The Case for a Traumatized Anne Shirley [a guest post by Grace]

traumatized anne shirley

[Ed. note: Today’s guest post comes to you courtesy of Grace. You can follow her on twitter @grace_march, where she posts some of the cleverest tweets on the internet].

A television adaptation of Anne of Green Gables has been newly born, Anne on CBC and Anne With an E on Netflix, amidst much kerfuffle. The reigning adaptation has been, up to this point, the 1985 version, starring Megan Follows as Anne and the late Jonathan Crombie as Gilbert. It was beloved by many, and many anxiously awaited the arrival of the 2017 series to see if it would be up to snuff. The general consensus amongst ardent fans/purists seems to be that it is not.

Cast-wise, Anne is smashing. Amybeth McNulty is a fine actress who resembles the Anne of the books more than Follows did. RH Thomson and Geraldine James were well-chosen as Matthew and Marilla. The set and filming are stunning. The soundtrack* is the fiddle for which Atlantic Canada is famous. No complaints there. The complaints come in with the promised edgy twist on the original tale.

Any time a book is brought to television, one has cause to fear. Make no mistake, Anne is chock-full of things that were not in the book. Rather than opting to send her to Mrs Blewett when the brooch disappears, Marilla opts to send her back to the orphanage; Anne feels threatened by the hired boy’s presence at Green Gables and treats him cruelly; our protagonist gives a crude, euphemistic sex-ed lesson to her peers; Mrs Lynde isn’t even silly**; there is clumsy, forced dialogue with Josephine Barry; most jarringly, the first appearance of Our Boy, Gilbert Blythe, does not involve slate-breaking.

That the first words her future husband speaks to her are not, “Carrots!” should rightly infuriate us all, and the switch from Blewetts’ to orphanage was unnecessary, at best (on reflection, however, it looked like meanness on Marilla’s part to choose the Blewetts’. She doesn’t know the orphanage, but she has seen Mrs Blewett and judged her unfit.). The episode titles are all quotes from Jane Eyre, as well, and while it makes sense that Anne would devour Jane Eyre, it would make more sense for the episode titles to be taken from the source material. There is no forgiving the new, slateless first meeting, but there is upset of another nature: upset about Anne being realistically portrayed as traumatized.

It is true that some lightheartedness was removed from the new adaptation; things were cast in a darker light. This is not, however, because Anne behaved as traumatized children do. It would have been possible to have written her realistically without making Mrs Lynde flint-eyed. As it is, it is important that Anne is a full character, who is, as we all are, connected to events of her past, and this series focuses more on that than either the books or the Megan Follows version. And that is a good thing. There may be value in Anne as she was written, but if the reader- or, in this case, viewer- is prevented from connecting with her, this value won’t be tapped into.

Anne is supposed to have a traumatic past, of orphanhood, abusive and neglectful foster-parents, and institutionalization. These would not slide off her shoulders as soon as she’s settled in at Green Gables, yet the books, wonderful though they are, tend to treat the first decade of her life as an unfortunate dream, and this is totally inconsistent with both Anne’s character and the other tragedies of her life.

She is understandably miserable when she rejects Gilbert in Anne of the Island, and later spends a night in agony when she believes he is dying; when Anne’s newborn daughter, Joyce, dies in Anne’s House of Dreams, her pain isn’t made light of (in fact, in the last chapter of Rainbow Valley, Anne winces at the mention of her late child, showing that years and many changes later, Joyce is still close to her heart). Matthew’s heart-attack, Marilla’s failing sight, the death of young Ruby Gillis, and the later plotline with Anne and Gilbert’s neighbour, Leslie, are quite believable (despite the fantastical nature of the latter, the injustice and then redemption pull us in, and we are there with Leslie, who has been realistically altered by outlandish circumstances). And one does not even know where to start with Walter Blythe.

Why, if these events change Anne’s life, is her own past not allowed to? Why has she been written as a traumatized child, if we’re barely permitted to approach her as such? What are we left with? Her past must be ignored, because to be affected in a true-to-life way by her environment would make her less of an Anne; as Anne is not true-to-life, those who hail from similar roots will not be able to get close to her, especially as the books progress and the Hammonds shrink further into the background.

