On “Anne with an E”

My copy of Anne of Green Gables. Ancient and well-loved.

There’s no equivalent to Anne Shirley in literature for boys. Harry Potter has not yet stood the test of time, and anyway, there are as many girls as boys who love Harry. Maybe Call of the Wild? Treasure Island? Kim? But do boys even read those books anymore? And do men remember the legendary characters of their childhood with the same ferocity and protection that women remember Anne?

Anne Shirley is a force unto herself, a literary heroine who is an icon of children’s literature. She is the ur-orphan, the red-headed parentless child who redeems her adoptive parents, as orphans in literature have done since — well, Moses? Anyway, Anne is beloved not only in Western literature but all over the world. Japanese fans make pilgrimages to Green Gables on Prince Edward Island. Her sunny personality and gentle adventures have charmed for generations.

But there has always been a darker side to Anne. It’s there in her sad backstory — orphaned as an infant, farmed out as an indentured servant at a very young age. Anne in real life would have died young, or grown up hardened, bitter, un-lettered, and certainly broken. It’s that backstory that Moira Walley-Beckett mines for her new retelling of Anne of Green Gables, “Anne with an E.” This is not your mother’s Anne, or your daughter’s. It’s certainly not the well-loved 1985 miniseries starring Megan Follows, a series with a fanbase so deeply invested in the show that it may even have toppled the book as the “true” version of L.M. Montgomery’s classic.

In a way, Walley-Beckett’s retelling is a homage to the original story, by taking the backstory and bringing it to the forefront. It is as if she is saying, “here is what made your jolly heroine what she has become. This is the fire in which the sword was forged.” I admire her purpose, even as I was disappointed in her execution.

For example, here are, from memory, the many adventures of Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables:

  • She insults Mrs. Rachel Linde after that lady tweaks her about her looks, then makes the best apology she can think of, and wins Rachel over to her side
  • She doesn’t lose Marilla’s amethyst brooch, but says she does anyway (it’s a long story), and then the brooch is found, and Anne gets to go to the church picnic and eat ice cream.
  • She gets Diana drunk on currant wine
  • She makes an inedible cake for Mrs. Stacy, the reverend’s wife
  • She is teased by Gilbert Blythe, cracks a slate across his head, which scandalizes the schoolroom, and never speaks to him again until they are teenagers.
  • She dyes her hair green. (Oh, Anne)
  • She walks a ridgepole, falls and breaks her ankle, and faints, which achieves another one of her life goals (fainting is romantic)
  • She saves Minnie May’s life because she knows what to do for croup
  • She jumps on Aunt Barry’s bed and Aunt Barry is in it
  • She gets a dress with puffed sleeves

Here are some of the mishaps in “Anne with an E:”

  • Marilla accuses Anne of stealing the brooch and losing it, and then SENDS HER BACK TO THE ORPHANAGE
  • Anne, while alone at the train station, is almost abducted by a pedophile
  • Matthew gallops off to get her back after the brooch is found, and hits his head and finally takes her home — in time for the picnic, which we don’t even get to see.
  • Anne saves the day when Ruby Gillis’s house almost burns down
  • Anne is mercilessly teased by the children at school; Moody Spurgeon or somebody keeps calling her a dog
  • Anne gets her period (this a brilliant scene, and kudos to Walley-Beckett for that one)
  • Matthew doesn’t lose all the money when the bank fails but instead when a ferry sinks with their crops and there is no insurance (That, by the way, is the plot of Reversal of Fortune)
  • Matthew Cuthbert ATTEMPS SUICIDE
  • Anne and Jerry go to pawn all of their belongings in Carmody, Jerry gets mugged by two drifters, the drifters decide their next move is to go to Green Gables, which Marilla has advertised to take in boarders, and we are left at the end of the season on a cliff-hanger, in which one can only guess the two drifters go full-on In Cold Blood on the family. There will probably be an attempted rape.

