In the preview to Anne With an E, a new series premiering on Netflix today, the beloved, plucky, red-haired orphan declares to her strict new (and reluctant) guardian, “Girls can do anything a boy can do—and more!”
This was a bold feminist stance to take in 1908, when Lucy Maud Montgomery published her classic novel, Anne of Green Gables. For those unfamiliar with story, teenaged orphan Anne Shirley is mistakenly sent to live with Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. The aging siblings had requested a boy to help them with their chores at Green Gables in Avonlea, on Prince Edward Island, Canada, but Anne, a spirited survivor with a vivid imagination, eventually manages to win their hearts—and, as a character, a worldwide following of fans.
The novel has been adapted for television more than half a dozen times, including the multiple award-winning 1985 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) mini-series starring Megan Follows as Anne and a recent PBS version staring Martin Sheen as Matthew. Canadian Moira Walley-Beckett, who is best known as an acclaimed Breaking Bad writer, is at the helm of this latest reimagining of Anne of Green Gables, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, has a darker feel than the lighthearted novel as it explores themes such as bullying and abuse.
“I take nothing away from Anne,” Walley-Beckett says in a New York Times Magazine article. “She is buoyant, she’s optimistic, she’s bright, she’s fiery, she’s sunny, she’s imaginative, she’s curious. I just add in the reality of her history.”
Anne’s history included being orphaned at three months, serving as a nanny for the four Thomas children—and avoiding their drunken father—caring for the eight Hammond children, six of whom were twins. Flashbacks show her being beaten by former employers. While this new interpretation of Green Gables may be bleaker than previous versions, it actually ties in closely with the life of the deeply sensitive woman who created its protagonist.
A Lonely, Imaginative Child
Montgomery was born on Prince Edward Island, on November 30, 1874, to Hugh John Montgomery and Clara Woolner Macneill. Her mother died of tuberculosis when she was only 21 months old. Her father left her in the care of her mother's parents, Alexander and Lucy Woolner Macneill of Cavendish; he moved to western Canada, where he eventually settled in Saskatchewan and remarried.
Like Anne, Montgomery was an only child living with an elderly couple, so she found companionship in her imagination, nature and books. By age nine, she was writing poetry and keeping a journal. However, she developed a great love of Prince Edward Island and spent many happy days with her aunt and uncle, playing with her cousins and visiting her paternal grandfather, Senator Donald Montgomery.
A Teacher, Caregiver and Published Author
By 1894, Montgomery had completed the two-year course in one year for a teacher's license at Prince of Wales College, and graduated with honors. Her brief career as a teacher ended when she returned to Cavendish to take care of her grandmother when her grandfather died.
She remained with her grandmother for the next 13 years, during which time she sent off poems and stories to Canadian, British, and American magazines. Despite many rejections, she eventually earned a good living from it. In 1905, she wrote Anne of Green Gables, but after several publishers rejected the manuscript, she put it away in a hatbox. In 1907, she tried again and the Page Company of Boston, Massachusetts published it in 1908. An immediate bestseller, the book marked the beginning of Montgomery's successful career as a novelist.
Marriage and Mental Illness
Montgomery married the Reverend Ewan Macdonald on July 5, 1911. They moved to Leaskdale, Ontario, and had three sons: Chester (1912), Hugh (stillborn in 1914), and Stuart (1915). She soon discovered that husband suffered from religious melancholia and, though she hid it well, she was also prone to bouts of depression. Still, she remained a prolific writer, and continued to produce novels as well as short stories and poems that expressed her love of nature and beauty in her fiction, journals and letters.
A Tragic Ending
Maud Montgomery Macdonald died in Toronto, Ontario, on April 24, 1942 and she was buried on her beloved Prince Edward Island in the Cavendish cemetery, close to the site of her old home.
Montgomery’s official cause of death was coronary thrombosis, but a note found by her bed suggested she had committed suicide: “My position is too awful to endure and nobody realizes it. What an end to a life in which I tried always to do my best in spite of many mistakes.”
In a 2008 article for Canada's Globe and Mail, her granddaughter, Kate Macdonald Butler, made the long-kept family secret public, saying that she hoped it would help bring more awareness to the suffering of people with depression.
A Hopeful Legacy
Each year, thousands of tourists visit the Green Gables heritage site on tiny Prince Edward Island, drawn there by the descriptions of its people, way of life, and natural attributes that she immortalized through her writing. Anne of Green Gables alone has sold more than 50 million copies and been translated into at least 36 languages, and, as the new Netflix show proves, the iconic Anne Shirley continues to inspire new generations of fans to this day.