Anne of Green Gables may not be the the first work on your list of "classic queer literature," but maybe it should be. There's something about Anne Shirley which seems, at least to me, undeniably queer. It's little wonder that I have always identified heavily with Anne and the novel remains my favorite novel of all time.
Anne Shirley is considered an icon of Canadian and Children's literature. The bright-eyed, red-haired, talkative orphan is recognisable in dozens of countries. Millions of dollars in merchandise are sold every year relating to Anne. In Japan, her notoriety is such that entire families move from Japan to Canada claiming it is because of the character, have built copies of Green Gables on the northern most islands, and a woman named Muraoka Hanako risked censure or worse to translate the novel into Japanese during the height of World War II. She was willing to risk being caught engaged in translation of "the language and literature of the enemy" because of her devotion and identification with Anne. Her story is now a Japanese drama.
There's got to be something which speaks to the rebel spirit. The marginalised. The subaltern. However, Anne's icon status, rather than allow for literary criticism exploring Anne Shirley as "other," has been the determining factor in denying it. Indeed, she is considered the perfect Canadian female archetype, and as such, her fans, the Canadian government, and even more importantly, those that hold the merchandising rights, will fight any attempt to paint her in anything but the "right" light. Perhaps it's long past time we challenge what the right light actually is.
No light has been more distressing to this group of individuals than criticism suggesting that Anne may be anything less than heterosexual. In specific, the work of Laura M. Robinson, who merely suggested that the books show a picture of compulsory heterosexuality, was enough to get her booed by the international media, and she received many angry letters of complaint.
Let that sink in. That someone would be treated so harshly by the global community for merely positing any interpretation in the search of knowledge should be astounding. And yet, it isn't. For all of these complaints against Robinson's work, I'm pretty sure she's actually right. To examine why she is right, there are two main points to consider, the first being the intersection of viewing Anne through a lesbian feminist theoretical framework and considering how the Anne books show clearly defined compulsory heterosexuality. Second, specific examples throughout the Anne books illustrate how these theories apply to Anne's character and lead credence to Robinson's arguments, as well as the independent arguments expressed by myself (who is admittedly biased, as both an Anne fan and a lesbian identified woman).
Lesbian feminist theory is pretty broad, and in this examination of Anne of Green Gables and subsequent novels, I am specifically using "Cultural Lesbian Feminism." It has much in common with other strains of feminism, so it should not come as a shock Cultural Lesbian Feminism states while some aspects of gender and sexuality are inherent, much of it is determined by the accepted codes of conduct in a given society. In western society, such as American or Canadian, the accepted codes of conduct are generally compulsory heterosexuality and compulsory gender roles. I'd add the same is pretty much true for Japan.
By compulsory, what is meant is that society has set up a reward and punishment system for every individual within that society. If an individual keeps within the boundaries prescribed the codes of conduct, he or she is rewarded by being considered "normal" or even "popular." If an individual strays too far outside of the code of conduct, he or she is punished by being considered "abnormal," "unpopular," or even by violence or death, as too many of us know all too well from personal experience. The characters of Anne's world are no exception, fictional world or not. Her creator, Lucy Maud Montgomery, was confined by these concepts, and so Anne and company are too.
Still, this does not mean that Lucy Maud Montgomery necessarily agreed, or that she was unable to write social commentary into her works. Anne's interactions with her fellows are never as clear cut as the codes of conduct would like. She maintains close relationships with other girls and women, even when they are imaginary, seems far more interested in those relationships, even we she is engaged or her friends are married, and she regularly defies gender roles at every page turn.
When Anne is so alone as to find respite only in creating imaginary friends, her attachments go way beyond those of normal early twentieth century homosocial behavior. At the age of 12, while most girls were supposed to be (and probably were) dreaming of a fairy tale ending with a handsome prince (what society tells them they should desire, at least in a flight of fancy), Anne's fairy tale ending is not with a boy at all, but her imaginary playmate, a girl, Katie Maurice. Anne wishes to go to Katie's wonderful world and live together with her happily ever after. Then, later, when she has been forced to move on and find another imaginary friend, Violetta, and then leave that friend too, she expresses extreme despair at having to part with Violetta. By this time Anne is well into her thirteenth year, and very articulate about her despair. It is no ordinary childish tantrum.