To create her new series, Walley-Beckett not only plunged into Anne’s backstory, she created a new character, and new secondary characters, with the same names as the originals but completely different. And she had to layer modern-day ills on top of the culture and mores of 100 years previous, and in so doing, she created a shoddy mechanism of a plot, so baldly laid out in dialog and action that one could almost see the story notes on the page. She misrepresented Anne, Avonlea, Green Gables, all of the denizens of the story, in order to do — what? By episode three, she left behind the books and drove the plot at a wild, uncontrolled careering gallop, off the road and over the cliffs into the sea. It’s telling that the characters of Reverend and Mrs Stacy, who are really nice people, are absent from this version. It’s as if Walley-Beckett knew that they couldn’t be in her series — they would have to have been twisted beyond recognition, and if she had left them in as is, they would have been a laughable juxtaposition against the jury-rigged mess she had built. She throws in a different reverend, some mean guy. Whatever.

Let’s take the pedophile in the train station. Yes, there has been child abuse in all eras, and children have always been abducted. But Anne has been through so much that the appearance of the guy at the station who tries to lure her into his buckboard, only to have street-smart Anne run him off, was a plot point with no point. It told us nothing, except that the creators thought the biggest problem Anne would face on her own was a boogyman from the 21st century.

And then there are all the mean girls who make fun of Anne. In the book, Josie Pye is the meanest of of mean girls. The other girls mostly like Anne, and especially in the later years, she’s a ringleader because she’s fun and has the best ideas (Anne as Fair Elaine, anyone?). In “Anne with an E,” all the girls gang up on Anne. One of the saddest things about this version is what Walley-Beckett has done to Ruby Gillis.

And then there’s Gilbert Blythe. He’s a noble, saintly boy, wise beyond his years, who has to grow up too fast — and he’s completely cardboard. Instead of showing us their rivalry in school (granted, this series compresses the events of much of the book in the first year), we see Gilbert only at a few points in the series, to either stick up for Anne or to mope about his dying father. This is where I will refer to the 1985 miniseries. Jonathan Crombie played Gilbert in that version, and for many fans he embodied the role so thoroughly, that on his untimely death in 2015, there were fans for whom Gilbert Blythe himself passed away. He was a hard act to follow. That series did him the honor of recognizing a full-fledged character, one who was a foil for and ultimate kindred spirit for Anne Shirley.

There are some good and brilliant bits in this retelling. The first episode goes the deepest into Anne’s past, and we see her dreadful life with Mrs. Hammond. This is indeed harrowing, and does justice to what we know from the book. Lucy Maud Montgomery had a rough life herself, and when she wrote of Anne’s travails, she wrote from intimate familiarity. This first episode is indeed very good, albeit hard to watch.

Another well-done departure is Anne getting her first period. I am a woman of a certain age. We had “the talk” in school, but even I, waking up in the middle of the night, soaked in blood, thought I was dying. Anne’s reaction is pitch-perfect. She gets up, stokes the fire, boils the water, and washes her own sheets, sobbing as she does so, and when Marilla gets up to find out what’s going on, Anne says, “You bet on the wrong horse, Marilla.” She further asks Marilla to plant roses on her grave.

It’s affecting and sad, and if I flashed back to Kotex and gave a shudder, well, you can’t blame me. Girls don’t know how easy they have it these days. And I am happy for that to be the case. As far as I’m concerned, we should evolve right the hell out of having periods as soon as possible.

I’m not sure what is going to happen with the next season. As I said, it ended on a cliffhanger, and at this point, there’s very little “Anne of Green Gables” left in “Anne with an E.” I think it has become more of an exercise in how much plot you can stuff in an old book than an exploration of one of literature’s best-beloved characters. I wish that Walley-Beckett had taken a different turn with the material and used it to explore some of the interesting ideas she messed around with. They were all there — she just used a sledgehammer when she should have taken a scalpel.

