The Flip Side of Victoriana: ANNE WITH AN E

Various spoilers for the series abound below. Reader beware!

Netflix’s new reboot of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables pays homage to its source material, but diverges in depicting a far more realistic version of 1880s farm life. This adaptation, first aired on the CBC as Anne, is now available to stream on Netflix as Anne with an E. In it, Breaking Bad’s Moira Walley-Beckett has stripped away the fine antique country aesthetic of the beloved Kevin Sullivan adaptation, instead adhering to a more truthful portrayal of rural, late-Victorian life. She lifts minor characters from obscurity and gives them important plots of their own, while also reinterpreting classic characteristics associated with the original protagonists. The result is something that will give longtime fans of the books and earlier television adaptations pause. Are our memories of this iconic story colored by our own wistful imaginations? 

Even the marketing materials ride the edge of trying to convince us that this is the Magical Victorian Pollyanna of our dreams: here we see dark colors and harsher lighting used for the CBC advertising of the series, presented simply as “Anne” in Canada. The American advertising materials, seen below, are markedly different.

Here, romantic notions of orphan life are discarded in favor of a farm with very few furbelows. Green Gables is now less Aga saga and more Oliver Twist; we see Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert perilously skirting the edges of poverty on Prince Edward Island. As they eke out a living, Anne is desperate to prove that she can be productive and helpful to them; her participation in the family economy becomes crucial to the plot in several key places.

The Netflix adaptation can’t decide whether to call it just “Anne” or “Anne with an E.” But what the American audience will note is the use of a beautifully saturated golden hour color scheme and a gentle airbrushing on Amybeth McNulty as Anne. Is it just me, or does she have a tiny Mona Lisa smile here?

Amybeth McNulty stars as Anne Shirley, who quickly becomes Anne Shirley Cuthbert in an ersatz adoption scene in which Walley-Beckett pays homage to Anne’s ability to run off at the mouth. McNulty is a great casting choice who channels the explosive power of Anne’s strongest emotions and also comes across as a believable late 19th-century orphan. Megan Follows of the 1985 Kevin Sullivan adaptation was far too plump and tidy—I seriously doubt there was hair conditioner in a Victorian orphanage. McNulty embodies that gangly phase of growth of the early teen years; her stockings droop and bunch around her knees and ankles, a rather clever cue from the costume designers to subtly remind us that this girl has been anything but well-fed. This Anne is also free of overly perfect Hollywood orthodontia, which is both accurate to the period and wonderfully fresh to see on screen. 

Moira Walley-Beckett holding a sweet Emmy

Viewers have been taken aback by Walley-Beckett’s choice not to relegate the references to Anne’s previous abusive foster situations to the preamble, as the Sullivan adaptation did. Instead, Anne’s absent-mindedness and manic chatter is presented are presented as manifestations of what we recognize today as post-traumatic stress disorder, a result of cruel foster parents and life in an orphanage. In this version, we see that the magic of Green Gables doesn’t have the power to entirely erase the deep scars of abuse. Is the romantic dream of a place like Green Gables enough to allow readers (and viewers) to forget that Anne spent the first half of her life abandoned, a nursemaid to small children, and subjected to the whims of an abusive drunk? Walley-Beckett gambles that it would not, and gives Anne’s trademark personality quirks a darker explanation.

The era of institutionalization, neglect, and abject poverty is even depicted in the costuming choices, which defy the books but hew to the times. In the books, Anne notes that she has two nightgowns, made for her by the matron of the orphan asylum. While she notes that they’re “skimpy,” because resources are scarce among so many children, she does at least have a few articles of clothing in the book. But Walley-Beckett gives Anne a single, horribly stained, greasy old rag of a nightgown, and we discover that she only has one set of clothes to her name. Marilla feels obligated to run her up a second, better-fitting dress, and Anne echoes her book counterpart’s dismay at the drab color and lack of frills and details. It’s a far cry from the set of dresses Marilla presents to Anne shortly after her arrival in the books and underscores other authorial choices by Walley-Beckett, like Anne’s punishment for “losing” Marilla’s priceless family brooch. In a house where frugality is made apparent through a single change of clothing, why wouldn’t Marilla be incandescently angry with an orphan careless enough to lose the one belonging she treasured above all others?

No anachronistic orthodontia here!

The sad dress, of course, sets Matthew up for his visit to town to fetch “puffed sleeves,” pushing him into a whole other storyline through which we learn that he and the dressmaker had courted and tragically broke things off; both remained single for life. These little invented backstories fill in a great deal of detail for the viewer and demonstrate that each character has depth, rescuing them from a fate of acting as overly large shadow puppets in Anne’s story. The backstories are a strong choice and provide a context in which to see Anne as part of a larger, wider story that extends far beyond her immediate grasp.

