Reading L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables novels and then watching Kevin Sullivan’s film version of Anne and the sequels that followed it, you may have noticed that the time period in which the films are set is not at all the same as the novels. L.M. Montgomery began her depiction of Anne by setting her story in the 1880’s, deliberately using her own childhood as the backdrop against which her heroine’s story could unfold so she could easily mirror her early years growing up on Prince Edward Island at the end of the Victorian Era. However, when setting out to make a film adaptation of the celebrated novel Kevin Sullivan chose to set the first of his films at the beginning of the Edwardian Era beginning in 1901, more than two decades after Montgomery’s original chronology.
The Edwardian Era, also known as the Edwardian period of British history, spanned the reign of King Edward VII,1901 to 1910, after the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, and is sometimes extended to the start of the First World War.
Sullivan initially made his decision to set his films in this period because, from a production design perspective, the early 1900’s offered more opportunity for enhancing the book’s visual style and permitted the use of cleaner designs in both architecture and costume.
“Films work or don’t work based on the choices of the filmmaker,“says Anne of Green Gables Director, Sullivan. “Part of the excitement of creating film is discovering those environments that are so accurate for a story that they can suspend an audience’s disbelief; so that the world portrayed onscreen is nothing less than complete reality." Behind this was the very practical fact that Sullivan found he would have much greater access to filming locations, including practical period vehicles and train stations that were preserved from this period, that could significantly assist him in creating his seamless reality.
However, the simple decision to set Anne of Green Gables in the Edwardian Era would affect 10 more years of film production and the unique story elements and characters that unfolded in Sullivan’s subsequent Anne Of Green Gables sequels and spin-off series Road to Avonlea, all of which take the viewer to the end of the Edwardian Era, and the beginning of the Great War and the end of a prolonged period of innocence which the entire world was encompassed in.
American author Samuel Hynes described the Edwardian Era as a "leisurely time when women wore picture-perfect hats and did not vote, when the rich were not ashamed to live conspicuously, and the sun really never set on the British Empire." It is an era that is often portrayed in television and cinema through images of golden summer afternoons, lace parcels and elaborate garden parties. What is not always depicted, however, are the sweeping changes that evolved during this time: both politically and socially. Women may not have had the vote, but they were fighting for it; a topic that was memorably covered in the Road to Avonlea Episode “Aunt Janet Rebels”.
The invention of the typewriter and telephone suddenly offered new types of job opportunities. Cities expanded. Women started to become a singular critical element in an urban workforce, as families moved from agricultural to urban worlds. Literacy in the middle class expanded greatly and the school system was behind it, offering even more opportunity for people to establish careers for themselves at the dawn of the 20th century. The Wright Brothers took mankind to the air for the first time in history and Automobiles and Telecommunications each heralded the death of long-distance; making every facet of the world begin to spin faster and economies boom, ultimately, escorting the world through the Industrial Revolution of the Victorian Era into the Technological Revolution of the 21st century.
There is a unique duality to this long-idealized time period, just before the world was thrown into the upheaval of War, as well as social and economic turbulence, that triggered irrevocable dynamic change in the 20th century, which the world had never-before witnessed.
Today there remains a heart-felt wonderful nostalgia for this innocent period, which is now regarded as a kind of antidote to the complexities of the modern world we inhabit. And perhaps never more than in the immediate present, during this global pandemic.
Choosing to set Anne Shirley’s story on the cusp of this period of sweeping changes, is one of the reasons why the films retain their subtle poignancy for the modern viewer. They depict a time which is now irreplaceable; a time that has nearly vanished beyond actual memory. A time where community and simplicity in life were at the forefront of all that seemed important. Modern life may have improved in leaps and bounds, but at a tremendous cost as well. The Golden days at the turn of the 19th century still hold an intense fascination for modern society. Despite the many social conventions that remained in place in that long-ago world, there was opportunity beginning to form for people who were willing to reach out and grab hold of it.
Individuals like Anne Shirley were regarded as being “women ahead of their time”. Anne’s spirit,imagination and natural tenacity propel her though Sullivan’s films on a journey of becoming a teacher, as well as a published author, and allow her to have the bravery to find a less conventional path than that of many other women of her day. A path that modern women now think nothing of. Women like Anne’s author, L.M. Montgomery, who set her novels in the nostalgia of her own childhood in the Victorian Era, ultimately benefited from the sweeping changes of the Edwardian Era as she became a voice for and a paragon of what the burgeoning 20th century held in store for women.
By moving the opening of Anne’s story forward in time, pulling it out of the stuffier, more rigid Victorian era of Montgomery’s novels, filmmaker Kevin Sullivan was able to create a cinematic world, rich in visual appeal and rife with potential for more dynamic story-telling throughout his four Anne films and seven seasons of Road To Avonlea.
For a complete timeline of the Anne of Green Gables films and their tie into the events of Road To Avonlea, read our blog post Official Timeline from Anne of Green Gables to Road To Avonlea.