Sunday, 14 May 2017

Anne Jumps the Shark

I thought I could hold my tongue and keep from commenting on Anne with an E (beyond my extensive Facebook and Twitter comments), but it will not do. I must express my feelings.

Like many Anne-girls, I had high hopes for this new series. I was under the impression that it would explore the depths of the text while staying true to the story. I wanted it to be my version of Anne of Green Gables. The Anne who had faced real hardships, but threw herself into the opportunities presented by a genuine family life, a supportive teacher, and a solid community.

The series is visually beautiful and the depiction of day-to-life wonderfully rendered. I also think the casting is mostly spot on, but I should have been suspicious from the moment I read that creator Moira Walley-Beckett had “set out to make a Jane Campion feature, really.” Do you mean a Jane Campion film like The Piano? Oh crap, you’re going to butcher a quotidian depiction of a very specific colonial setting for your own neo-Victorian revisionist ends. You’re going to dismiss what you see as reactionary and conservative and not allow the narrative to respond to those claims in its own terms.

You will strip what was good and heartfelt from the story because it does not fit your agenda.

There are many things to roll your eyes at. For example, Matthew’s mad dash to find Anne in Nova Scotia is a ridiculously “jump the shark” moment almost equal to Anne rushing to France in Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story, aka, the series of which we do not speak. She’s off to find Gilbert, don’t you know, who’s missing in action in WW1 - a war his children actually fought in – and she’s in disguise as a French nun. Sigh. These are plot diversions that make no logical or narrative sense.

We don’t even need to get to Anne pawning Green Gables treasures and Jerry getting beaten up for the cash. What is this? Breaking Bad?

So many things, so I’ll pick three:

1)  Gilbert being an orphan:

In the Anne books, Gilbert is an only child and he does not come from a wealthy family, but his parents are hale, healthy and happily alive until the beginning of Anne of Ingleside. Mrs. Blythe doesn’t figure greatly, but she is described as “young hearted” and she’s definitely present at the birth of Anne and Gilbert’s twin girls Di and Nan. What’s more, the Blythes are described as “clannish” by Mrs. Lynde. Family is utterly central to Gilbert’s character and that clannishness extends wholeheartedly to Anne. His Anne-girl becomes one his people from the get go, even when it “seemed to [him] that it could never come true.”

Now it’s true that in Anne of Green Gables, it is mentioned that Gilbert had gone away to Alberta for three years for his father’s health, but there’s no suggestion that he was born out west. Gilbert’s an Island boy through and through. He is a student in Kingsport, Nova Scotia for seven years, but that is a means to a singular end: becoming a very community-focused, family doctor back on PEI.

Anne with an E total revises this aspect of Gilbert’s character – clearly a clever boy who wants to be a dedicated doctor who values family life is just a bit too boring – but the set up of his family situation opens a huge plot hole that doesn’t necessarily stand up to scrutiny.

In Anne with an E, it’s apparent from Gilbert and Marilla’s conversation at John Blythe’s grave that John arrived back in Avonlea as a young widower with an infant Gilbert. I don’t know about you, but even taking into account Marilla’s stubbornness and devotion to Matthew, it seems rather likely that she might have helped John out. This being a very small community and all. They may have even reconciled. Then there would never be a need to adopt Anne in the first place. Dun dun dun!

Marilla’s silent regret for her past pride requires John to be happily settled and for her to see it every day. Now that is an emotional depth to explore.

2) The Jerry Baynard subplot

Suck it up Anglo-Canada, you have a long history of dismissing the French population and you can’t rewrite that. What’s more, our beloved Anne is actually a bit of a snob. Yes, she was an orphan who lived in service for a bit, but the implication is that the people who took her in were the uncouth ones, not Anne. She is deeply cognisant of the fact that her parents were “good” educated people. What’s more, this is a world where being Methodist is enough to make the dominant Presbyterian community somewhat suspicious. Anne is relatively egalitarian and makes great friends with many housekeepers throughout the books, but French Catholic hired boys are beyond her circle of acknowledgement.

Now I can see that the reboot series is setting up a wee love triangle complication for Anne, and it will probably reveal the bigotry of the surrounding community. No doubt, it’ll be Jerry who finally tells Anne that Gilbert “got de’ turn” and will survive typhoid. Groan. I can see the hackneyed plot device to let her go – my bets are placed, talk to me later after I vom.

But if you want to explore cultural segregation in a very small community, how about showing that sectarian side to Anne and Avonlea. Yes, it makes us uncomfortable, but even though she is an orphan, her status as an English-speaking Presbyterian from “good” stock means she sees Jerry as just the hired help. Oh, and for the record, his surname is Buote in the book. 

Canada, you can’t make yourself feel better about your history by pretending that Anne and Jerry would have been friends, let alone share a bed while in Charlottetown pawning goods... Who are you even kidding? It’s the 1880s. It's Prince Edward Island. 

3) Mocking mothers wanting to improve education

How dare you. How very dare you.

Anne is remarkable because she not only goes to Queen’s College to train as a teacher, she goes to Redmond University and gets her BA. High Honours to boot in English.

This is something that is so central and important to L.M. Montgomery’s vision of Anne that she devotes an entire book to the four years at university. However, it’s something that even the beloved Megan Follow’s series disregards. In that version, Anne had to become a writer – sorry love, but first woman in your community to go to university is too dull for us, we want you to follow your dreams!

Hang on, what if university is your dream? Worse still for scriptwriters, what if being a mother and having your own family is also your dream? What if it’s both?

A BA may seem de rigueur to us, but it is no small thing in Avonlea, and most of the village women cannot fathom Anne’s academic ambitions. Furthermore, Avonlea is not a progressive town with a two-room school – it’s a small village with a schoolhouse where everyone knows everyone. Even Marilla and Matthew, who only live a little bit back from the main road, down a lane and behind some trees.

It’s Anne and Gilbert who are the improvers, who are the committee-creating arbiters of change. Oh, they are so Presbyterian! In Anne of Avonlea they even form AVIS, the Avonlea Village Improvement Society.

I realise that this vision of social change doesn’t always gel with our understanding of feminism and socialism, but women were at the backbone of education and social reform. And yes, it was centred on the church and temperance, and it openly questioned radicalism. These women, these committees of mothers, gave us women’s franchise and they gave us universal education. We must not mock them because they do not comfortably fit with our own social ideals.

We must certainly not mock them when they represent the very mindset of the heroine we claim to be celebrating.

You cannot make Anne Shirley a radical, but for several generations, she has given all us mostly good, but slightly odd, clever girls a literary friend. No Jane Eyre terrors in the night and dark secrets in the attic, just a person who lived in accordance with her world but could see all the magic.