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The Real Story Behind 'Anne of Green Gables'

Updated June 14, 2019 59.7k views10 items

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

    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

    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

    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

    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.