Social Issues

what Anne Shirley means to me, and surviving trauma

When I first heard about the Anne with an E adaptation, I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. I was introduced to L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books when I was around nine years old, and I inhaled them all, re-reading them all through my childhood and adolescence. I watched the beloved Megan Follows CBC adaption probably as many times as I read the books– that series was sleepover gold for girls my age. In college at PCC, Anne of Green Gables was one of the few things in the library worth watching. I re-read the books for the first time as an adult almost two years ago, and was surprised at how well they stood up to the passage of time. I thought as an adult I wouldn’t connect with them as much, but that wasn’t true. They were just as absorbing and lovely as the first time I read them. I think it’s possible I enjoyed them more– both aesthetically and empathetically.

Since Anne with an E hit Netflix, though, the internet’s exploded a bit with some pretty intense feelings on whether or not this adaptation is “good.” Vanity Fair calls it “bleak,” TVGuide described it as traumatizing, and one review at the Huffington Post says it’s “relentlessly grim.” Individual reactions on Twitter have been just as negative– I’ve seen people calling it a “desecration” more than once. I’ve seen many people argue all over Facebook that they don’t like Anne with an E because it took “happy” and “positive” books and made it all gritty and dark. That seems to be the general consensus for people who didn’t enjoy it, but loved the previous adaptation and the books: to them, Anne with an E appears to be taking a hackneyed grimdark approach for ratings or something.

This is where they lose me. For full disclosure, I haven’t seen it yet although I’m planning to watch it this weekend. However, I just want to focus on the reaction to Montgomery’s books, since that’s what is really bothering me. Everyone is going to have different opinions on film adaptations, and that’s fine and I’m not really here to debate anyone’s response to the show. What is bothering me though is the apparently fairly common perception that the Anne books were rosy and light and sweet and happy and positive.

I apparently did not read the same books.

Granted, I’d describe the writing style as lovely, dreamlike, beautiful … there’s an elegance to the prose and I find the reading experience delightful. However, style is not the substance of the book: the narrative and content are anything but rosy or light. Anne of Green Gables opens with an orphan who has been bought and sold for child labor multiple times, and when describing some of the more traumatic moments of her childhood I got the sense Anne was describing dissociation. The sheer desperation in the opening chapters, which are capped off by the fact that Anne is bullied by an adult … the Anne books resonated with me as much as they did because Montgomery didn’t anesthetize the pain.

How anyone can read through the scene when Rachel Lynde objectifies Anne and is oblivious to her humanity– who without any empathy or compassion calls a child “ugly” not even to her face, but as if she wasn’t a person who could feel the insult … how can someone read through this and not experience the horror and violence? I’ve had adults do that to me. I’ve had adults mock me, belittle me, and dismiss me as if I weren’t recognizably human. Anne’s fury and hurt were my fury and hurt, and I choke as much as Anne does when she’s forced by culture and society– personified by Marilla– to “apologize” to her elder, her “superior.”

That is one of the earliest scenes in the book, and Montgomery doesn’t let up. Anne’s humiliated at school, bullied, ignored; so she decides she’s going to dedicate herself to academic success because she knows it’s her only route to acceptance. She throws herself into school in a way only someone who’s been abused her entire life can really recognize or appreciate, I think. Reading through it as an adult who finally had her lifelong anxiety disorder diagnosed, I was astounded at the ways Montgomery writes Anne dealing with all types of nerves, especially social anxiety. Anne’s coping mechanisms are my coping mechanisms, and part of me wonders if I learned to cope with anxiety and depression by reading these books.

Anne through the rest of the series is drawn to hurting, suffering people. Marilla and Matthew hurt in their own private, silent way. She befriends Aunt Jo, who is grieving the loss of her lifetime companion (read: lesbian lover). She convinces Rachel and Marilla to take in the Twins, whose life had certainly not been a rose garden. Then there’s Lavender, the older woman filled with regret and pain and loss, and who Anne manages to bring some happiness. This pattern is echoed in each of the books– Elizabeth Grayson and Katherine Brooke in Anne of Windy Poplars, my favorite, and Leslie in Anne’s House of Dreams, and then her own children follow the same pattern of reaching out to hurting, lonely people in Rainbow Valley.

