IRENE GAMMEL is the author and editor of eight books including Baroness Elsa—A Cultural Biography (voted one of the top 25 books of 2002 by New York’s Village Voice) and several scholarly books of essays, including Making Avonlea (PEI Heritage Award) and The Intimate Life of L. M. Montgomery. A contributor to New York’s The Literary Review and Bookforum, Irene Gammel holds a Canada Research Chair in Modern Literature and Culture at Ryerson University in Toronto. She is the curator of the exhibit Anne of Green Gables: A Literary Icon at 100 in venues in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Toronto, and Prince Edward Island, May 1, 2008 – March 1, 2009.
For an audio interview on Looking for Anne, please click here.
Irene Gammel on Looking for Anne
What attracted you to Anne and Maud as the subject for your book?
Millions of people feel inspired by Anne Shirley’s charismatic personality, and Anne fans want to know every tidbit; they have an insatiable curiosity about the novel, and yet they know very little about how Anne of Green Gables came about. That was a fascinating paradox for me as a researcher. And in the course of the research I was surprised to find out just how much Montgomery had kept us in the dark about herself and her most famous novel. The book contains new provocative truths that turn some of the conventional wisdom on its head.
What were some of the challenges in telling the story of Anne?
Montgomery has left thousands of pages of journals, letters, scrapbooks, and fiction that her readers have pored over. But the crucial sources are missing, such as the notebook that she used while writing Anne. The material she left was consciously constructed for posterity. I had to delve behind the scenes of these “official” stories and sources. The journey into finding the truth about Anne took several years and took me to New York, Guelph, Toronto, and several locations on P.E.I.
How does this book challenge the conventional wisdom of what we know about Anne?
Readers will be surprised to see just how much Montgomery’s imagination blended the local P.E.I. influences with the global, metropolitan influences that she absorbed through her avid reading of glossy magazines. She was profoundly isolated, living in small-town Cavendish with her grandparents in the old homestead post-office. She loved to crack open the new glossy magazines, and in them found the most surprising influences for Anne that have been kept unrecognized for over 100 years. Anne was not “a born Canadian,” to use Marilla’s phrase—she was international, the result of a mosaic of influences, but in a sense that is a very modern Canadian sensibility too—she was assembled on the shores of P.E.I. but the novel’s DNA is more international.
Can you give some examples?
Maud had disclosed in a 1934 journal entry that a magazine clipping of an American girl had provided the face for Anne Shirley. I took me several years to find the source for the photo in the New York Public Library, and I was able to document that Maud had first found her in September 1903 in the New York Metropolitan Magazine. Yet the image of the glamour girl looks very different from what we might imagine Anne to look like. In fact, I discovered that this cover girl blended with the formula stories of several Ann orphan characters that Maud had found in magazines. These are the Anns without the "e". And so when Anne says in the novel, “but if you call me Anne, please call me Anne spelled with an e,” there is a double irony in that the author is obviously referring to the magazine Anns. It was as if Montgomery was poking fun at herself for the use she was making of these “Ann” stories!
How does this new knowledge affect our appreciation of Anne?
Looking for Anne makes us see that Anne is not a simple but a multi-layered character. 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 imagination distilled the many influences and created a character that was a blend of orphan figure and glamour girl. We realize that she was not entirely forthright but we come to appreciate her imagination as a crucible that distilled a myriad of influences. And as Anne herself 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 from different cultures.
Your book is a dual biography—of Anne and of Maud. Why did you choose this braided structure?
Looking for Anne is a dual biography because I wanted to show that Maud projected aspects of herself into the novel—her own ambition, her determination, her loneliness, and her hunger for love and family life. I also wanted to show that the novel was a wish fulfilment dream. She dreamed up the things she did not have in her own life. Ultimately, we also see a woman who was successful as a writer because she combined the role of romantic dreamer with that of pragmatic business woman, launching herself from small-town Cavendish onto the world stage. This was an heroic struggle with many set-backs, and we come to appreciate Montgomery’s fierce determination and independence and chutzpah, all the more as we also see her entrapped in the conventions of her time.
Who would you compare Montgomery with in terms of her literary stature?
With her remarkable popularity across a full century, an industry of films, adaptations, and commercial products, I would compare her with Jane Austen, who also wrote from her own very limited surroundings and circumstances, and returned in each novel to familiar motifs, with wit and irony. Both writers have enjoyed a following of fans, with adaptations, movies, clubs, and so forth. As an author of national significance, Montgomery also compares to someone like Mark Twain in the United States.
What is your next project?
We are curating a Canada-wide exhibition tour entitled Anne of Green Gables: A Literary Icon at 100 from May 1, 2008 to March 1, 2009. Lucy Maud Montgomery had the ability to connect the wide expanse of this country with her novel, and that inspired me to take installments of the exhibition tour from coast to coast including Green Gables House in Cavendish, the Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, Spadina Museum in Toronto, to venues in Winnipeg and Vancouver. A key component of this exhibit is a short video documentary that is based on two chapters in the book.