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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

L.M. Montgomery (Sadly) Took Her Own Life

Though Lucy Maud Montgomery brought joy to millions – and, fortunately, experienced a good amount of joy in her own life – her later years were, sadly, not good ones. Though she continued to write about Anne, L.M. continually battled depression.

Montgomery died on April 24, 1942, at the age of 67. It was initially reported that she had died of coronary thrombosis, but in 2008, her granddaughter revealed that she had actually taken her own life via a drug overdose.

A suicide note (which some had initially mistaken as a fragment of a novel) read, in part:

“I have lost my mind by spells, and I do not dare think what I may do in those spells. May God forgive me, and I hope everyone else will forgive me even if they cannot understand. My position is too awful to endure and nobody realizes it. What an end to a life in which I tried always to do my best.”

It was a tragic end to a great life, and a great career; but at least L.M. Montgomery will always live on through the exuberant, romantic, and poetic Anne.

Montgomery’s Last Known Work Was So Dark, Her Publisher Wouldn’t Release It

At the end of  her life, L.M. Montgomery was indeed in the depths of (real) despair, and exhausted from battling the depression that would eventually lead to her suicide. In fact, her final contribution to the Anne series, The Blythes Are Quoted – with its themes of “adultery, illegitimacy, despair, misogyny, murder, revenge, bitterness, hatred, aging, and death” – was said to be so dark that her publisher opted not to release it. An abridged version of the work was eventually published in 1974, and the full text became available in 2009.

Unlike Anne, L.M. Montgomery Didn’t Want Her Name Spelled With An E

“When you hear a name pronounced can’t you always see it in your mind, just as if it was printed out? I can; and A-n-n looks dreadful, but A-n-n-e looks so much more distinguished. If you’ll only call me Anne spelled with an E I shall try to reconcile myself to not being called Cordelia,” Anne Shirley famously says to Marilla Cuthbert in the book.

As it turns out, Anne’s creator felt exactly the opposite way abut the spelling of her own name. A passage in The Selected Journals of Lucy Maud Montgomery makes it clear that the author:

“Never liked Lucy as a name. “I always liked Maud – spelled not with an e if you please – but I do not like it in connection with Montgomery. ‘Maud Montgomery’ has always seemed to me a disagreeable combination.”

One name’s unwanted E is another name’s treasure.

Anne’s Beloved Forests, Lakes, And Enchanted Spots Were Based On Real Places

The Lake of Shining Waters, Violet Vale, Willowmere – Anne of Green Gables is full of poetically named places, and most of them reflect real-life locations.

According to Canada’s official website,  the young Lucy Maud Montgomery, who spent much of her childhood playing outside and mentally creating poetic landscapes, named the many places she came to love, just as Anne did. One particularly beloved apple tree was dubbed Little Syrup. Other names were incorporated directly into the book: her uncle’s pond was called “The Lake of Shining Waters,” and the forest near her childhood farm was christened “The Haunted Woods” (and was indeed reputed to be haunted). Diehard fans can even tour the real Green Gables; it’s a designated Canadian “Heritage Place.”