All through the books, Anne struggles with self-doubt, anxiety, depression, and the leftover ramifications trauma and abuse leave behind, regardless of how happy her life with Gilbert becomes. There’s always the sense that she’s not quite accepted, not quite loved, that she always has something to do, to prove, to become, in order to be seen as valuable and wanted. She has wonderful people in her life who affirm her and love her, but they’re never quite able to overcome the voice inside her own head.

What bothers me about the reaction to Montgomery’s work is that we’re all doing what society always does: we don’t listen to children. We don’t believe them. We dismiss them. Anne declares in the opening pages of Green Gables that she is feeling despair, and our reaction is usually to read that as histrionics. Except look at what’s happening: she’s been sold off as child labor to horrible, abusive people for eleven years and this is the first glimmer of hope she’s ever held in her hands– and then Marilla announces she’s not wanted, that she has to go back … Despair is the only possible reaction to this situation. But Anne is a child, and so we treat her like her feelings aren’t real, that she’s not actually entitled to them. We’re just like everyone else in Avonlea constantly telling her to pipe down and stop being so melodramatic.

Most of the bullying I experienced as a child were for similar reasons. I was smart, articulate, outgoing, vivacious. The more I spoke up, the more I tried to be myself, the more I was rebuked and rejected– and not always by my peers, but by adults who should have known better. But society sided with them when they belittled me in public and my anger wasn’t acceptable. Like in Anne’s life, I’ve always had good people around me loving me and valuing me, telling me I’m good and worthy of love– my mother even adopted Cornelia Bryant’s phrase about “knowing Joseph” from House of Dreams. “They just don’t know Joseph, Samantha, ignore them.” I still comfort myself with that phrase today. To me and my mother it means that there are just some people in this world who don’t understand us and won’t like us, and that’s alright. Not everyone is going to, but the people who do “get” us are blessed by who we are, just like we’re blessed by our friends.

I’m looking forward to a show that takes all of the things I loved about Anne seriously, that doesn’t flinch away from what her life was actually like. What I’d like us all to remember that lovely and true can go together; the books can be delightful and rapturous and make us long to live on Prince Edward Island and they can show us what it could look like to blossom and thrive in a world full of pain.

Artwork by James Hill
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  • David Andersen

    : )

  • Teresa Bailey

    Thank you! I am looking forward to watching this version after reading your thoughts and Elizabeth Esther’s after she watched it. I never liked the old one because it felt too sweet for me and not true to the books. This might not be true to the books either but in a different way and perhaps truer to the background of the story. Anne did not have a rosy life even after she was adopted and used her imagination to escape. A fair adaptation will show more than just the whimsical side of her life.

  • I initially decided I wasn’t going to watch the show because it seemed like some of the “dark” scenes added weren’t even in the book (like Marilla sending Anne back to the orphanage after the incident with the brooch). But this post has opened my mind again. It will just be hard to watch another Anne that isn’t Megan Follows.

    • Lily

      Ditto. I never got into the books. But after Elizabeth Esther’s review and now this, I might actually watch the show.

    • I will say that the actress does Anne ENTIRELY differently from Megan Follows, and I didn’t feel a conflict watching it – I loved them both for their very different takes on the character. New Anne actually fits how I envisioned her (as a gangly, not-particularly-attractive, too-tall-too-fast all elbows and knees kid myself) when I first red the books.

  • kittehonmylap

    THANK YOU.

    There are some parts of the new series that irked me, but the overall tone was not in any way part of that. I love- LOVE- the new tone. I loved the old series too, but it always felt like it didn’t treat Anne’s emotions seriously. There was always a little air of a “nod & wink” to her big words and “overblown” emotions, and in hindsight that bothered me.

    This series actually takes Anne seriously- and all of the trauma she’s gone through is right there in the books! Also, Amybeth McNulty looks younger than her 15 years- I loved Megan Follows, but she was too old and too pretty for young Anne. There are a few things I wish they’d done differently, and they do deviate substantially from the books, but the story they’re telling is about the same characters who are in the books.

