In the 110 years since the book was first published, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s debut novel "Anne of Green Gables" has never been out of print. The book has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide. It has been adapted into a long-running stage musical (with a new one on the way) and a graphic novel. It single-handedly supports the tourist industry in Montgomery’s home province of Prince Edward Island. And its legacy lives on: Next month will see the second season premiere of "Anne With An E" on Netflix, itself the sixth filmic iteration of the instantly timeless story.
To this day, this tale of an iconoclastic redheaded orphan continues to capture the collective imagination of its readers, especially girls and young women — and Montgomery loved its central character as much as her readers did. The author went on to write seven sequels to Anne’s story, along with 13 other works mostly centered on other young women living on her beloved island.
Her stories, then as now, are enjoyed for their optimism and delight — both of which rest on a knife’s edge above sorrow and tragedy. Each book in the series has a happy ending, but every one is earned. Anne herself, along with Montgomery’s other heroines, suffered and raged at a variety of personal challenges. The optimism of these works comes from the sincere hope of someone who has survived; it is not simple or naive, but resilient and passionate.
Montgomery found her voice through her pen and paper, with Anne as her champion.
Born in Clifton, Prince Edward Island in 1874, Montgomery was an intense and passionate child. Where her most famous character finds joy in play-acting, Montgomery herself was devoted to storytelling, both the craft of writing as well as her ultimate goal of sharing her work with a wider audience. Raised by strict grandparents following her mother’s early death and her father’s work-related relocation, Montgomery felt stifled by conservative expectations that did not include pursuing a literary career. After she was published for the first time — a poem of hers had been printed in a local magazine — Montgomery wrote in her journal that it was "the proudest day of my life!... I was too delighted to speak."
In 2008, her granddaughter Kate MacDonald Butler revealed for the first time that Montgomery had lived with mental health concerns, including depression. It became clear that characters were strong and hopeful because, in a sense, they were helping their author through her own struggles.
True to form, a large part of Montgomery’s legacy is that her works feel so intensely personal that readers often feel kinship to Montgomery herself. Unlike her contemporaries Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott, Montgomery’s personal life was mostly unknown prior to the publication of the first volume of her selected diaries in 1985. But these personal details were largely irrelevant to the generations of mostly girls and women who felt they knew and loved the author through her writing.
Montgomery had much in common with Anne: Both girls, one real and one fictional, struggled against societal expectations for girls to be seen and not heard. Montgomery found her voice through her pen and paper, with Anne as her champion. In the first "Anne" novel, the heroine is a loose cannon, prone to fits of rage, bubbling over with passion that can turn to anger as easily as to tears. Anne Shirley is talkative and dreamy and upbeat not because she is naive, but because she has suffered, and buoyant hopefulness is one of her coping mechanisms. The longer she stays in Prince Edward Island, the more it provides her a means of survival.
While the landscape is idyllic and lovely, the characters are flawed.
Montgomery, born into this beauty, seems never to have been anything but rapturously devoted to it. Montgomery’s novels wax poetic about her characters’ adoration of their home province — and in real life, the writer rarely strayed from it. At age 16, she left her beloved island to join her father and his new family in western Canada. While her journals detail expectations and hopes of their reunion, reality was a disappointment. Unmoored from the land she loved so dearly and finding herself a stranger to a man she’d last seen as a toddler, Montgomery felt at loose ends. She returned to Prince Edward Island after only a year away.
Montgomery remained in the family home for many years as her grandmother’s companion after the death of her grandfather in 1898. By now a teacher, she balanced family duty with her job, still finding time in the early mornings to work on creative writing. She became involved with Reverend Ewen MacDonald in 1906, but waited until her grandmother passed away in 1911 for them to marry. When MacDonald’s work sent him to Ontario, she reluctantly followed.
Married life was not the balm for her that it was for her characters. Homesick for the land that had always provided her with strength, Montgomery continued to write stories about the island. She and Ewen had three sons, the second of whom was stillborn — a situation she dramatized in a later "Anne" novel. Her depression and mood swings worsened, and she suspected both her depression and migraines were due to her suppressed romantic nature. Ewen also lived with depression, his manifesting with obsessive thoughts about his not being predestined to ascend to heaven. He behaved erratically and became incapable of working, leaving Montgomery’s writing as the sole family income.
The First World War affected Montgomery as it did her readership. Montgomery wove details of this anguish into her post-war novels, particularly "Rilla of Ingleside," in which Anne grieves the loss of her son at war. Montgomery and her heroine often lived parallel lives, but where Anne found grounding and maturity in life as a wife and mother, Montgomery was suffering beyond the obstacles she created for her heroines.
Montgomery’s characters became her own shining light, a way for her to choose happiness.
Having lived through the First World War, Montgomery was devastated to see the advent of a second. Her writing continued to be her therapy and a source of strength throughout. In her stories, moments of delight became all the brighter by how much her characters had overcome to get there. This is part of the magic of "Anne,
"and of Montgomery’s other works. She does not craft a perfect world where everyone is kind and nothing ever goes wrong. While the landscape is idyllic and lovely, the characters are flawed. Each story ends happily but not perfectly, with winners and losers and the heroine coming to understand life a bit better with each new experience.
Montgomery’s characters became her own shining light, a way for her to choose happiness. Like their author, these girls and women chose each day to focus on what’s beautiful, knowing that not everything would be perfect. It is this depth of storytelling that has allowed Montgomery’s work to continue to appeal to new fans, offering something timeless and magical to everyone who encounters the story: hope.
Ann Foster is a writer and historian living in Canada. She is always here for costume dramas, time travel, ghost mysteries, and magical girls. See more of her work here and follow her on Twitter @annfosterwriter.
Get Shondaland directly in your inbox: Subscribe Today