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Secretly Queer Classics: Anne of Green Gables

Many, many years ago, heroines always fell for heroes, and the guy always got the girl in the end, at least in books. This is because the world was still in the closet. Like, the entire planet. Have you ever picked up a classic—years after you slogged through it for school or to make your mom happy—and read it and thought...

Wow.

That was so gloriously


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I had this experience just a couple of weeks ago, when I cracked open Anne of Green Gables for the first time in 14 years. If you’ve revisited Anne Shirley now that you’re older, you see where I’m going with this. If you haven’t, we’ll get there.

Fact is, classics are absolutely full of queer subtext. But in 1900 or 1800 or whenever whatever book was written, you were absolutely Not Allowed to Talk About It. Which is bogus! Let’s talk about gay classics. Let’s talk about gay classics, and dream about the queer YA retellings they deserve.

I’m starting with my girl Anne-with-an-E, who, to be fair, is not that secret about it. While the classic novels eventually pair off Anne with her one-time rival Gilbert Blythe, it is undeniable that Anne has some serious chemistry with her neighbor, best friend, and kindred spirit Diana Barry.

There’s academic work (and controversy!) about lesbian desire in Anne of Green Gables, but as far as I can tell, even people who agree that Anne isn’t strictly heterosexual assume the Anne-Diana romance is one-sided. I disagree. I think Diana loves Anne, romantically, and ends up with a dude in the end because either she too is bisexual or because it’s the late 1800’s and Getting Married to a Man is just what you do, even if your heart’s not in it.

When Diana’s mother bans her from seeing Anne (not for Queer Reasons, but because Anne accidentally gets Diana extremely, extremely drunk):

          “I’ll never have another bosom friend—I don’t want to have. I couldn’t love
          anybody as I love you.”

          “Oh, Diana,” cried Anne, clasping her hands, “Do you love me?”

          “Why, of course I do. Didn’t you know that?”

          “No.” Anne drew a long breath. “I thought you liked me, of course, but I
          never hoped you loved me…”

          “I love you devotedly, Anne,” said Diana stanchly, “and I always will, you may
          be sure of that.”

          “And I will always love thee, Diana.”

“Bosom friends” indeed! A few years later, when Anne comes home from Queen’s College:

          “I thought you liked that Stella Maynard more than me,” said Diana
          reproachfully. “Josie Pye told me you did. Josie said you were infatuated with her.”

          Anne laughed and pelted Diana with the faded “June lilies” of her bouquet.

          “Stella Maynard is the dearest girl in the world except one and you are that
          one, Diana… I love you more than ever—and I’ve so many things to tell you.
          But just now I feel as if it were joy enough to sit here and look at you.”

Diana doesn’t have as strong an eye for the romantic as Anne, but she does give her this card:

          “If you love me as I love you

          Nothing but death can part us two.”

The only things keeping these two from a beautiful coming out/coming of age romance is the fact that 1) they’re eleven and clueless and 2) it’s, like, 1870-something.

Make it YA: To make this one YA, age Diana and Anne from tweens to teens, and set them in a contemporary small town. This way, they still have the space and freedom to spend hours alone together in their secret woodland hiding spot (kiss! kiss! kiss!!!), but with more evolved social attitudes, the constant queer subtext can just be, y’know, text.

There’s still plenty of room for conflict in Anne and Diana’s Avonlea paradise: all the girls at school canonically low-key have the hots for Anne, and as we saw above, Diana can get a bit jealous. But she won’t be nearly as jealous of them as she is of Gilbert, who Anne still regards as a rival.

To quote an annoying girl from my high school, “love me or hate me, it’s still an obsession.” So as Anne starts to realize her growing interest in Gilbert may have a different tenor than she thought, she starts figuring out her bisexual identity. Maybe previously she’d thought she only liked girls. Maybe she hadn’t thought much about it. In any case, she’s got lots to chew on.

With a contemporary YA writer at the wheel, approaching Anne of Green Gables with a modern and inclusive sensibility, the story could go anywhere: Does Anne end up with Diana? Does she fall for Gilbert? Does she walk away single, but with a better understanding of herself and plenty of things to think about as she leaves for college? The possibilities are endless.

What other literary classics do you think could use a queer retelling? Let us know in the comments!

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Heather Job

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