The Real Story Behind 'Anne of Green Gables'

Since its inception, Lucy Maud (L.M.) Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables has captivated readers, becoming a cherished part of countless childhoods and a nostalgic part of countless adulthoods. Inevitably, many fans have wondered about the story's creative genesis. Who were the real people and events that eventually became the saga of Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, Gilbert Blythe, Diana Barry, and the rest of the gang? Is Anne of Green Gables true or fiction?

As is the case with almost all legendary fictional characters (like Juana Maria, the inspiration for Island of the Blue Dolphins), Anne is, of course, a little bit of both. According to various accounts of L.M. Montgomery's life, Green Gables and its inhabitants are more than a magical and ingenious channeling of imagination; they're a composite portrait of the author, the people and places she knew, and the people and places she never knew but only read about. Read on to find out how Anne came to be spelled with an E and how an orphan named Ellen inspired an orphan who was ("tragically!") not named Cordelia.

  • Anne Was Partially Inspired By The Face Of Evelyn Nesbit

    Anne Was Partially Inspired By The Face Of Evelyn Nesbit
    Photo: Rudolf Eickemeyer / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Some claim that the physical model for Anne Shirley was not another plucky and gangly redhead, as one might assume, but famous "Gibson Girl" Evelyn Nesbit... a figure who possessed the very same flowing "nut brown hair" and "exquisite rose leaf complexion" that the fictional Anne so coveted and idealized.

    According to the documentary Looking For Anne (2009),  L.M. Montgomery was inspired by a widely circulated portrait of Nesbit (pictured above), which she probably first "spotted in the food magazine What to Eat, which had just published one of her stories." The image captured "a nostalgia for girlhood... a time of innocence, wonder, and discovery." Rumor has it that Montgomery tore the picture out, framed it, and frequently gazed at it as she worked... and the rest is Green Gables history.

  • The Concept Of Anne Came To Montgomery As A Child

    The Concept Of Anne Came To Montgomery As A Child
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Anne's earliest spark appears to have come when her creator was no older than Anne herself. According to the book The Story Girl Chronicles, the adult Montgomery was revisiting her childhood journals one day when she suddenly came across an entry: “Elderly couple apply to orphan asylum for a boy. By mistake a girl is sent them.”

    Anne subsequently took root in the form of a short story. But, true to character, she quickly became an epic and blossomed into a novel.  

  • Anne Was Also Based On A Real Orphan Named Ellen

    Anne Was Also Based On A Real Orphan Named Ellen
    Photo: PBS

    As it turned out, the Anne diary entry wasn't solely a spark in L.M. Montgomery's imagination. According to scholars, it was actually a reflection of an incident in the life of one Pierce Macneill, a cousin of L.M.'s grandfather, and his wife, Rachel. The couple lived right across from the real-life Green Gables on Prince Edward Island, and they needed help on their farm. It seemed that:

    "The childless couple had applied to adopt an orphan boy in 1892 to help out with the farm chores; their neighbors John and Annie Clark did the same. But instead of two boys, the two sets of unsuspecting adoptive parents found a five-year-old boy and his three-year-old sister awaiting them at the train station."

    It appears that the Macneills decided to keep the little girl, whose name was Ellen. Rather tragically, there's no record of what happened to her brother, whom both they and their neighbors presumably opted out of adopting; researchers and Anne historians hoping to get the whole story haven't been able to uncover any subsequent details.

  • L.M. Montgomery Was Herself (Partially) An Orphan

    L.M. Montgomery Was Herself (Partially) An Orphan
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Born on Prince Edward Island on November 30, 1874, Lucy Maud Montgomery was partially orphaned at a very early age – and then more or less abandoned by her remaining parent. When she was about two and a half years old, her mother died of tuberculosis, and her father, apparently overcome with grief, left the child with her grandparents, who raised her. 

    LMM was never fully estranged from her father; she even eventually spent one year living with him and his new wife, but it's clear that her feeling largely like an orphan played an important role in Anne's development.

  • Like Gilbert Blythe, L.M. Montgomery's True Love Caught A Deadly Disease

    Like Gilbert Blythe, L.M. Montgomery's True Love Caught A Deadly Disease
    Photo: PBS

    In the 1985 TV series, Anne memorably rushes to Gilbert Blythe's side as he's dying of typhus, and he miraculously recovers after declaring his love for her. In real life, however, things didn't turn out quite so perfectly. In the early 1900s, while she was teaching on Prince Edward Island, Lucy Maud Montgomery became enamored with a man named Herman Leard, who resided in the same house she boarded in.

    In her diaries and letters, which are collected in the book The Intimate Life Of L.M. Montgomery, L.M. described Leard as the love of her life:

    "Hermann suddenly bent his head and his lips touched my face. I cannot tell what possessed me-I seemed swayed by a power utterly beyond my control-I turned my head-our lips met in one long passionate pressure-a kiss of fire and rapture such I had never experienced or imagined."

    However, Montgomery's family apparently objected to the union, and she broke off relations with Leard. Not long afterwards, he died tragically of influenza. L.M. was said to have "never again sought romantic love," though she did go on to marry Ewan Macdonald, a Presbyterian minister whom she was not in love with. (Gilbert Blythe was probably her way of re-creating Leard's death as a happy ending).

  • The Man L.M. Montgomery Did Marry Suffered From Delusions And Psychosis

    The Man L.M. Montgomery Did Marry Suffered From Delusions And Psychosis
    Photo: YouTube

    Though it produced three children (one of whom was stillborn), L.M.'s marriage was not a happy one. She regretted marrying Ewan Macdonald, even though she had been engaged to him for five years beforehand. Almost 10 years into the marriage, Macdonald had a mental breakdown, which was characterized by "religious melancholia" and delusions. (He apparently believed that he was a member of the "Elect," a special group destined to go to heaven).  

    According to the biography Writing A Life: L.M. Montgomery, Macdonald would go around with “hair bristling, blue underlip hanging, eyes glaring, and face livid,” denouncing his wife and children. L.M. tried to keep his condition a secret, but it eventually became too conspicuous to hide.