My edition dates back to 1935. I think it must have belonged to my Mom. I’ve been reading this book since I was nine or ten years old.

One result of watching “Anne with an E:” it’s been far too long since I visited Avonlea and Green Gables. Time for another reread. I am sure I will forget about “Anne with an E” fairly quickly. After all, it wasn’t really about Anne Shirley anyway, just a loose interpretation of the original.

The morrim

I walked in Gordath Wood on Wednesday. Went right by the morrim and everything. Sometimes I’m taken by surprise by how much these Connecticut woods informed my first novel. It’s like visiting a movie set. Oh, there’s the ledge Lynn tumbles down. Oh, there’s the horse farm where the book begins. Oh, there’s the mysterious Balanced Rock in North Salem, NY, which plays an integral role in the novel.

 

Lynn peered into the woods, sharply uneasy. The

Be careful of the woods. You never know where you are going to end up.

broken boulders hulked under the trees, the sapling swaying in its stone prison, the vines fluttering. She heard whispers from the stone, voices just beyond the reach of her hearing. Just the wind, she told herself, looking harder and seeing nothing. The wind, or whatever it was, faded, like a conversation she was listening to on a distant radio. … It wasn’t the wind. She knew that. The whispering emanated from the split boulder, rising and falling, and she felt cold shivers spike along her spine at the sense of malice that tinged the distant words.

The Six Part III — Emma and Persuasion

Emma

“A heroine whom no-one but myself will much like” is Austen’s famous description of Emma Woodhouse. And yes, Emma is not very likeable. She is a self-important busybody who doesn’t even understand how badly she has ruined Harriet’s life. And that is the whole point of her involvement with poor Harriet. The girl is an illegitimate nobody of little value to Emma, so she feels she can do with her what she wants, under the guise of improving her life. And who doesn’t love the fact that Emma thinks she’s a whiz at matchmaking precisely because she introduced one couple to each other? One match! One match, Emma! That’s just beginner’s luck! Her smug self-importance knows no bounds.

Mr. Knightley does his best to open Emma’s eyes to the dangers of her scheming, and he gets really angry with her a number of times. Emma’s saving grace is that when she is called to account for her behavior, she does feel guilty. But Emma! Why does it take you so long to see that you are so mean to Miss Bates?

Like many Austen readers, Emma’s personality turned me off. But I’ve come to love the book, not just for the plot, but as always, for the wonderful background that Austen draws of the little village that is the setting for Emma’s antics. Also, how can you not love these lines, when her brother-in-law gives her instructions for taking care of her nephews:

“Well, Emma, I do not believe I have any thing more to say about the boys; but you have your sister’s letter, and every thing is down at full length there we may be sure. My charge would be much more concise than her’s, and probably not much in the same spirit; all that I have to recommend being comprised in, do not spoil them, and do not physic them.”

Yeah, basically he’s saying, your sister wrote down a whole long list of instructions about taking care of the boys. I’ve got two rules: Don’t spoil them, and don’t let your father give them medicine. For a woman who famously never married and never had children, Austen knew a whole hell of a lot about what whackjobs parents are. Just wait until we get to Persuasion.

And then there’s Mrs Elton. Oh, Mrs. Elton. She marries Mr. Elton, who Emma had designs on for Harriet, and immediately takes on the role of the leading member of society — not knowing that Emma already has that job. The two clash, and for all that Emma is so annoyingly obtuse, Mrs. Elton makes her look as if she’s the most introspective heroine this side of Sylvia Plath. (Sorry — too soon?) Anyway, Mrs. Elton, with her caro sposo, and her pastoral picnic in which she arrives on a picturesque donkey, and the ball at the community center (what? It’s totally a community center!), drives Emma nuts.

And then there’s the paragon of virtue, Jane Fairfax. I don’t get Jane, but we’re not supposed to get Jane. Jane is there to be the person Emma is supposed to aspire to be, and Emma is so incredibly jealous of Jane, and Jane has far more serious problems that she can’t do anything about, so she has no time to feel anything other than annoyed by Emma, as if Emma were a gnat. For one thing, she’s engaged to Frank Churchill.

