so she did, writing in the evenings, much of the time looking out the gable window of her room in the MacNeill homestead. She finished in 1905.

Lucy Maud was quite firm about the origin of her ideas. In her mind, the creative process involved “making use of the real to perfect the ideal,” by which she clearly meant “appropriating bits of character, personal or mental idiosyncrasies” to create whole new characters.

Well, in this 100th year of Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud’s perfectly reasonable exposition of the way the mind of a creative writer works—be it Ernest Hemingway or Joyce Carol Oates or Lucy Maud Montgomery—has not in the least deterred academics in their search for rational explanations for the Anne phenomenon.

Magic Island: The Fictions of L.M. Montgomery by Elizabeth Waterston, professor emerita at the University of Guelph, is billed on the book jacket as “the first comprehensive ‘reader’s guide’ to all of Montgomery’s novels.” The jacket further promises us a discussion of each novel “in terms of Montgomery’s private life and her background interests.”

The chapter about Anne of Green Gables contains this passage:

“If the characters in Anne of Green Gables and some of the plot-lines come from Montgomery’s experiences of other people, the tone of the telling comes from her own nature. The sense of humour and of pathos, the feminist interest in role modeling by the older generation, the reaction against the conventions of boy-girl romance—these were, and remain, the hallmarks of a unique vision. “

Which is just about exactly what Lucy Maud said about creative writing in The Alpine Way. Indeed, where would a fiction writer draw source material from except his or her own life experience? That said, what is the point of trying to analyze and rationalize the creative process? It is like punching smoke.

No matter. Irene Gammel takes a shot at it with her book Looking for Anne: How Lucy Maud Montgomery Dreamed Up a Literary Classic, billed on the book jacket as “the untold story of both Anne and her creator.”

I had not read too far in the book when I came upon the name Evelyn Nesbitt, and her picture: a dreamy, softly lit, romantic head shot of a teenage girl clipped from an American magazine in 1903 by Lucy Maud and saved by her as the physical incarnation of Anne Shirley, even though, as she wrote in her journal, “I have no idea who she was and where she lived. I wonder if she ever read of Anne, never dreaming that, physically, she was the original.”

The name triggered something in the back of my mind, where essentially useless information is filed but, for one reason or another, never quite forgotten. I looked Evelyn up and found out why.

Evelyn Nesbitt was 16 years old and a stage-struck sometime model when she talked her mother into moving to New York so she could better achieve her stage ambitions. She made it into the chorus line of a musical called Floradora, where one evening she attracted the notice of a 41-year-old man named Stanford White, then one of America’s most famous architects and a notorious stage-door Johnny.

Mr. White was prospecting that night, looking for young and presumably innocent young flesh to accompany him to his secret downtown apartment, the sort of domicile sometimes referred to as a “love nest.” There, Mr. White plied Miss Nesbitt with champagne and, in the parlance of the time, took advantage of the young miss and deflowered her. Miss Nesbitt seemed not to mind all that much and became Mr. White’s mistress, until, after a certain time, Mr. White dumped her.

Enter Harry Thaw, the wacko scion of Philadelphia money, so enamoured of Miss Nesbitt that he married her. Mr. Thaw knew of his beloved’s past and he was intensely jealous. He hated Stanford White and his hatred became his obsession. So one hot night in July he put on a long coat and went to a ritzy party where he knew Stanford White would be.

He strolled up to the table at which Mr. White was sitting. “Hullo Harry,” he said, at which point Harry Thaw, in full view of 30 or 40 New York socialites, pulled a revolver from under his coat and shot America’s most famous architect in the head, killing him instantly.

The incident became sensational fodder for the tabloids, as well as more conservative newspapers, what with the classic scandalous elements of murder, sex and social standing of the interlocked participants. Evelyn became America’s most famous courtesan while still in her teens.

Harry went to prison for six years. Evelyn divorced him while he did his time, spending the rest of her years booze and drug ridden and drifting from partner to partner, dying in 1967.

And Lucy Maud, with Evelyn’s picture on her wall, knew nothing of her infamy.

Nor did most of her readers—until this year, 100 years later, as academics used the occasion to probe and postulate the influences that infused Lucy Maud Montgomery and her work. Now all of us have learned that CanLit’s favourite orphan was inspired by an angelic-looking teenage American hooker.

Ask not from academics more than you care or need to know.