[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for “Anne With an E” Season 2, including the finale “The Growing Good of the World.”]
The character of Great Aunt Josephine Barry in the “Anne of Green Gables” books has always been a fan favorite because she seemed to truly understand and encourage the unique aspects of the orphan that transformed the lives of those in Avonlea. In the Northwood Entertainment-produced Netflix adaptation of “Anne With an E,” it’s revealed that her perception and empathy comes from her own personal struggles: Aunt Josephine (Deborah Grover) is gay.
Series creator Moira Walley-Beckett (“Breaking Bad,” “Flesh and Bone”) spoke to IndieWire about adding this extra dimension to the beloved literary character, as well as more realistic touches for Canada in the Edwardian period, and what she’s eyeing for Anne Shirley Cuthbert (Amybeth McNulty) in Season 3.
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“Upon reading [the novel] again as an adult, I was wondering about Aunt Jo,” said Walley-Beckett. “In the book, she’s a spinster and she’s just a bit of a curmudgeon, and that’s kind of it. So I’m like, ‘Well, she coming to the Barrys for a month and she’s grieving,’ that’s why I decided to justify why she’s there: Who is she grieving?”
That answer came in Season 1 when the wealthy Aunt Jo revealed that she was mourning the loss of the person whom young Diana Barry (Dalila Bela) thought of as Aunt Gertrude, Josephine’s partner. Although the term didn’t exist at the time, their relationship was a “Boston marriage,” the cohabitation of two women independent of financial support from a man. While the Barrys merely saw this as a friendship, Josephine and Gertrude were in truth a lesbian couple.
“It seemed like a perfect opportunity for me to dive into the reality of a Boston marriage that was secret, as it would have been at that time,” said Walley-Beckett. “And so we touch on that in Season 1, and in Season 2 we get to expand upon it in a way that allows her to provide a forum of acceptance and safe haven for Cole and the other people in her community.”
The Queer Soirée
One of the roles many feminist “new women” like Aunt Josephine performed in that era was to promote social and cultural causes. For Aunt Jo, that aforementioned forum of acceptance took shape in the so-called queer soirée, a fabulous fete that Josephine and Gertrude held annually. In the season’s seventh episode, “Memory Has as Many Moods as The Temper,” Josephine throws her first queer soirée since the death of her partner.
“It was very exciting for me and the writers to create that. We’ve been talking about the queer soirée, which is how we refer to it, since we all first sat down together,” said Walley-Beckett. “It was just like, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing to get the kids to Charlottetown to see Aunt Jo and have her reboot her annual mid-winter queer soirée?’”
In one of the most visually stunning and entertaining scenes in the series so far, Josephine’s stately home is transformed into a veritable bower dripping with flowers, which are then supplemented by the flower crowns that most of the guest don if they’re not already gaudily attired. The guest list consists of people from around the globe, artists, and numerous other bohemian types who aren’t explicitly labeled.
“Everything that we dreamed up, they accomplished,” said Walley-Beckett. “I wanted one of the partygoers to be wearing a birdcage as a hat, and we wove it into her green hair and hung a bird in there. And they made all these flower crowns out of paper and doilies, and only things that would have existed at the time, which is how we always roll.”
One of the artists featured in the soirée is the show’s take on the real-life pianist and composer Cécile Chaminade (Nathalie Toriel), who shakes up Diana’s worldview as an example of a woman who thrives in an international lifestyle pursuing her art without a husband.
“Cécile Chaminade is really torn from the pages of history. We didn’t invent anything about her really,” said Walley-Beckett. “The actress that we cast we rigged her to look like Cécile, we played one of her compositions, we hired a real pianist actually in the role. She was a feminist and a gay icon, and a composer, and she travels the world playing piano. So that’s how Jo would know her.”
Cole and Mr. Phillips
One of Anne’s good friends this season is Cole (Cory Gruter-Andrew), a budding artist who is constantly harassed at school by Billy Andrews (Christian Martyn) and even worse, by their teacher Mr. Phillips (Stephen Tracey). Cole would like nothing better than to be left alone to draw, but the once-abused Anne recognizes that loneliness and befriends him.
Walley-Beckett explained why she wanted to include a queer person who is one of Anne’s peers.
“It would only make sense that there would be somebody in the class who was struggling with identity,” she said. “It was just unimaginably difficult to do so especially during that timeframe where it was illegal to be a homosexual, punishable by imprisonment and a death sentence – and punishable in Canada until . I was very keen to include a storyline like that.
“Also, in my mind their teacher Mr. Phillips has always been an unidentified closeted homosexual. He just has no idea that he was. I thought it would be fascinating to use Cole as a mirror for discovery on his part, and see the two different journeys of those characters.
“But backing up to dissenting points of view, it is very difficult for Diana confronted with this sudden circumstance about her two aunts, basically. I felt like to balance things, it was great to have the kids have a conversation about it, and have conflicting points of view because those are the points of views that are within the families who are watching the show.”
In that same vein, Walley-Beckett hopes that like Cole, viewers at home will watch the queer soirée and find a community. In fact, one of the key creative people working on “Anne With an E” came out to Walley-Beckett as a result of working on that sequence.
“I am just so proud to be a part of something that can offer this to people and I hope to all the kids too who are struggling with their gender [and sexual] identity, who may not have the empathy or understanding around them that they need,” she said, “that they see that it’s possible to have it if they find the community, they see that it’s possible to find safe haven.”