A Past Mourning

The text that follows is actually something I wrote awhile back when Jonathan Crombie, the Canadian actor known for playing Gilbert Blythe in the 80s film adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, died in April.  I was hoping I could find a home for it in print, but that hasn’t happened yet, so I thought I’d put it here.  I know that this isn’t the timeliest post, but time is elastic on the Internet, right?  So, what follows is my contribution to the fandom–a farewell to a half-fictional person from a girl who (like Harold Smith) grew up in books.

Earlier this week, while browsing silly gifs and checking email, I discovered some unexpected news. Jonathan Crombie, who’d played Gilbert Blythe in a memorable adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, had died. Before Ben Wyatt and Leslie Knope became my go-to nerd couple, before I knew the bittersweet conclusion of Harold and Maude’s story, before even the postmodern fairytale of Buttercup and Wesley became a touchstone for my generation, I had Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe. These sensible Canadians and their conventional courtship were my model first couple.

I was first introduced to Anne and her beloved Avonlea in the late 80s with the airing of the CBC mini-series during one of PBS’s belabored pledge drives. I instantly got Megan Follows as Anne with her dreamy imagination, her penchant for reading over doing her chores and her hatred of her impossible hair. Enter Gilbert Blythe, the winking, popular, cute boy who hurts Anne’s feelings ‘excruciatingly’ when he grabs her ginger hair & stage-whispers, “Carrots!” One slate smashed over the offender’s head and one refused apology later sets in motion a noteworthy relationship for all coming-of age stories.

But it’s not just Montgomery’s interesting take on contentious first-meetings that can transform into a page-turning relationship. The adaptation was faithful and captured the spirit of the books, particularly Jonathan Crombie’s casting as Gilbert. Gilbert’s brash wink in the books was the mischievous wink of Crombie daring you not to have fun with him. Gilbert’s apology is forever Crombie’s adorably Canadian “SO-ree.” The actor’s interpretation was so completely charming, how could I (and thousands of other girls my age) not fall in love with him? The fact that he was boy-next-door cute didn‘t hurt either. He had the curly hair, honest eyes and the intense sincerity that only a first love can have.

There’s something interesting that happens when we fall so completely in love with a fictional couple. Relationships are fascinating to puzzle out all on their own—why else are advice columns still going strong despite being thought of as insubstantial or womanly? Fictional couples stay with us because they strike us at a moment when we are craving whatever flavor their story has. There’s an interesting subtext or something familiar despite the exotic conditions. The enshrined memories of Bella and Edward, Korra and Asami, and Zoe and Wash are just as important to current generations as Elizabeth and Darcy, Ralph and Meggie, Rhett and Scarlett are to previous ones.

Anne and Gilbert may have been one of my first ideal couples partially because of my Mormon upbringing—a nice self-made girl met a good able boy and, after a rocky start and awkward friendship, eventually built a traditional relationship. Anne and Gilbert’s relationship could be defined by what it’s not: not taboo, not forbidden, not sexy, not limited by circumstances of birth or opportunity. But looking back now, there is something radical about it. Their relationship, compared to other wild affairs, is a quiet idyll that exemplifies the basics that all good couples should have: respect of one another, support in each other’s pursuits, equality in decisions, and trust. (Is this a particularly Canadian outlook? In a later role in the series Slings & Arrows, Crombie played a writer whose dull script was enlivened by his attraction to a plain Jane who came from “good country folk.”)

The Anne mini-series was incredibly meaningful to me. Not only did it lead me to the books, but any connection I found to it touched me in a very particular way. When I discovered the comedy of the Kids In the Hall as a teenager, I was tickled to find two of the five cast members had played awkward suitors to Anne and her friend Diana. When Richard Farnsworth killed himself, I could only think of Matthew’s death in the series. When, as an adult, I found the original Bantam paperbacks that had been released as a tie-in to the series in a used bookstore, I immediately bought them, partially convinced it was magic they had survived twenty-some years untouched, their spines unbroken. And when I found that Jonathan Crombie had died, I thought back to how I had cried as a child at Anne and Gilbert’s engagement, the ending so sweet and satisfying I couldn’t accept the end. The fantasy of their love had been with me so thoroughly through my life, I couldn’t entirely believe the intrusive reality.