Healing from childhood trauma, and building a new life with new people, takes time and work. Have a little mercy on the girl. It is to be expected that she would suffer flashbacks, say inappropriate things (like about men having a mouse in their front trouser pocket), be clingy, crave positive attention and affection, and be unused to decorum. She was not raised a Barry.

These things don’t make her ‘bad’ and needn’t take all the whimsy and imagination out of her. They are part of her- part of her imagination. If she were impervious to pain, and glided through life in blissful ignorance that she was unwanted and mistreated, she would not be brave or innocent or sensitive, she would be a mythical creature- yet the rest of the series would have us believe she’s human. She’s had to fight for her innocence for her entire life. Ignoring that, saying instead that she is only brave and innocent because she was, somehow, not impacted, would be disrespectful. After all, LM Montgomery, an excellent writer who clearly had an eye for the beauty of the natural world, had an unhappy life; would we say her passion for the wholesome and lovely doesn’t count because she was depressed? (Montgomery, you argue, should not be made a point of in an article about the merits of altering her creation, though no disrespect is ever meant towards the lady, but perhaps we should devote our time to another moral quandary: should it even be legal to put raisins in cinnamon buns and then not tell anyone there are raisins in the cinnamon buns?). Sufferers of gross ill-use in early life can become courageous, loving, intelligent, and capable. This is illustrated pretty well in the Harry Potter series. Harry’s trauma is constantly present, and he reacts like a real young adult would, though his story is not realistic. In Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix, he struggles with rage, guilt, panic, the urge for violence***, and nightmares, which are all things that any traumatized kid may be familiar with. His missions mean having to keep secrets, break rules, and sneak around, which a person tends to become good at when they need to hide from their own family members.

There is a little of that in Anne of Green Gables, as well; for example, Anne’s need to prove herself desirable. But by the end of that first book, we don’t feel, anymore, that she understands what it’s like to be anything but a member of an idyllic household. By treating it as an unpleasant but quickly-forgotten thing, a non-issue, her entire childhood becomes less formative than any other event; crippling stress is eclipsed by finding a drowned mouse in the pantry, and cured by a taste of ice-cream.

We cannot have one without the other. We cannot have both the full, human, reachable protagonist, and the one whose worldview has been totally untouched by darkness. She only knows, after all, that pine forests are pleasanter than pig-stys because she’s been in the pig-stys, too. She used her imagination so much because it was the only way to make the world bearable, and her innocence has only been retained under lasting attack.

To get at the fullness of Anne, we need to understand her past in a way that the books and the older adaptation haven’t made available to us. Perhaps, despite its faults, the new series will succeed here.

*With the exception of ‘Ahead By a Century’ by The Tragically Hip during the (beautifully animated) opening credits.

**Can’t wait for her to be revealed as a criminal mastermind.

***Think of his temptation to attack Dumbledore. There is, of course, a magical explanation, but the emotions involved are similar.


Grace is a young prairie transplant, currently residing in the Maritimes. She enjoys reading, baking, and most things featuring Richard Ayoade. You can find her on Twitter (@grace_march) or wandering the moors, looking very impressive with windblown hair, and glancing meaningfully into the distance.   

3 thoughts on “The Case for a Traumatized Anne Shirley [a guest post by Grace]

  1. If I recall correctly, the punishment for the brooch wasn’t ever so dire as sending her away, but only denying her going to the church picnic. Whether Blewett or orphanage, this version was much, much more severe. (Not a complaint about the adaptation on my part, just pointing out.) I could be wrong, but I reread it pretty recently.

    • Hello, Laini, I believe you are right, but if I recall correctly, in the 1985 version, the punishment was sending her to the Blewetts’- though I could be wrong.

  2. I agree with you Grace and think you’ve argued this very well. The exploration of Anne’s traumatic past makes the episodes less of the light and easy watching I’d hoped for, but definitely give her a realism and a rounded character. I do find the Jane Eyre parallels odd, but I admit I quite enjoy the comparisons between Anne and Jane – two young dreamers with terrible pasts but in search of adventure and a place to belong.

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