One hundred years ago, a little, red-haired orphan, 11, stepped out of the pages of a book and into the hearts of readers everywhere.
During the past century, Anne Shirley, also known as Anne of Green Gables, has inspired, amused and entertained countless kindred spirits everywhere. She has become one of the most beloved of all literary figures, passed down from mother to daughter and generation to generation.
Her book has never been out of print, and it has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide. Her story has been translated into some 36 languages. It has been transformed into theater and film. The television miniseries made in the late 1980s has been screened in some 130 countries. She's an icon, not only in Canada, where her story is set, but also in far-off places such as Sweden and Japan.
So, what is it about this little misplaced moppet that makes her so endearing?
"Anne is not a simple but a multilayer character," says Irene Gammel, who has written a new biography of both the character and her creator in "Looking for Anne of Green Gables: The Story of L.M. Montgomery and Her Literary Classic" (St. Martin's Press, $24.95).
"As Anne herself says in the novel: 'There's such a lot of different Annes in me. I sometimes think that is why I'm such a troublesome person.' Maud's (author Lucy Maud Montgomery, known as Maud to friends and family) imagination distilled the many influences and created a character that was a blend of orphan figure and glamour girl," says Gammel. "As Anne admits, 'If I was just the one Anne it would be ever so much more comfortable, but then it wouldn't be half so interesting.' The fact that Anne is made up of many pieces explains her international appeal with readers of different cultures."
Anne is feisty, independent, charismatic. She has a power of words and imagination. She is tempestuous and intriguing, said Gammel, in a telephone chat from her Toronto office, where she is co-chairwoman of the L.M. Montgomery Institute and holds the Canada Research Chair in Modern Literature and Culture at Ryerson University. "We see both a girl who wants love and desperately wants to find a home, as well as a girl who has vanities about her hair color and loves puffed sleeves."
Yet there is a very positive message. What you take away from reading "Anne of Green Gables," Gammel says, is a feeling that regardless of what you have, "you can dream about a better reality, and as you dream, you can reach a better place."
Filmmaker Kevin Sullivan also finds Anne inspiring. Sullivan, the director of the mega-popular 1980s television miniseries featuring Megan Follows, Colleen Dewhurst and Richard Farnsworth and others, sees in "Anne of Green Gables" a "universal story that has withstood the test of time. It's multigenerational. Stories like that don't get told much these days."
In honor of Anne's 100th birthday, Sullivan is releasing a book called "Anne of Green Gables: The Official Movie Adaptation," which will feature nearly 100 still photographs, many never printed before, shot on the set of the original movie. The book, published by Davenport Press, $19.95, is due out in October.
Sullivan has also done a prequel, a movie called "Anne of Green Gables: A New Beginning," starring Barbara Hershey, Shirley MacLaine and introducing Hannah Endicott-Douglas as a young Anne.
"The movie follows an older Anne as she rediscovers her past before she arrives at Green Gables," said Sullivan, in a telephone chat from his offices in Toronto.
The movie was screened in Cannes, to good reception, and will be shown in Canada this fall, but the U.S. premiere is not scheduled until 2009. "We're very, very excited about it. Anyone who enjoyed Megan as Anne won't be disappointed by Hannah," he said.
It's a poignant story, he added, and even though it doesn't come from the Anne books, it puts those books into context. "It explains where her carpet bag came from, how her love of literature developed, why she had an overactive imagination, where the notion of kindred spirits came from."
A lot of it is drawn from Montgomery's life. "I tried to fill in the blanks as I saw it. It's what might have happened if L.M. Montgomery had been Anne."
There are a lot of parallels in the two lives, Gammel said. A lot of what Anne did, who she was, were influenced by Montgomery's life.
Montgomery was born on Prince Edward Island in 1874. Her mother died of tuberculosis when Montgomery was 21 months old. When Montgomery was 7, her father moved to Saskatchewan, leaving her in the care of her maternal grandparents, Alexander and Lucy Macneill, who lived in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island. They were a rather stern and strict couple, and Montgomery had a rather lonely childhood, although she did develop relationships with a few "bosom" friends.
"I think that's why she gave Anne such aging parents," Gammel said. "But Anne's life is not exactly a mirror of Maud's. Rather it is more the life Maud would have liked to have lived."
Montgomery grew up to obtain a teaching certificate and worked in several schools on the island. But she also began to write short stories for various magazines and newspapers. Between 1897 and 1907, she had more than 100 published.
"Anne of Green Gables" was her first book and was less formulaic than most of her earlier stories. She found inspiration for the story in an old newspaper clipping she had run across that told of a couple that had been mistakenly sent an orphan girl instead of a boy but decided to keep her.
Her inspiration for Anne's appearance was a photo of an actress named Evelyn Nesbitt that Montgomery clipped from an American magazine and hung on the wall by her writing desk.
Montgomery had not intended to write more books about Anne, but the book became an instant hit, and her publisher encouraged her to do sequels.
In 1911, she married a Presbyterian minister named Ewan Macdonald, and the couple moved to Ontario and eventually on to Toronto. When she died in 1942, she had written 20 novels, more than 500 short stories, an autobiography and a book of poetry.
She was buried on Prince Edward Island in the Cavendish cemetery. That hometown has since become a pilgrimage site for Anne's fans from around the world.
"Cavendish is, to a large extent, Avonlea," Montgomery wrote in 1911. "Green Gables was drawn from David Macneill's house, though not so much the house itself as the situation and scenery, and the truth of my description of it is attested by the fact that everyone has recognized it."
Montgomery's home is no longer standing, but the restored Macneill farmhouse, now known as Green Gables, has become part of a national park and draws thousands of visitors each year.
That alone is testament to Anne's power to move the human spirit. "When the book was first launched, it was promoted as a book that drives away the blues," said Gammell. "It is uplifting, it does make you feel good."Sullivan has been working with a foundation that is building schools in Africa. "We are supplying Anne materials for the project, not only to help the kids learn English, but because she teaches them to use their imaginations. She teaches them that all things are possible. Anne is still a cultural emissary."