Lucy Maud (without an e, thanks) Montgomery’s classic bildungsroman, Anne of Green Gables, was published to massive—Harry Potter levels—success in 1908, spawning a whole series of sequels, a bustling tourism industry for the Canadian island where the books were set, and a worldwide enduring love affair with the feisty Anne “with an ‘e’” Shirley.
Montgomery finished Anne in 1905, and it took her six tries to find the novel a publisher. That sixth publisher, the Page Company of Boston, Mass., was very lucky: The original book was a runaway bestseller, selling 19,000 copies in the first five months and sprinting through 10 printings in its first year alone. The following year, it was translated into Swedish, the first of at least 20 different languages Anne would be published in. More than 50 million copies of the book have been sold worldwide, and it is probably still the most widely read Canadian novel in the world.
The story of how the independent, flame-topped 11-year-old orphan Anne comes to live at the Cuthberts’ farm on Prince Edward Island is by now a well-worn classic, especially—but not solely—if you’re a woman. Anne is clever, spirited, loyal, and imaginative, but prone to dramatic flights of fancy and getting herself into situations; her transformation into the beloved adopted daughter of the elderly brother and sister Cuthbert, the Island’s brightest student, a pretty woman whose carrot-colored locks deepen into a handsome auburn, and a mature caretaker who is willing to put her own dreams on hold for the good of others is at times mawkish, but on the whole deeply satisfying. Even now, the books retain the charm that first set young imaginations alight, as evidenced by how much people continue to celebrate them, more than 100 years after their first printing.
But even if you’ve read the whole series—the seven sequels and the two related books by Montgomery, all about Anne—there might be a few things about Anne with an ethat you don’t know.
Famous curmudgeon Mark Twain loved her, saying she was "the dearest and most lovable child in fiction" since Lewis Carroll's Alice. Margaret Atwood, in an essay that appeared in The Guardian in 2008—the 100th anniversary of the book’s publication—wrote about her love of reading the book as a child and then again, when her own daughter was of Anne-age. Atwood also makes a compelling case that in Anne of Green Gables, the story isn’t so much about Anne’s transformation—or lack thereof, because notwithstanding her new thoughtfulness and auburn locks, she’s still the same girl inside—but about cold spinster Marilla Cuthbert’s. “Anne is the catalyst,” wrote Atwood, “who allows the crisp, rigid Marilla to finally express her long-buried softer human emotions.”
2. Anne is big in Japan.
In 1939, a missionary from New Brunswick left her copy of Anne with a friend, respected translatorHanako Muraoka. Muraoka secretly translated the book into Japanese, renaming it Akage No Anne (Anne of the Red Hair), but held on to it through the war. In 1952, when Japanese officials were looking for translations of enriching, inspirational Western literature to teach in schools, she brought out her translation and Anne of Green Gables became part of the Japanese curriculum. Japan fell in love with Anne overnight, finding her red hair exotic, her hardworking attitude and kind nature endearing, and her story of winning over the town—not to mention Marilla Cuthbert, the seemingly hard-hearted matron—inspirational.
National obsession might not even begin to cover it: In 1986, a Japanese businessman made news when he signed a contract to import more than $1.4 million worth of potatoes from Prince Edward Island, solely on the realization that the potatoes came from Anne’s island. There is an Anne Academy in Fukuoka, which teaches Japanese students how to speak English with a Prince Edward Island accent; a nursing school called the School of Green Gables that tries to instill Anne-like qualities in its students; and several national fan clubs. People get married in Anne-themed weddings, thousands of Japanese tourists—many of them adult women with their hair dyed red and tied up in pigtails—visit Prince Edward Island each year, and surveys consistently find that the character is still one of the most beloved of young women across Japan. In 2008, the Canadian and Japanese post jointly sold a sheet of stamps featuring scenes from the 1979 Nippon Animation Anne cartoon; the stamps proved so popular in Japan that they sold 10 million of the 15 million run in the first month of their release.
Anne of Green Gables was translated, although not officially, into Polish in 1912. This pirated copy, under the spurious author name “Anne Montgomery,” would become hugely popular and deeply important to Poland over the next 40 years and beyond. During World War II, the Polish resistance issued copies of Anne of Green Gables to its fighters as a reminder of what they were fighting for and to emphasize the values of family, loyalty, and selflessness—all of the things that plucky Anne seemed to embody. After the War and during the Communist occupation, the book was suppressed as subversive, largely due to its themes of resisting authority and the importance and value of the individual. The book was big on the black market; the copies sold there were often patched together from personal copies that hadn’t been confiscated.
Just as Anne herself became a kind of emblem of individualism and hope, so too did the author, whose works were celebrated well beyond the Anne canon. In 1982, Montgomery's only book set entirely outside of Prince Edward Island and one of the few to be pitched to an adult audience, The Blue Castle, was turned into a musical in Krakow, no mean feat during the Communist privations.