Yet there is one girl that stays within Anne's soul for the entirety of the books, and that is Diana Barry. Anne had, after leaving Violetta, been searching for what she called a "bosom friend." When Anne's adoptive parent, Marilla Cuthbert, points out that down the way lives a nice little girl named Diana, Anne's reaction is that of swooning over a crush. At this point, Anne had not yet even set eyes on Diana. Not long after doing so, perhaps less than an hour, Anne and Diana swear undying devotion to each other, and that first day is just the beginning of their relationship (one Anne will consider far more important to her identity than Diana will).
The two girls are practically inseparable until an accident has Diana drinking wine instead of one of Marilla's homemade juices. Anne, having never tasted either, did not know the difference. After Diana's mother finds out, Anne and her "bosom friend" are told they cannot play with each other ever again. The romantic language used between them only gets stronger. Even Diana claims that she loves Anne, but on Diana's side, it may just be homosocial behavior. Anne, on the other hand, is absolutely amazed by the use of the word "love" and clings to it like a lift vest during a raging storm. She gives Diana a grand farewell and takes a lock of her friend's hair. Even Montgomery herself calls it a romantic parting in the narration.
Although Anne and Diana are eventually reconciled, the two grow apart. Diana is no longer continuing school, and Anne is heading off to college. The attention shifts to Gilbert Blythe, although the shift is negative. Gilbert is portrayed as an annoyance, an obstacle, and a rival. Although it is clearly shown Gilbert considers himself a suitor to Anne, Anne certainly does not acknowledge it. Still, Gilbert makes himself known and even gives up his position teaching in their hometown, Avonlea, so that Anne may have it and stay closer to the Cuthberts. Anne is grateful, but it does not win her heart, or even an extension of her attention.
After further adventures in teaching, where Anne explores her writing ability as well as her ability to mold the minds of those under her care in Avonlea, she is not without Gilbert showing up now and again. Eventually, she agrees to marry him. The reasons are complex, but can be summed up in Anne's understanding of, and feeling the pressure exerted by, the compulsory heterosexual society around her. Diana, much to Anne's dismay, has already married and is no longer an option, if she ever truly was one, for Anne's attentions. Anne's other option, outside of marriage, is to end up as an on "old maid." While Anne may not really desire male companionship, she is a social being, and by her very nature desires and requires companionship, and Gilbert moved from being a rival after their graduation from college to a good friend with whom she shared many memories. Anne may not truly be happy, but she is certainly content with him.
Contentment does not neutralise Anne's strong desire towards and attachment to other women. When Anne teaches at a private school in Halifax, she discovers one of her peers to be infinitely interesting. Anne develops an attachment to her fellow teacher, Katherine Brooke. Yet, Katherine wants nothing to do with Anne. Katherine is everything Anne is not. She's cold and aloof, where Anne is warm and involved. If the adage opposites attract may be applied, the two are as opposite as they can be. Anne desires friendship with Katherine, but Katherine dismisses and even insults Anne regularly. In a conversation with a friend, Rebecca Dew, Anne admits that she knows Katherine can be a horrible and unkind person, yet there is nothing she can do to shake the feeling that Katherine is worth pursuing. This devotion is another example of a crush-like attachment Anne expresses, far more romantic than anything she shares with Gilbert. When Anne finally works up the nerve to ask Katherine to come spend Christmas at Green Gables, the two exchange heated words before Katherine finally agrees.
As soon as Anne and Katherine reach Green Gables, it is like Katherine suddenly becomes the Diana that Anne no longer has. The pair has intimate discussions and goes for romantic walks down "lover's lane," a place named by Anne many years before. Even more interesting, as is pointed out by Robinson, Katherine has to borrow snow shoes from Diana, literally filling Diana's shoes. Anne even goes so far as to help Katherine with a makeover and tells her how beautiful she is. This is made all the odder by the fact that Gilbert is technically present during all of these events. He is mentioned once or twice, but only in the context of something on the side, and never has his own dialogue. Since the novels are from Anne's point of view, this suggests that despite being engaged to Gilbert, Anne does not consider him important. If she considered him important, more time would be spent describing him and more dialogue would be attributed to him.