  • Melody

    Children’s rights are often still trampled upon. And not being taken seriously, or going unnoticed as someone with opinions that matter, is a large part of it. If you don’t get listened to, you don’t matter all that much.

    I think that many issues when it comes to relational and communication problems have their roots in how we treat children and how were treated as children ourselves. All kinds of patterns and behaviour gets learnt in childhood, after all.

    I remember how much I hated not being taken seriously as a kid – and how much I hate it still. Also in some way I have gotten so used to not being taken seriously that it keeps suprising me that people do take me seriously much more often nowadays. It’s still a jolt: I am being heard. I am listened to. I still haven’t gotten used to that.

    Women in fundamentalism generally don’t get taken seriously as an adult either. Especially not on theological subjects.

  • I would love to hear your thoughts after watching the shows as well. It is good to hear a fair, honest, well-reasoned post regarding the books. I never read them as a child, but have considered reading them in preparation for sharing with my daughter, and now think I’ll read them but wait until she is a little older to give them to her.

  • See, I really liked that the style was so lovely and dreamlike, and that Anne was pretty upbeat and hopeful. A lot of the time I feel like fiction sends the message that if bad things happen to you, everything must be bleak and hopeless forever; that’s the sort of impression I got from reviews of this series, that it refuses to allow Anne to ever be happy. But then, I didn’t watch the old adaptation either, I only read the books, so it’s very possible that it was too far in the other direction, refusing to allow her to be sad.

  • Rachel Leigh Smith

    I grew up reading the books and watching the original Anne so many times we wore our videos out. I love Anne, and she’s one of two heroines in ALL of literature that I identify with in any way. I was excited when I first heard about this, and after the first interview clip with AmyBeth, I knew Anne was in good hands on the acting front.

    I watched the whole thing the Sunday after it hit Netflix. The first episode is fantastic, and AmyBeth McNulty is every bit as amazing an Anne as Megan was. Nor did I mind it actually dealing with the abuse Anne suffered, and how it affects the victim. I survived an abusive marriage, and it changed me at a fundamental level.

    The reason I despise Anne with an E is very simple. As it progresses, there’s a total disregard bordering on disrespect for the characters, the events of Anne’s life, and the source material. The deviation starts at the end of episode one (which is otherwise fantastic), and eventually encompasses Anne’s character and has her doing things she’d never do. Such as premeditated, long-term lying to Marilla. Anne has many faults, but lying isn’t one of them.

    I didn’t recognize Gilbert at all, and what they did with him left me furious. Gilbert wouldn’t do that. When they did the big thing with Matthew in the last two episodes, I was incensed. That sealed it, and THAT is the ultimate reason I will never ever ever recommend Anne with an E as something any Anne fan should watch, or even something someone who’s never been exposed to Anne should watch. I can forgive a lot, but not messing with Gilbert and Matthew. Up to that point, I was okay with it.

    Shy, quiet Billy Andrews was turned into a loud-mouthed bully. Mr. Phillips was a caricature of a bad teacher, and had zero substance. Diana was too wishy-washy. Mr. and Mrs. Berry were too snobby. Gilbert was cast too young, but I could’ve forgiven that if they hadn’t so totally ruined his story. Overall, the casting is excellent, I have no problems giving them kudos there.

    I’m also a published author, and I write about characters who’ve survived abuse. I’m not afraid to go down a dark road. But I don’t do it at the expense of who my characters are. I can’t respect any adaptation of a book that shows such disregard for the core of who characters are as was done in Anne with an E.

    • Stephanie Gertsch

      I was intrigued by the new series until I read some of the plot synopsis. It really seemed like they were adding events for drama without any regard to the source material. The story always had a dark side, but adding stuff in doesn’t work if you completely change what made the characters unique and likeable in the first place. I’ll give this series a pass.

    • tt

      My feeling, based on reading the plot synopses, is that these screen writers and producers have a story to tell and it is not necessarily the story of Anne Shirley and Avonlea. That is fine. But create your own characters and tell the story you need to tell. It strikes me as rather artistically lazy to use someone else’s characters, setting, (and let’s be honest) reputation and acclaim to tell your own story.

