Anne is powerful. By charming a young Kate Middleton, the spunky heroine of Green Gables has single-handedly made Prince Edward Island the centre of the Duchess-watchers’ universe.
PEI was Kate’s choice, and the irrepressible redhead of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s century-old novel will occupy her thoughts as she takes in dragon-boat races, smudging ceremonies, culinary demonstrations and all the other well-ordered activities a tiny province throws at visiting grandees. Facing the tightening strictures of her new royal life, she can summon up Anne’s power to free thoughtful women from the dull confinements of polite society.
Anne of Green Gables famously transports the imagination: Even before setting foot in PEI, the Duchess of Cambridge knows the red cliffs, green pastures and tree-shaded lanes that her crowded itinerary might just let her see for real.
But it’s the anything-is-possible Anne Shirley who’s the true connection with the commoner-turned-Duchess, a bond that thrills Anne’s boosters, and counters the belief that the plucky orphan has outlived her role as ambassador for PEI’s tourism business – recent non-Anne initiatives have included support for a Golf Channel reality series and a sponsored visit from Live! with Regis and Kelly, hosted by Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa.
“This will make the reading of Anne of Green Gables cool again for several generations,” promises Elizabeth Epperly, a Montgomery scholar.
Beguiling royalty is entirely in keeping with Anne’s range of influence. Anne of Green Gables has been translated into more than 36 languages, and Anne’s idiosyncrasies have proved endlessly adaptable. Swedish readers “responded to her abilities to see through sham,” says Mary Rubio of Guelph University. In Poland, her loyalty to homespun family values won her a devoted following. Young women in Japan, where Anne of Green Gables first appeared in a 1952 translation, welcomed the wise girl who defied authority – behaviour considered unwomanly in postwar Japanese culture.
A malleable character who can be all things to all people clearly has value as a lure for visitors. Margaret Atwood, a long-time fan, listed 32 reasons why Anne attracts Japanese readers in an article for Britain’s Guardian newspaper. They include: her passion for cherry blossoms, her exotic red hair, her willingness to work hard (while still being able to dream), her respect for elders, her appreciation of poetry and her talent for escaping the Japanese taboo that tempers must be held in check.
This, in the end, is the most universal of Anne’s good qualities, says Ms. Epperly. “Anne personifies all the things we think, but dare not utter. She’s this vibrant spark that you hope can change the rigidity and insularity around her rather than be dampened by it.”
Anne’s PEI was completely insular; she was the exception to the rule, after all – the one who stood out and spoke her mind. Yet in a miracle of literary tourism, her free-spiritedness has elided into the pastoral island, and readers travel to Anne’s Land (as it’s now designated) to experience her personality in an idealized landscape where mega-farms, traffic jams and tacky beachfront developments aren’t supposed to exist.
“Visitors from outside Canada are surprised how little there is about Anne,” says Sean Hennessy, director of the University of Prince Edward Island’s Tourism Research Centre. “For a cultural icon, there aren’t a lot of real things there.” But then again, how much reality can a fictional character be expected to generate, especially among non-readers? So the original Anne gives way to more accessible (and profitable) versions of the image.
A statue of a primly waving Anne greets visitors as they cross Confederation Bridge, and straightaway they can have their pictures taken in Anne regalia with de rigueur straw hat and carrot-red braids before shopping for homespun Green Gables figurines of Rachel gossiping, Diana getting drunk on currant wine and Anne dying her hair green.
The sales pitch is a constant, but much of it is regulated by a licensing body called the Anne Authority, which aims for a certain tastefulness – Anne shot glasses are frowned upon, but potato chips, raspberry drinks, Land of Anne deeds, quartz watches and Green Gables birdhouses are all on the approval list.
At a more spiritual level, there’s the Anne-style nuptials available from Kindred Spirits Wedding Planners who offer aficionados a chance to tie the knot in the very room where Lucy Maud Montgomery was married or alongside the novel’s Lake of Shining Waters with an actual Anne in attendance.
Annes abound on the island as greeters, performers and all-purpose icons – the Duchess of Cambridge will be serenaded by the Anne currently starring in the long-running Anne of Green Gables: The Musical. But ubiquity comes at a price: The “Anne-free zones” in some shops suggest that even a spunky chatterbox from a more idyllic past can wear out her welcome in the prickly present. There’s a reason why a contrarian musical titled Annekenstein played for five years in Charlottetown.
“People are very defensive,” says Ms. Epperly. “They feel they’re more than just Anne. But the reason they’re tired of her is that they’re getting Anne without L.M. Montgomery. They see this freckled character over and over again, and they say, ‘I’m so sick of her.’ Well, have you read the book?”
The Duchess of Cambridge has, fortunately. So bring on the redhead – there’s one kindred spirit who gets her.