A-Z Challenge: Diana Barry, Namesakes, and Queering Friendships

DMost people–maybe everyone, but I’m leery of giving universals–enjoy when they’re reading a book and then-bam!-there’s a character with their name. There’s something legitimizing about it. As for me, I’ve had a life-long struggle with my name. My mother’s name is Dianne, which is insanely close to my own. We’ve been called by each others’ names for years, and we’re still in the middle of arguing with the post office about why they keep forwarding my mother’s mail to me in New Orleans, even though our names are spelled differently.

I was named after my mother, so it makes sense that our names are so close. But my name is also that of a Greek goddess and of a disco superstar. And of a princess. It’s not really a common name, but it’s got some things attached to it. And especially when I was young, I loved learning about people and characters who had the same name as I.

Enter Diana Barry, the “bosom friend” of Anne in Montgomery’sย Anne of Green Gablesย series. She’s lively, pretty, and fiercely loyal to Anne. She also manages to get up to all sorts of trouble–generally prompted by Anne. This reminded (and still reminds) me of me in more ways than just the name. I managed, as a younger person, to get into all sorts of trouble on accident.

But Diana is, when it comes down to it, a sidekick—and an important one. She’s not as imaginative or as bright as Anne. But she is Anne’s foil in almost every sense of the word. Anne is freckled, scrawny and has bright red hair. She’s an orphan. Diana is plumpish, with dark hair, porcelain skin, and a a family that not only exists, but is often overbearing. Anne wishes for all of those things. More than anything, though, Anne wishes for a friend to confide in, a “bosom friend” who will act as a “kindred spirit,” and Diana is that friend. The two stay friend their entire lives, naming their firstborn girls after one another.

There are coded lesbian elements to their relationship, certainly. These have been picked up on by critics and readers. But perhaps part of what we’re seeing is the way we imagine girlhood and the relationships between girls. Perhaps what we’re seeing is the complexity inherent in a strong friendship, which is its own kind of attraction, its own kind of love. Either way, it’s nice to see girls who are more dramatic about supporting one another than cat-fighting.

And even though we see this as lesbian subtext now (and some of it very well may be), it’s important to remember that Montgomery writes in a different time and place, when sentimentality was more often used as a strong rhetorical device than now. ย There’s a queer element to the relationship, certainly. But that’s just one of the qualities that makes the books complex, the characters worthwhile, and that allows for the complexity of girls and their relationships with one another. It’s a good thing, and it’s not an argument we should try to settle in an absolute way–it’s many things at once, as is Diana Barry.

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24 Comments

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    1. Thanks for the link! This is an interesting take. I don’t do much fan-fic, and I had no idea that there were folks who thought Regina and Emma made a good couple. I’m with you on that one—it doesn’t fit the characters without some major changes to one/both of them, so I don’t think it works.

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  1. My grandmother bought these books for me when I wasn’t even old enough to read. She read the first one to me. Once I was old enough to read, I read all of them, and have done so several times since then. These books were so important to me during my childhood. I related to Anne so much. Of course, I was not an orphan, but I have always felt out of place, even as a child. I wanted sisters so badly, but ended up with brothers… Also, most of the kids in my neighborhood were boys. I spent the majority of my time out in the woods playing with things from my imagination. (Or curled up under a tree reading a book.)
    I loved Anne greatly and honestly thought of Diana when I first met you!

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    1. Oh that’s so funny! I remember identifying with Anne but pretending to identify with Diana because she had my name and wasn’t as awkward as I was. lol

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  2. I didn’t read Anne until I was, like, 20 (for a uni course, urgh) and I LOVED it! Diana was such a sweetheart – my lecturers kept insisting on the Queer Friendship theme, but I’m a bit with you – I think it’s simply the way girlhood friendship was portrayed in children’s books; there’s definitely such a thing as ‘reading too much into it’, haha ๐Ÿ™‚ Great choice for ‘D’!

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    1. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks!

      I think there’s something to the queering of the friendship, but I don’t think it’s an outright lesbian relationship. I think what happens is that all too often we’re still processing sexuality as something that’s on a yes/no scale rather than a continuum.

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    1. Thank you!

      I think I was I teenager before I actually read the books, though I remember seeing the two movies in that series when I was a child. I do quite love Anne. She says such fun things.

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  3. Anne and Diana remind me of my best friend and I. We have a running joke about it. I can see lesbian subtext I -guess- now that you’ve mentioned it, but I never picked up on it before. I’m like…weird, I guess. I’m much more interested in strong friendships than I am in romantic relationships and I get annoyed in fandom a lot because it seems like any time there’s an intimate relationship it MUST BE A ROMANCE.

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    1. They remind me of my best friend and I, too.

      And I know what you mean about the way we tend to see all relationships in literature as romance—strong ones, anyway. I think maybe that tends to happen because the way love makes it onto the page looks strikingly similar whether it’s friendship or real romance.

