New exhibit reveals "Anne of Green Gables" secrets

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Anne Shirley, the lively country girl at the heart of “Anne of Green Gables” owes part of her character to glossy New York magazines and to a famous American actress, according to a new exhibit on the classic series of novels.

Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote her books on Prince Edward Island, off the east coast of Canada. The first of the eight-part series was published in June 1908, and total sales of the books have topped 50 million copies.

The exhibit, which opens in Canada’s National Archives on Wednesday and runs through March 2009, dispels a commonly held notion that Montgomery was removed from the mainstream and wrote only about the small world she knew.

June Creelman, one of the exhibit’s co-curators, says Montgomery was an avid reader who had wide access to popular magazines from New York and elsewhere.

“We imagine Maud as being completely isolated from the world and coming up with this character just out of her imagination,” Creelman told Reuters on Tuesday.

“Of course she was influenced by the people and places she knew but she was also someone who devoured popular culture, read widely, subscribed to glossy magazines and you see influences of this wider world in her writing.”

Montgomery pinned up a photo of American actress Evelyn Nesbit above her desk and used her face to mold the appearance of Anne, who has bright red hair, as often depicted in magazines of that period.

Montgomery would also have known that former U.S. President Grover Cleveland had a summer house called Gray Gables, which may have inspired the choice of Green Gables.

“What made the book such a hit was that she captured the themes of the time, the things that people were interested in doing and reading about,” said Creelman.

The exhibit contains four pages from the initial written manuscript, which reveal that when it came to naming one of Anne’s closest friends, Montgomery initially chose Gertrude and Laura, before settling on Diana.

The author’s enthusiasm for her heroine faded amid the public clamor for more sequels.

“I am done with Anne forever -- I swear it as a dark and deadly vow,” she inaccurately predicted in 1920.

Anne is known for her indomitable sense of independence, an unusual trait for a fictional girl at the time. Creelman links this to the influence of modern culture on Montgomery.

“She’s really a creature of the turn of the 20th century that was reflecting new images of womanhood ... the character of Anne Shirley is so much more independent and forceful and taking her life in her hands,” she said.

“These were not your typical pictures of sweet and submissive women.”

Also on show are covers from editions of Anne books issued around the world, which variously make her out to look like former British supermodel Twiggy, the fictional U.S. detective Nancy Drew and a character out of a Cubist painting.

Anne is particularly popular in Japan, with which Canada is teaming up this month to issue a stamp devoted to her.

Editing by Bernadette Baum