CHARLOTTETOWN, Prince Edward Island - Laura Robinson, professor of English, arrived at last month's Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences with a bombshell to toss among the literary cogitations. The title of her scholarly paper, presented at the Alberta conference, told it all: "Bosom Buddies: Lesbian Desire in L. M. Montgomery's Anne Books."
That's Anne, as in Anne Shirley, as in "Anne of Green Gables," the Canadian classic that generations of readers have innocently supposed to be a straightforward tale of a plucky, homely, effusively romantic red-haired girl coming of age on Prince Edward Island in the late 1800s.
But no. According to Robinson, the Anne novels - of which "Green Gables" was first and most famous - are actually meditations on lesbian lust. As for Anne's crush on schoolmate Gilbert Blythe, whom she eventually marries, the professor rips the lid off that facade: Their courtship and nuptials, the paper claims, merely represent the "triumph of compulsive heterosexuality."
Meanwhile, if you think the media didn't rise to Robinson's bait like big-mouth bass to a twisting worm, you've got another think coming. Details sizzled over the news wires, with front pages from Toronto to Tokyo blaring subtle headlines like "Anne of Green GAY-bles!"
Besmirch Anne and you besmirch Prince Edward Island, at least in the minds of businessfolk and officials presiding over the pint-sized province's $207 million tourist industry - half of it attributable to Anne. Hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to the various "Anne Sites," such as Montgomery's birthplace and the real-life Green Gables, now a national park.
"This is just another attempt to downgrade ... Prince Edward Island," inveighs Greg Deighan, minister of tourism. "Anne is good, Anne is strong, Anne and PEI will not be brought down."
The verbose orphan towers over the island like a pig-tailed colossus. Only potatoes and lobsters surpass her in economic value.
But the locals aren't all cheering Anne fans.
The provincial government nearly provoked armed revolt a few years ago when it emblazoned Anne's freckle-faced visage on license plates, making every car an advertisement for Anne.
As if genuine billboards and posters didn't loom large enough - Anne's impish, sunbonnet-framed grin is almost frighteningly omnipresent, especially along the tawdry tourist strip in Montgomery's home town of Cavendish.
'Sick of Anne'
"Islanders are sick of Anne," says Paul MacNeill, publisher of the Eastern Graphic, a newspaper based in Montague, Prince Edward Island. "Not the Anne of literature, but the Anne used as a come-on for miniature golf links, T-shirt stands, fast-food joints, and motels with ridiculous names. She's used to peddle everything the mind can imagine. She's turning us into Coney Island."
Many islanders seemed nonplussed by news that Anne may have pursued an alternative lifestyle, but hardly outraged. Serious scholars of Canada's best-known author were mostly amused by the outing of Anne.
"I think this perhaps says more about our own era's obsession with sexualizing everything than about the fictional character Anne or the reality of Montgomery," says Elizabeth Epperly, professor of English at the University of Prince Edward Island and co-editor of a new anthology, "L. M. Montgomery and Canadian Culture."
"Anne was romantic, passionate, refreshing - that's why she still attracts so many readers," Epperly says. "She spoke in extravagant language of her feelings about stars, flowers, nature, even ice cream. And she certainly spoke of her strong feelings of friendship for her female friends. But it was just friendship intensely expressed."
She adds with a laugh: "Anne of Green Gables as homoerotic fantasy? I don't think so. But it certainly keeps the pot stirred."
Robinson, who teaches at Canada's Royal Military College in Ontario, has declined to discuss her findings with reporters. Couched in somewhat dense academese, her argument seems to be, basically, that since lesbian sex goes unmentioned in the Anne books, it must be seething beneath the surface.
Out of conext
It's true that Anne gushingly refers to her closest female pals as "bosom friends." That might draw sniggers from 12-year-olds today (or set grownup professors to feverish speculation), but in Montgomery's time it was an innocuous phrase, referring to a dear friend.
"I'm not sure it's entirely fair to apply 21st-century interpretations to a book that reflected the language, values and sensibilities of nearly 100 years ago," says Dianne Morrow, director of the University of Prince Edward Island's L. M. Montgomery Institute.
"The real story is not some theory of sexual orientation but the fact that so many people still care about Anne," she says. "You wouldn't see this fuss over many century-old literary characters."
Indeed, almost incredibly in this age of nipple rings and the pop music descendants of Madonna, dreamy Anne of Green Gables remains an idol for millions of girls and young women around the world.
Montgomery's books still sell hundreds of thousands of copies every year, and are printed in 17 languages. Last week, Anne ranked No. 328 on the Amazon.com list, a remarkable showing for a novel first published in 1908 and set among the one-room schools and wood stove kitchens of Victorian Canada.
"There's just something about the way she talks about nature and friendship that makes her appealing and so alive," says Heather Ludlow, a student at the University of Prince Edward Island. "Anne's a dynamic female figure not afraid to speak her true feelings - or her mind."
Anne is most widely read in the United States and Canada, but she also boasts ardent followings in Britain, Scandinavia, Poland, Australia, South Africa and Japan, where the beloved figure is known as "Anne of Red Hair."
A tourist industry
But Anne also lies at the center of a tourist industry that sometimes seems to be striving to reach some transcendental plane of tackiness.
The road to Green Gables - the old farmhouse that supposedly inspired Montgomery - is cluttered with gimcrack attractions that tout Anne but are not even remotely connected to her. A full-sized plywood mockup of the space shuttle Challenger. A Ripley's "Believe It or Not" exhibition. Go-cart tracks. Souvenir arcades. Wax museums. And throngs of dazed-looking Japanese tourists desperately seeking Anne.
On the other hand, every two years the L. M. Montgomery Institute is host to a well-regarded conference that draws literary experts and Anne fans from around the world. This year's gathering, from June 30 to July 2, will explore the writer's impact on popular culture.
The stage version of Anne - centerpiece of the summer-long Charlottetown Festival for 35 years - is Canada's longest-running musical.
Several houses associated with Montgomery are worth the visit. And despite spots of hyper-commercialized horror, the island still boasts plenty of bucolic charm.
Meanwhile, the new allegations about Anne's sex life have produced a rousing good row. So what comes next?
"Lord t'underin' Jaysus, Anne dealt crack," asserts Canadian television commentator Rex Murphy, parodying a Prince Edward Island accent. "Now there is absolutely no reference to crack in the Anne canon. But that's no handicap to interpretive criticism."