      • Jackalope

        “My feeling, based on reading the plot synopses, is that these screen
        writers and producers have a story to tell and it is not necessarily the
        story of Anne Shirley and Avonlea. That is fine. But create your own
        characters and tell the story you need to tell. It strikes me as rather
        artistically lazy to use someone else’s characters, setting, (and let’s
        be honest) reputation and acclaim to tell your own story.”

        Yes, THIS. Orphaned children going through hard times is no new story; children throughout history have suffered when they lose a parent, or worse, both parents. It wouldn’t be that hard for someone in the business to write a story that is similar (1800s orphan in rural Canada) but still uses new material rather than twisting someone else’s writing.

    • Jackalope

      “I’m also a published author, and I write about characters who’ve
      survived abuse. I’m not afraid to go down a dark road. But I don’t do it
      at the expense of who my characters are. I can’t respect any adaptation
      of a book that shows such disregard for the core of who characters are
      as was done in Anne with an E.”

      Yes, that’s my feeling too. I haven’t seen this new series (for what it’s worth, I couldn’t watch the old series either because I had the books half-memorized and couldn’t handle anything different), but discussed it with a friend with whom I have a mini-L.M.-Montgomery admiration society. When she told me that Marilla sends Anne back to the orphanage over the brooch incident I just… couldn’t do it. One of the main points of Anne’s life at Green Gables is that she finally has a stable situation to move beyond her past abuse and someone who genuinely cares about her. Marilla and Matthew aren’t perfect, and Marilla in particular is too harsh at times with her, but once they take her they are in it for the long haul. It’s hard for me to imagine Anne being able to develop into the lovely person she becomes as the series progresses if she were living in a home where she knows if she steps out of line she’ll be sent back to the orphanage. That’s a serious reason to live in fear, ALL THE TIME.

      • The episode – and then the episode following – do both deal with that exact issue, though, that once Marilla makes that mistake Anne doesn’t feel safe even when she’s brought back. There’s a whole episode of Marilla sort of being Marilla and not understanding why Anne is acting so weird, and Anne not understanding why Marilla won’t just EXPRESS her feelings if she actually gives a damn. The actors do a great job of sort of circling each other.

        I think adding that in was meant to underscore that even otherwise good and decent people could be suspicious and jump to conclusions that have very real consequences, and that it isn’t enough just to “undo” the mistake, because the consequences remain.

        • Jackalope

          Which is a great and realistic point that the screen writers could have made in their very own drama about an orphan that was not warping someone else’s story. I found that one of the big things about the book was that for all the mistakes Marilla made, she gave Anne a secure place to live and heal and grow up and that’s part of why Anne blossomed. Undercutting that because you didn’t like the way the actual author wrote things makes me think you should write your own story instead of ruining someone else’s characters.

  • Anna

    As a Canadian resident, I’m a bit irritated that Netflix took a major piece of Canadian literature, and is releasing their version on most of Netflix, except Canadian Netflix first. We get the second run. They showed it on TV, but for those of us who’ve forgone a television and just use the computer, it’s irritating (and the local bus-stop ads for the show made poor Anne look a little creepy). Of course, it’s not like I get a lot of time lately to watch TV and movies that aren’t small-child friendly, so I suppose it’s a moot point.

    I am curious about the series. I love most of Montgomery’s work, and I have fond memories of my mother reading Anne of Green Gables to me. I look forward to sharing it with my daughter in a few years. I have vague memories of the Megan Follows series, but was more into re-reading the books than watching the movies.

    • Oh, really? I had assumed Canada would get it BEFORE the USA did, for that exact reason. That sucks.

      ETA: I love the ads that everyone else hates, because everyone DOES think Anne looks creepy when she first shows up, so I thought it kind of perfectly encapsulated how much of an oddball she is visually (it’s a nice bone to throw those of us who were NOT attractive children…)

    • Lorilee Reimer Craker

      As a Canadian citizen living in the US, Canada DID get the first run, on CBC, beginning in mid-March! I jumped over giant hoops to watch it here in the states, on a friend’s satellite dish with the CBC. I see that you didn’t choose to watch it on TV, but that’s a very different thing that Netflix hijacking a Canadian piece of literature!