      The Anne-as-lesbian theory was hugely controversial when it was initially proposed in about 2000 or so. I forge the name of the theorist who wrote the original queer criticism, but it’s an interesting read. It’s not just her relationship with Diana but multiple girl-friendships throughout the books that seem stronger, and that she seems to have more attachment to, than her heterosexual relationships.

      Some of this can probably be traced to Montgomery’s own biography (she had a lot of close female relationships and was quoted often as saying that she valued them in different, bigger ways than her hetero-romantic relationships), and that’s what the article in question largely argued, but I think we have to be super-careful when imposing biography onto fictional, as we run the risk of misreading the author and the text and not gaining anything. That said, I think the criticism is still something to be looked at and pondered, as it’s probably not completely off-base.

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      1. You have a point โ€” and I just lost a much longer comment, but the relevant part was I think that criticism sounds interesting and it’s probably got some validity to it. What I think is the most telling is the way that perspective and expectation inform how we interpret a narrative.

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        1. It really is an interesting piece, but yes, it’s definitely got its problems. Very few pieces of writing don’t have their problems, though.

          And that’s an interesting point about the ways our own experiences lead us to configure and interpret narratives. It’s definitely true. There’s got to be writing out there about that, why and how it occurs, but I haven’t delved into it much.

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        2. Yep, I agree. I haven’t found much criticism or analysis that I completely agree with but there’s a lot with valid, valuable insight.

          I’m almost completely aromantic–I very seldom have romantic attractions to people, although I can see and respond to them in fiction, and I tend to have either long term acquaintances or very deep committed friendships. There’s not a lot in between that in my life–so I tend to accept that if characters identify as close friends, that’s what they are and get confused by discussions of romantic subtext. Even Xena Warrior Princess, which has lesbian subtext all over it, I never picked up on it until I saw other people talking about it, like your post here with Anne and Diana. Then I sort of go “…oh, yeah, I guess that’s there.” I realize that probably sounds strange, but I always have to remind myself that there may be more to a story than what I see, and other people’s interpretations are based on their experience.

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        3. Yes. Criticism is one of those things that cannot be objective, and it’s always informed by what we’ve read and seen and done and feel, which makes it a complex genre.

          It’s interesting, too…The way I classified Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship changed vastly between when I was watching it as a pre-teen and then when I watched it again as an adult. Like with so many other things, I saw something new. I’m sure that was influenced by my life experiences in the meantime and by how much literary analysis I’d studied between the viewings. I don’t remember thinking “lesbian subtext” about Anne and Diana either, of course, when I was younger, though now I can at least see how and why the claim can be made, even if I don’t fully agree.

          At one point, I really wanted to study how reading re-tellings of a story and prequels, like Gregory Maguire’s Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, can change our perceptions of the original text upon re-reading. I’ve no idea how to do that effectively, though.

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        4. There are some stories I come back to and find new things every time, because my life is different, and my viewpoints are different, and the things I’m interested in have changed. I’m with you as far as Anne and Diana. Intellectually, I can see why there’s an argument for lesbian subtext, but that’s not my read on the relationship.

          This isn’t quite the same thing, but I’ve read a lot of fairy tale adaptations, and even Biblical novels, and I find that the do inform how I view the original text when I go back to it. The same thing has happened to me while writing fanfictions and I have a really strong example of how reading the book Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader influenced my perceptions of both Vader and the Emperor. That comes out a lot in my big fanfiction projects.

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        5. Oh, that’s interesting. It’s a similar concept…Ideas of one story informing the other. I think that’s probably connected to both the way our experiences shape us and why we love stories so very much.

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  4. Great character! I don’t see the relationship as having lesbian undertones, I’ve always seen it just as the time period and how female friendship was portrayed back then. They didn’t think anything of having two women share a bed, and what woman hasn’t shared a bed with her best friend during sleepovers when they were kids? I agree that strong friendship is it’s own form of love, I consider my closest friend’s my sisters and love them as if they were (and sometimes wish they were).

    I’ve always loved Anne and Gilbert, I was also a fan of Avonlea growing up. Anne and Gilbert and Felicity and Gus were my first ships, although I didn’t know it at the time. I wanted to be Sarah Stanley.
    On another note, my mom wanted to name me after her, but my dad wouldn’t let her. Said he could only handle one woman with that name. Instead, we share a first initial, so we’ve gotten mixed up over the years anyway. It doesn’t help that we work together and sound the same on the phone, the other day I answered the phone at the desk and since the person on the other end was expecting her, they called me by her name. My aunts have done the same thing when I answer at home, they think I’m her.

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    1. ha! Yeah, my mom and I sound a bit alike, too. And we look a bit alike now that I’ve gotten older, so from far away (if my hair’s straight anyway) people sometimes think I’m her.

      On the subject of the lesbian subtext, though…I think it’s there. I think it can be read into the text and supported with evidence. I think you’re largely right that it’s based in a different time and place, one where female relationships were configured differently, but I’m not sure we should totally disregard the idea so much as take it with a grain of salt. ๐Ÿ™‚

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