With every Austen novel, there’s always one thing that I come up against as a headscratcher, and in this case it’s Frank and whatever Jane saw in him. Then again, Anne’s mother in Persuasion also fell for a stupid man, and Mr. Bennet is famously contemptuous of Mrs. Bennet, so bad marriages are a pretty common theme in Austen’s books. Maybe one of Austen’s goals was to warn her fellow women. No matter how pretty the boy is, make sure you respect him too.

So why is Emma Austen’s masterpiece? It is the most assured of all her novels. She doesn’t put a foot wrong at any moment. Everything works, from plot, to character, to setting, to dialog — she is at the top of her game. As I said, I love Persuasion the best of all Austen’s books, but Emma, man — Emma is amazing. If you haven’t read it in a while, or if you’ve only seen the adaptations with Gwyneth Paltrow or Romola Garai, you owe it to yourself to visit Highbury.

Oh: Not a romance. Yes, she finally marries Mr. Knightley, and Harriet marries her farmer, Mr. Martin, and the whole book revolves around Emma’s attempts at matchmaking, but this is so not a romance. In fact, this is like the anti-marriage plot, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Austen was doing that on purpose.

Persuasion

Oh, Persuasion. Best of all Austen novels. It’s unabashedly a romance, and a Romance, with its depiction of the wildness of nature (the seaside, where Louisa falls) and the melancholy of autumn echoing the melancholy of Anne Eliot. Although Persuasion ends up in Bath, its heart is in the countryside. Austen describes the natural world with a yearning that is missing from her other novels. I think it’s the most personal of her work.

In Persuasion, Austen illustrates family dynamics and human nature in scenes so modern as to be almost uncanny. Here are some examples:

Mary’s declaration was, “I hate sending the children to the Great House, though their grandmamma is always wanting to see them, for she humours and indulges them to such a degree, and gives them so much trash and sweet things, that they are sure to come back sick and cross for the rest of the day.” And Mrs. Musgrove took the first opportunity of being alone with Anne, to say, “Oh! Miss Anne, I cannot help wishing Mrs. Charles had a little of your method with those children. They are quite different creatures with you! But to be sure, in general they are so spoilt!”

The visitors took their leave; and Charles, having civilly seen them off, and then made a face at them, and abused them for coming, began with —

And this is straight out of an American high school:

“She is pretty, I think; Anne Elliot; very pretty when one comes to look at her. It is not the fashion to say so, but I confess I admire her more than her sister.”

“Oh! so do I.”

“And so do I. No comparison. “

I could quote from Persuasion for pages, but will restrain myself, except to mention The Letter. The letter is Captain Wentworth’s Grovel, in which he apologizes for being angry and insulted when Anne turned him down ten years before. Go read the book. When you get to The Letter, you’ll see what I mean.

The theme of influence and persuasion run through all of Austen’s books. In P&P, it’s Darcy’s influence over Bingley, for instance. In Persuasion, Lady Russell is guilty of convincing Anne of turning down Wentworth when they were young. She’s practically a mother to Anne, and she saw exactly what happened when her friend married a pretty face — she married Sir Walter Elliot. She wanted to spare Anne that fate. But Austen sticks to her guns. Persuasion never turns out in the best interests of the persuadee.

I’ll leave it to other readers to wonder if Austen’s continued return to the action of persuasion is a clue to her own happiness and unmarried state. I for one am glad that she never married, because if she had, I doubt she would have written her books. But she does redemption very well, and Persuasion is a ripe example of it. Anne and Wentworth get their second chance at love, and only the most curmudgeonly reader would have it otherwise.

Persuasion: Most definitely, gloriously, emphatically A Romance.

Part II: Sense & Sensibility and Northanger Abbey

Part I: Pride & Prejudice and Mansfield Park