      • Anna

        I don’t have a TV. Just internet and Netflix.

  • Rose

    As a life-long LM Montgomery fan-girl I appreciated this take. I feel like Anne of Green Gables is never really taken seriously as literature, like it’s just cotton-candy Pollyana stuff. I loved the Megan Fellows miniseries too, but I think a lot of people latched onto it and tried to project fluffy, family values stuff onto the source material that reflected their 1980’s moral majority worldview more than the actual books… Anyway, loved what you had to say here about how we treat childhood pain!

  • There is a lot in the books that Montgomery assumed her audience at the time would grasp via context, that she wouldn’t have to spell out – the way orphans were seen as inherently dangerous due to growing up in the orphanage or being used for labor by potentially terrible people, but that this was somehow blamed ON THE ORPHAN rather than their upbringing, the way that orphans were viewed as sort of aliens that we must never trust, etc – and I think a lot of that is lost on people in the modern age, when we don’t do that “sell kids off for child labor” nearly so openly any longer, when orphanages aren’t a common thing. The foster care system was ~supposed~ to do away with all that (obviously it hasn’t, really, but the point still stands as far as our general understanding of it.)

    When you read the books as a kid, there is a lightness to them that only gets tempered with the dark as you grow up. I first read them when I was eight or nine and the subtext was lost on me entirely. By the time I was a teenager, though, I was taking the book to my mother and saying, “Did you realize Anne was abused? I never realized that!” and having her just nod at me, because of course my mom knew that. It’s just that -I- wasn’t abused, and so as a kid I didn’t know enough about abuse to realize what Anne had survived.

    I love the new series because I think it adds a totally different and biting edge to Anne’s bravery. She HAS survived immense cruelty in life, and she is able to survive it with her imagination.

    But I can see how, if the series retained its childlike dreaminess in one’s mind, the new adaptation would be jarring.

  • J.B.

    I think I need to reread the books now. I wasn’t aware of the darkness as a teenager. At the same time I appreciate your points on Anne not being listened to BUT now understand what it is like to be an adult with a bright dreamer. There is always a reason underlying the drama but at the same time I understand adults rolling their eyes.

    Thanks for the additional comments on the show, I won’t be spending my time on it and will probably discourage bright dreamer from watching it!

  • Ysolde

    I remember reading these books when I was younger and wishing I coul dbe Gilbert to Anne. Wishing that somehow I could help her and knowing that now matter how much he did love her it would never really be enough because she never felt worthy. Maybe in some ways I understood Anne because most of my young and later life I never felt worthy, worthy of being the woman I wanted to be or worthy of the love my aunts and grandparents gave to me. It’s taken me many years to realize and accept that I am worth being loved.

    • Maan Di

      Even in the very last book, when Anne is grown & she has literally everything she ever dreamed about, she still struggles b/c she still feels unworthy. She lives a beautiful life & she triumphs, but only because she’s still willing to wade through her ongoing fears that those she loves most will throw her away.

  • Robin Heim

    I have not read the books (can you imagine!), but I recently watched the series on Netflix. Your post brings to mind:(1) The difference between, let’s say, the movie “The Robe” from the 1960’s that depicts Christ’s life and “The Passion” –> one glosses over the brutality of what Christs actually experienced (if one believes in Christ) and the other depicts His life and sacrifice in what would have been the raw reality of what a crucifixion entailed and how it would have been physically executed and (2) How when I read Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughter-House Five,” I immediately identified the PTSD within the writing and how taken aback my professor was when I mentioned it in a classroom discussion. How could anyone NOT see it. As it was, about a year after that discussion, someone else finally made the connection and wrote about it. I have the book ANNE OF GREEN GABLES. It has been on my shelf as a “to read with the children / grandchildren,” but I haven’t thought of reading it for me, until now. I would find it an interesting endeavor by any new university English major to read both ANNE OF GREEN GABLES and Jay Asher’s THIRTEEN REASONS WHY — and write a comparison paper on the coping mechanisms of both main female characters.

  • Thanks for this thoughtful essay. I, too, was at first put off by the darker adaptation of the book. Your post made me see a different point of view.