Empathy for ‘Anne’

UNDERSTANDING THE BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT OF THE NEW ANNE OF GREEN GABLES SERIES

My parents were careful to screen what we watched and were conservative on the viewing front when I was a kid. But they couldn’t control everything. A line in the 1980s CBC series “Anne of Green Gables”—that most innocent of shows—terrified me at the age of seven, and stayed in my vivid imagination for nights on end. A moment when Anne-as-played-by-Megan-Follows describes how, while working for a woman named Mrs. Hammond, she had trouble finding her window-friend “Katie Maurice” in the mirrors smashed by Mrs. Hammond’s intoxicated husband.

In the book, ellipses and the usually talkative Anne momentarily faltering in her words, convey what is not drawn out in description. But hearing her speak the line on television was a different story.

The new “Anne” series, from the same network (coming to Netflix in May), has a character-driven rather than episodic formula, and thus we actually see Anne as a victim of the treatment afforded orphans in her era. Anne’s spirit and imagination are not only inherent in her sparkly personality but also a shield with which to combat the dark beginnings she endured.

The first episode shows Anne (Amybeth McNulty) being whipped by Mr. Hammond, and also locked in a cupboard by mean girls who taunt her with a mouse (being Anne, she eventually comforts and befriends the mouse). It also shows her experiencing very natural anxiety. But this only serves as a contrast with the immediate kindness she experiences with her new family, the Cuthberts: Marilla (Geraldine James), who has a heart of gold underneath her angles and lines and gruff exterior, and Matthew (R. H. Thomson), who is 20 pounds of brown sugar’s worth of pathologically shy sweetness.

But a knowledge of the world’s cruelty is not the only knowledge Anne picked up from her previous foster family.

Anne of the nimble mind and broad vocabulary is excited to start school in episode 3. She has learned that she will stay with the Cuthberts permanently and she has befriended Diana (Dalila Bela). Anne, in a short period of time with her new guardians, is slowly learning how to be a real child. “It’s sad,” she had worried in the first episode, referring to the many, many children she had helped raise—“I’ll never have a chance to be one.”

As in the book series and also in the earlier TV series, there is a very inappropriate relationship between Prissy Andrews, an older student, and Mr. Phillips the teacher. Anne and Diana happen upon the two sharing a close moment in an empty schoolroom. Anne thinks they must be making a baby and that Mr. Phillips must be showing Prissy the “pet mouse” in his pocket. (Previously, she also misunderstood sounds she heard coming from the Hammonds’ bedroom.)

For Anne, the innocently made remark proves disastrous. She falls victim to the bullying older brother of Prissy, Billy Andrews, and told she cannot speak to Gilbert (Lucas Jade Zumann), one of the few people to show her kindness.

Meanwhile, the Cuthberts hear in the general store that Anne is a wicked child and Marilla is outcast from a mothers’ group she was just invited to join. Matthew goes to Rachel Lynde (where else?) to get to the bottom of the gossip, and shares it with Marilla.

Prudent Marilla is mortified by the disgrace of all of Avonlea knowing about Anne’s faux pas. “Kindred spirit” Matthew is struck with immediate outraged empathy, saddened that a girl of Anne’s young age should know things she shouldn’t know.

Matthew’s perspective spears Marilla with understanding; while she goes to Mrs. Andrews to apologize, she also demands compassion. When Mrs. Andrews calls Anne a “trollop,” Marilla responds: “You can hold Anne responsible for what she has said; but you can’t hold against her what she’s seen or been exposed to. That child has endured more than any of us can know or imagine. It’s a shame that progressive parenting doesn’t seem to include compassion. But perhaps you’ll muster some up in church on Sunday and thank the good Lord that poor Anne has finally found safe haven. I know I will.”

The incident becomes a teaching moment as Matthew and Marilla gain a far deeper understanding of the child they are raising, and her particular background and needs. Matthew’s empathy enables Marilla to find a new level of grace and compassion.

Some potential viewers, having seen the clip of Anne’s remarks online and taken out of context, were so put off by it that they don’t want to see the series. I would argue for giving the show a second chance. It helps to understand its author’s original background and intent as well as its title character’s. From a familiarity with the author, L. M. Montgomery, through the study of her life and her journals, I believe she herself would have been an advocate of this new series and the choices being made.

In fact, though “Anne of Green Gables” was appropriated by children when published, it was not written for them. In a journal entry on March 1, 1930, Montgomery wrote, “One review said I had written Anne of Green Gables for children and Anne of Avonlea for adults and was mistaken in both. I was not. I did not write Green Gables for children.” The author subsequently catered to the demands of her young public, her need for money, and her publisher by writing several more Anne books. But the new TV series may reflect even more of her intention for the story than the original series did. (Note that the new “Anne” leaves the “of Green Gables” out of its title, and its theme song is “Ahead by a Century.” It is not trying to replace earlier adaptations, but rather prove that Anne’s individuality is timeless and as relevant now as ever.)

There is a far greater public understanding of the tragedies of L. M. Montgomery’s life than there was when the 1980s series released. Scholars have spent years finding the dark undertones that spilled from her tumultuous personal life into her fiction—not to mention studying the very real abuse and neglect experienced by orphans in Anne’s time.

Montgomery scholar Vanessa Brown, according to her Facebook page, believes that Anne is “finally getting the mature, creative and fully realized treatment she deserves.” Because of its sensitive moments and its general focus on character rather than simply showing Anne’s various scrapes (though they’re in there, too, and delightful), it should be rated 12 and up. But even if your younger children need to grow into it, it would be a shame to miss Anne signing her name in the Cuthberts’ Bible, Marilla’s protective embrace of Anne, Matthew claiming Anne as his “daughter” for the first time in a train station . . . the slow, beautiful forging of a new family.

Image copyright CBC.

Rachel McMillan is author of the Herringford & Watts Mysteries. She lives in Toronto.


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