By Kate Wakely-Mulroney
This is the first time that I’ve contributed to the Children’s Literature blog and I’ve spent the past few days wondering what the subject of my post might be. While I’m a member of the Faculty of English, my work on eighteenth and nineteenth-century didactic texts has led me to become an unofficial member of the Children’s Literature Seminar group. One of the wonderful things about this group is how often students are encouraged to engage with one another’s research.
So, what might I contribute?
I thought about sharing my current work on the significance of child mortality in Isaac Watts’ Divine Songs, or my fascination with Lewis Carroll’s mnemonic systems… but then, something tremendously important happened:
Anne Shirley, Lucy Maude Montgomery’s freckled heroine with “very thick, decidedly red hair” (Anne of Green Gables 20), has been reimagined by an anonymous publisher as a blonde, curvaceous, and provocatively-posed young woman.
While this edition of Anne of Green Gableswas self-published last November on Amazon’s CreateSpace, its cover swept the internet last week after appearing in an online NPR column. This is the kind of “news-lite” on which our twenty-four-hour media depends, and international publications were quick to spread the story. Near-identical articles popped up on ABC News, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, and The Toronto Star, each of which identifies discrepancies between the updated cover and Montgomery’s descriptions of Anne’s appearance, before giving way to a series of online comments written by disappointed fans, such as:
“Anne has red hair. RED HAIR. It’s a key part of her character and is a strong influence on her words and actions.”
What the above comment and others like it reveal is the extent to which this new cover thwarts both our aesthetic and our psychological expectations. While Anne is an undoubtedly romantic child (she reenacts scenes from Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur and christens local landmarks “The Lake of Shining Waters” and “Lovers’ Lane”), these fantasies allow her to transcend an otherwise unromantic physical exterior.
The plot of Anne of Green Gables is largely dependent on its heroine’s self-consciousness: Anne erupts in fury after a neighbour describes her as “skinny and homely,” with “hair as red as carrots” (88); she accidentally dyes her hair green in a failed attempt to render it a “beautiful raven black” (279); she refuses to speak to Gilbert Blythe for several years after he humiliates her in the schoolroom with taunts of “Carrots! Carrots!” (145).
While, like Anne, we “cannot imagine that red hair away” (27), what’s really bothering us about this cover has more to do with the new model’s suggestive expression than the colour of her hair. Various sources draw attention to Anne’s “come-hither eyes,” “sexy pout,” and “buxom” figure, while one commenter on The Guardian web site rebrands Montgomery’s text “Lolita of Green Gables.”
If Anne develops confidence later in the series (she breaks hearts, albeit with great earnestness, in Anne of the Island), she spends most of Green Gables convinced of her utter lack of sex appeal. When Diana Barry whispers that the names of a boy and girl in their class have been written together on the porch wall, Anne simply sighs: “She didn’t want her name written up. But it was a little humiliating to know that there was no danger of it” (142).
Is there room for a Lolita in Montgomery’s texts?
When Anne attempts to imagine her red hair into oblivion, she conjures up an attractive alter ego with “lovely starry violet eyes” and hair that “is glorious black, black as a raven’s wing” (27).
This sounds a bit like someone else we know:
Emily Starr, the heroine of Montgomery’s shorter and less well-known Emily series, has long lashes, scandalously shapely ankles, elfin ears, “hair like black silk” and “purplish-grey eyes” that are decidedly “alluring” (Emily’s Quest 10). Emily’s dangerous sex appeal gets her into all kinds of trouble, not the least of which involves the attentions of her substantially older cousin, Dean Priest, to whom she is briefly engaged in the final book of the series. During their first meeting, when Emily is eleven and Dean is thirty-six, he asks her if she finds him handsome. Emily blushes, but has, in fact, been appraising his “thin and sensitive lips” all the while: “She liked his mouth,” we are told, “Had she been older she would have known why—because it connoted strength and tenderness and humour.” She likes his eyes too, which are described as “remarkably dreamy and attractive” (Emily of New Moon 236).
This sexually charged language extends to other child characters in the book, who are described as both objectively attractive and acutely aware of the power that comes with physical beauty. Ilse Burnley, Emily’s best friend, is a vixenish creature with amber eyes and hair like “brilliant spun gold” (Emily of New Moon 72). If, over the course of the series, she develops from a sunburnt tomboy to an “exotic, provocative, [and] beautiful” young woman (Emily’s Quest 50), she is described throughout the trilogy in terms of her confidence, attractiveness, and very yellow hair.
Sound familiar? The animators of Japanese adaptation Kaze no Shoujo Emily (2007) depict Ilse Burnley with the same tousled blonde hair and dreamy eyes with which we are confronted on the new Green Gables cover.
Perhaps this anonymous publisher would have had more success with the Emily trilogy and its vivacious, self-confident heroines. Perhaps wemight consider that the image we associate most closely with Anne (complete with red hair, plaits, and a straw hat) is guarded by Montgomery’s estate and therefore beyond the budget of most self-publishers.
Though this new cover is, without a doubt, outrageously unfaithful to Montgomery’s characterisation, it may be the very thing that Anne herself would have chosen for the story of her life. While her most common fantasies involve violet eyes and black hair, she is hardly adverse to the complexion shared by Ilse Burnley and the cover model in question. Indeed, she romanticizes blonde hair in the opening pages of Green Gables:
“I read of a girl once in a novel […] Her hair was pure gold rippling back from her alabaster brow. What is an alabaster brow? I never could find out. Can you tell me?”
“Well now, I’m afraid I can’t,” said Matthew, who was getting a little dizzy. He felt as he had once felt in his rash youth when another boy had enticed him on the merry-go-round at a picnic.
“Well, whatever it was it must have been something nice because she was divinely beautiful. Have you ever imagined what it must feel like to be divinely beautiful?”
“Well now, no, I haven’t,” confessed Matthew ingenuously.
“I have, often.” (28)
While, Anne comes to recognize that, if not divinely beautiful, she is a charismatic and attractive young woman (Diana assures her that her hair grows more auburn by the day), at this point in the narrative she’d far rather resemble the new cover model than the freckled creature that greets Matthew at the station in a “very short, very tight, very ugly dress” (20).
Surely we might also imagine these qualities away, for Anne’s sake—allowing her, if only for one cover, “a soul above red hair” (190)?
Anne of Green Gables. London: Everyman’s Library, 1995.
Emily of New Moon. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1923.
Emily’s Quest. London, Puffin Books, 1990.