She is, when we first meet her, a girl “of about eleven, garbed in a very short, very tight, very ugly dress of yellowish gray wincey. She wore a faded brown sailor hat and beneath the hat, extending down her back, were two braids of very thick, decidedly red hair. Her face was small, white and thin, also much freckled; her mouth was large and so were her eyes, that looked green in some lights and moods and gray in others.”
I first met Anne of Green Gables, from Canadian author L.M. Montgomery’s classic 1908 book, when I was about 8 or 9, reading my mother’s childhood copy of the book: a battered dark-blue hardcover – the paper cover, if there was one, had long ago vanished – dating from the 1940s, with pages worn as soft as petals. Like many children of literature, Anne was an orphan; she was also funny and smart and wildly overdramatic in a way that maybe I didn’t recognize as a child. (Being younger than Anne upon our first meeting, I probably thought her flowery language was sophisticated.) But immediately, she became a friend.
It’s a friendship kept, through a series of “Anne” books avidly read through my teens, to occasional renewal today. (Why do people always talk about comfort food and never about comfort reading? It has far fewer calories.) And now Anne is on my mind again, with a high-profile new series based on the book now streaming on Netflix. A coproduction with Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (which has already aired the series earlier this spring), it’s been curiously retitled “Anne with an E.” A New York Times story last month indicated that it will be darker than previous adaptations; creator/screenwriter/producer Moira Walley-Beckett said that she was “extremely drawn to what it meant to be an orphan in that time … what it meant to not belong, what it meant to be derided and abused and maintain the forthright, determined optimism and point of view that Anne has.”
Adaptations of “Anne of Green Gables” are of course nothing new. There are numerous film adaptations, most notably the beloved 1985 Canadian television version starring Megan Follows, Colleen Dewhurst and Richard Farnsworth – which is, if I may borrow a phrase from Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way. Anne has also inspired several stage musicals (I grew up with the cast album for one of them, and can sing selections from the score upon request), some radio dramas, and a Finnish web series (“Project Green Gables”).
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On its surface, the story that has inspired such devotion is a simple one, of an orphaned child finding a family: Anne, a chatty, neglected waif whose parents died when she was an infant, is plucked from an orphanage to live with the Cuthberts, an elderly brother-sister duo, on their farm in a rural Prince Edward Island town. It’s a mistake – they were looking for a boy, so he could help them with the chores – but kind Matthew immediately bonds with Anne, and practical Marilla, whose tender heart is carefully hidden, can’t quite bear to send her back.
Once it’s settled that Anne will stay, the book unfolds as a sparkling, episodic portrait of small-town early adolescence more than a century ago. We follow Anne’s friendships, her triumphs at school (despite her quick temper), her love-hate (mostly hate in this book, but stay tuned) relationship with Gilbert Blythe, and her gradual transformation from wistful, starry-eyed child to affectionate, poised teenager who at the book’s end is able, through her deeds, to repay the kindness given to her at its beginning.
Rereading the book as an adult is a joy, and I recommend it. You'll learn some new words (“wincey,” by the way, is a sturdy plain or twill-weave cloth, known for its durability if not its attractiveness) and some old customs. You become immersed in the small Canadian town of Avonlea (fictional, but inspired by Cavendish, P.E.I., where Montgomery grew up) and come to know its inhabitants: the gossipy but good-hearted Mrs. Rachel Lynde, the hapless but impressively named Moody Spurgeon McPherson, the inspiring teacher Miss Muriel Stacy. (“Isn’t that a romantic name?” sighs Anne.) You laugh at Montgomery’s knack for witty dialogue – particularly Anne’s lengthy monologues. “I say far too much,” says a breathless Anne to Marilla, after chattering on for the better part of a chapter, “yet if you knew how many things I want to say and don’t, you’d give me some credit for it.”
And, I don’t want to spoil anything for those who don’t know the story, but there’s a late development in the plot that lays me out in tears, every time. Including last week. I won’t elaborate, so as not to dampen my keyboard.
I haven’t watched the new “Anne with an E” series, though I'll probably check it out; from pictures it seems that Amybeth McNulty, who plays Anne, has just the right eyes-popping-out-of-her-head look. But for me, Anne lives on the page – whether it’s those near-gossamer ones of my mother’s copy, or the modern paperback from which I reread “Anne” last week. Closing it, I realized that it’s a book full of kindness, of people who quietly love and take care of each other – the very definition, I see now, of a friend.