Another character gets a chance to shine when Jerry is hired as a farm hand after it becomes clear that Matthew will need more help than Anne alone can provide. Jerry, plucked from relative obscurity in the book, gives critical help to the family when it’s needed most. Towards the end of the season, it is heavily hinted that he will play a pivotal role in forthcoming events. (Season 2, please?)

How many late Victorian film adaptations have relied on soft-focus lighting, fields strewn with blooms, and idyllic haylofts dancing with twinkling dust motes that contained worlds, nay, universes for the characters to dream on in a rural utopia? Well, this one has pawn shops, thugs, economic tragedy, and cruel disappointment. Disasters large and small strike, causing the Cuthberts to lose family treasures and face knife-edge choices in order to keep Green Gables afloat. Anne resorts to her fantastic storytelling abilities to help solve some of these problems, but we also see the other side of her plucky success as Jerry is tricked by some very Artful Dodgers and faces great peril.

Ruby Gillis, shown before her impending demise

Ruby Gillis is another side character featured more prominently here; she is played to great effect by Kyla Matthews. A frequent disaster of the era, the house fire, is visited upon the Gillis family. While not canon, this device handily allows Anne to save the house with a bit of knowledge from her orphanage days. She deprives the fire of oxygen at the risk of great danger to herself. Although Anne is hailed as a hero, Ruby is terrified of having to live with the Cuthberts while her house is being repaired; she keenly observes Anne’s social status as the town pariah du jour and dismisses her as a pain in the neck. But by living literally alongside Anne—the girls are shown sharing a bed in another period-accurate depiction—Ruby comes to see Anne as a kindred spirit after all. It’s a fast and dirty way to show the girls’ bonding and likely sets the viewer up for Ruby’s demise—as long as Walley-Beckett decides to stick to that storyline from the books. If Anne’s relationship with Ruby is never shown deepening, her death is likely to come across as Victorian pathos, rather than raw emotion.

And emotion, it seems, is explored in all its forms by Walley-Beckett. I admit I was a bit taken aback by the tailoring done to Gilbert’s backstory, but am now eager to see how the choices play out in this series. Walley-Beckett plucks a minor scene from Anne of Green Gables in which Diana’s casually remarks on Gilbert’s advanced age—the family decamped to Alberta for several years for his father’s health—and transforms this into an immediate and crashing tragedy for Gilbert’s family. In the still pool of Avonlea’s social life, this ripple carries itself out to shore, altering established relationships and intended trajectories until you can begin to see Walley-Beckett true intent: for her audience to imagine what might have been, as perhaps Anne herself might have done.

This series definitely rejects the “Great Grandma’s Lovely Treasures” aesthetic of Victoriana for a positively Dickensian approach to the same story. Viewers should remember the period in which L.M. Montgomery wrote her book. Nearly 30 years after the events supposedly took place, she drew on details of her own childhood but likely dressed it up in order to appeal to the well-off little girls  likely to read this story for pleasure and the adults who would have to approve of the book’s moral content.

L. M. Montgomery, age 10

This adaptation rides the same sort of line that Betty Smith did in her 1940s novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: While Smith romanticized some elements of early 1900s New York, she frankly depicted Francie Nolan’s abject poverty, the Nolan’s status as a first-generation American family, and the realities of addiction at a time with no resources for help. Smith’s novel, published during World War II, was far bleaker than Montgomery’s, which was published well before the start of the Great War. Anne’s gauzy, idealized sensibilities (currant wine-drunkenness aside) are far more reflective of the Edwardian era in which Montgomery wrote it than of the era it depicts. This is also true of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—another story of a strong, impoverished, and flawed girl who overcomes trials and tribulations to become a woman. Both Francie and Anne are exposed to indelicate situations and rise above. However, Anne’s most indelicate situation is a pantry mixup—hardly on the same level as poor children playing with condoms as though they were balloons. Different times call for different things, and Netflix is gambling on this gritty version of Anne Shirley to have a particular appeal to today’s audiences. 

In the end, although Moira Walley-Beckett’s adaptation takes a dim view of romanticizing the past, it does a marvelous job of asking us viewers to ask reflect on why we liked the source material in the first place. Connecting some of the clues L. M. Montgomery left up to the reader results in a different interpretation of Anne’s “daydreaming” and Marilla’s occasionally harsh frugality. It changes Gilbert from a perfect white knight into somebody with actual human issues. After all, much of the book series was based on Montgomery’s own orphaned childhood on Prince Edward Island: Could she have used her books to create the dream she herself had wished to live? Is the Anne Shirley of our own youthful memories just as dreamlike and fleeting?

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About the Author:

Erin Downey Howerton is a public librarian in Kansas. Follow her on Twitter at @hybridlib.

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