4. Anne is big business.
While the sales of the books may have slowed somewhat with age, Anne is still big business to all those kindred spirits who love her so. Cavendish, which Montgomery re-imagined as Avonlea in the books, sees more than 125,000 Anne fans on pilgrimage each year (an estimated 20 percent of them are from Japan), and Green Gables, a farmhouse that had actually belonged to Montgomery’s cousin but certainly looks the part, is a National Historic Site (it abuts an 18-hole golf course;such is the course of modernity). Prince Edward Island, which jointly owns the trademarked term “Anne of Green Gables” with Montgomery's heirs, remains a veritable wonderland of Anne-themed tchochkes. Anne fans can buy Anne tea sets and Anne candies; Anne tea towels and potholders, cookbooks and aprons; Anne note cards and pencils; CDs featuring music from the several Anne musicals; and Anne light switches. There are Anne buttons and magnets, Anne bookmarks, Anne puzzles, Anne stained glass night lights; for the kids, an Anne straw hat to wear just like their favorite heroine, Anne porcelain dolls to be creeped out by, and Anne plush dolls to cuddle. Carry it all home in your new Anne tote bags, just because you can. Virtually anything that you could put Anne on, someone has.
In some senses, Montgomery was rewriting her own past in Anne of Green Gables. Montgomery wasn’t exactly an orphan in the strictest sense of the word—her mother died when she wasn’t even 2 years old, and her father left her to be raised by her severe, Presbyterian maternal grandparents in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island. But she felt like one in the spiritual, emotional sense: Sensitive and book-loving, Montgomery did not find a lot of love with her grandparents, nor did she find it when she was later sent to live with her father’s new family after he remarried. When Anne declares, "Nobody ever did want me," it’s not hard to hear Montgomery’s voice.
Despite her fame, success, and rich inner life, at least part of Montgomery’s life was a series of misadventures in love and unhappiness, including refusing to marry the farmer she loved because she believed he wasn’t educated enough for her, and eventually marrying a Presbyterian minister who sank into a debilitating depression. When she died in 1942, her family gave it out that it was heart failure that killed her. In 2008, however, her granddaughter disclosed that the 67-year-old writer had deliberately overdosed on drugs, leaving behind a note asking for forgiveness. (For more about Montgomery’s complicated life, check out this.)
6. Montgomery dreaded the Anne sequels.
The success of Anne of Green Gables was, as they say, a blessing and a curse for Montgomery. Even as early as 1908, a year before the first Anne sequel, Anne of Avonlea, came out, Montgomery wrote to a friend that she dreaded the thought of revisiting Anne and that the whole idea of a sequel was her publisher’s: “I’m awfully afraid if the thing takes, they’ll want me to write her through college. The idea makes me sick. I feel like the magician in the Eastern story who became the slave of the ‘jinn’ he had conjured out of a bottle.”
College?! Montgomery continued to write Anne well through college, marriage, childbirth, and beyond, and it seems that by Anne of Ingleside, the sixth book, at least, she was more or less all right with it—she wrote that it was like “going home.”
Anne has been reinvented dozens of times over. In 1919, the book was adapted to the screen in a now-lost silent film; in 1934, Hollywood tried again, this time with a 16-year-old girl called “Anne Shirley” in the title role. Shirley was actually born Dawn Paris—a pretty good stage name already —but film studio RKO was never one to pass up a publicity stunt, so they asked the contract player to change her name to her character’s. Funnily enough, her name had already been changed once before, by her stage parents: She went from Dawn Paris to Dawn O’Day by the age of three.
8. More Annes on screen.
Anne of Green Gables has been adapted for the screen—both small and large—many other times since 1934, including the 1979 Nippon Animation anime version of Anne of Green Gables, hugely popular in its own right. But it’s the 1985 Canadian-produced TV mini-series starring Megan Follows as the red-haired orphan and Colleen Dewhurst as stern Marilla Cuthbert that is probably the most famous. The film broke Canadian broadcast history when it premiered, establishing a record viewership that wouldn’t be broken until Canadian Idol in 2003, and the program has since been translated in 30 different languages and broadcast in more than 140 countries. The last Anne film came in 2008; the made-for-TV Anne of Green Gables: A New Beginning starred Barbara Hershey as a middle-aged Anne reeling from the death of husband Gilbert in World War II and lost in her troubled memories of her childhood.
A musical based on Anne of Green Gables—titled, obviously, Anne of Green Gables: The Musical—was first staged in 1965, as part of the very first Charlottetown Festival, and has been every year since. Now in its 51st season, the producers claim that the musical is the longest running annual musical in the world; at least 2.3 million people have seen it in Charlottetown, and even more have seen Anne and Gilbert dance across stages in London, New York, and Japan.
10. Anne with an e—but without the red hair?
So, Anne’s face has been on everything from the small screen to tea towels to stamps, and each incarnation of the red-haired orphan seems to have a similar look: Straw-hatted child or Gibson girl young woman. Except this one: In 2013, a self-publishing firm, taking advantage of the fact that the books are in the public domain, put out a boxed set of the first three Anne books. On the cover, however, was not a red-haired orphan or even a red-haired “modern gal”, but a sexy blond farm girl. Fans are, understandably, not pleased.