It is difficult to say whether or not Anne would admit to loving Gilbert. She certainly would not admit to being in love with him. In fact, she likely never was in love with him. She grew to love him, but the difference between being "in love" and "loving" would mean a great deal of difference to a writer such as Anne, and nowhere in the books does she ever say she is in love with Gilbert, and certainly not in any of the dramatic ways she has applied to her female companions, especially Diana. Gilbert is capitulation, no matter how much she may feel for him. He is the best Anne can hope for in a society that does not allow Anne to choose her life companion from within her own gender.
This is not to say that Anne is a lesbian, and Robinson has not said this either (despite a joke title for her paper, "Big Gay Anne"). Indeed, Anne not only does not have the support needed to be a lesbian, she probably could not conceive of the idea of being sexually active with one of her friends. Her devotions are not erotic, they are romantic. Anne desires the company of other girls and women, not necessarily sexual relations with them. Although I might argue, and in fact would, if Anne could conceptualise a lesbian identity and had outside role models, she probably would have been. A bold statement. That said, Anne is at least homoromantic. I suppose she could be asexual, but that doesn't jive with my own, admittedly biased, image of Anne's character.
What Anne is not is heterosexual. She probably isn't bisexual either. Anne not only does not desire the company of men, she certainly does not express any sexual interest in them. I would argue any sexual relations she has with Gilbert fall under the duties that she is expected to perform under the capitulation and compromise to which she agreed. A willingness to do her duty is a mark of Anne's character. In such cases her desires are secondary. But why do so?
Perhaps the reasoning behind Anne's acceptance of Gilbert can be found in the two elements Virginia Woolf says is necessary for a woman writer. Woolf's insistent notion that successful women writers need money and a place to write is likely very evident to Anne. Certainly it would be evident to Lucy Maud Montgomery. Gilbert is a source of support and strength that can only be gained in the late eighteen hundreds/early nineteen hundreds from having a successful husband. Gilbert is definitely successful.
Eventually, Gilbert becomes a doctor in Glen St. Mary. Gilbert's status as a doctor would be enough to make sure that even when Anne wasn't working, she would have enough to live. Living in Avonlea would guarantee that Anne had the proper source of inspiration, considering her very first novel was a collection of Avonlea inspired vignettes. Both of these are able to be used by Anne because Gilbert not only respects her individuality and drive as a writer, but they are the very traits which attracted him to Anne in the first place. As an old maid, it is questionable how easy Anne's writing would be. Married to anyone else but Gilbert, it is seriously questionable if she would even be allowed to write at all. Gilbert is a good man, even if Anne isn't, never was, and never would be in love with him.
Anne is from a time period where if any novel messages were to be about possibly "immoral subjects," they had to be disguised so well in the work, only those wishing to get more than mere entertainment from them would be able to see those messages. I think this is the case with the Anne books. Anne herself, a character, a rebel, a whole and complete person (something we still struggle to see women as more than a century later) sends a message that would have been seen as very dangerous, so her rebellion is muted. But it is real.
Montgomery's writing is about more than just a story of a young orphan girl and the love and acceptance she finds. Her actions speak more loudly than the dialogue she uses. Anne's desire to ignore traditional courting, compulsory heterosexuality, as well as gender roles, shows her to represent the changing world around her. Montgomery herself was not content to follow gender roles. She was a woman author, when the fiction arena was dominated by men. Her writing brought her immense wealth, even before she married. She was the first woman to receive several accolades from both the Crown and several non-government agencies. It doesn't seem too far out to say Anne was no doubt a representation of her creator at some level.
The Canadian people should consider her a hero, an archetype, and a beloved character. So should Americans, and the Japanese. However, my reasoning is very different. Anne should be treated with respect for her differences; for her willingness to step out of line when so few of her peers were willing to do so. True, in the end, she did compromise, but can we blame her? Her marriage to Gilbert was the smartest financial move she could make as a writer. It may not have helped her express her feelings for other women in a romantic setting, but it allowed her to keep her voice.
The importance of that voice, narrated to us by Montgomery, should be obvious, because after a century, children are still discovering a beloved friend in Anne. And as adults, we look back, and each reading is like meeting a childhood friend for tea after too many years. Anne will keep her pedestal, not because she is touted by the dominant cultural hegemony as an example of classic moral innocence, but because she is an inspiration to all those that stand against it.
She certainly inspired me.
Image via Shutterstock.