When I heard that Jonathan Crombie died last week, I let out an involuntary gasp, as did a good portion of the middle-aged North American female population. We’re the ones who watched the CBC version of Anne of Green Gables over and over again until our VCRs ate the VHS tapes in protest. We were there in the mid 1980s when Crombie first appeared on screen as Gilbert Blythe. It was his first acting job, and he brought his inexperience to bear in the best sense possible: he seemed just as young, fresh, and wholly perfect as the fictional Gilbert. Which was a tall order, as anyone who has ever read the Anne books knows.

And I have read the Anne books. In my youth (and beyond, if I’m honest), I read all of L.M. Montgomery’s work: Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne of Windy Poplars, Anne’s House of Dreams, Anne of Ingleside. And then I started all over again with Anne of Green Gables, like a horse around a track. I also read the series about Anne’s daughter, Rilla, which was fine because it was about Anne’s daughter, and only for that reason. I was willing to keep reading and reading and reading because I, like so many other millions of readers, loved Anne so very much. And Gilbert. We all loved Gilbert, too, because not only was he handsome and smart, but he loved Anne even more than we did, which was quite a feat, even for a fictional character.

For the uninitiated, the raging fire of love between Anne and Gilbert — dare I say it? The fated love between Anne and Gilbert — was, for many years, smothered under a heavy handmade woolen cloak of misunderstanding, missed opportunities (that Christmas Ball — oh, the agony!) and mistakes, almost entirely on Anne’s part. While Anne possessed the gift of a raging imagination, she also possessed a raging temper. Her ability to transform mundane farm life into something transcendent and splendid — worthy indeed of a lady named Cordelia instead of plain old Anne — was matched only by her ability to hold a grudge, which she did against Gilbert for making fun of her red hair on the first day they met, cracking a slate over his head in a fit of anger.

Anne held this grudge close to her heart, clinging to it like Marilla to her amethyst brooch, for the duration of their youth and — worryingly enough to us readers — into early adulthood. Just when we had lost all hope that Gilbert and Anne would ever come together, Anne was rescued from her lunacy when Gilbert fell deathly ill. The TV series offered viewers a very satisfying deathbed conversion: Anne hears that Gilbert is dying and rushes immediately to his side where he is prone in bed and at death’s door — a soft-focus sheen of perspiration on his face, the palest shade of cinematic perfection — and repents of her stubbornness. And viewer, it turns out that it was not too late. Gilbert recovers, Anne feverishly professes love, and holy matrimony follows. Sigh. It still makes me happy to think about this, so very long after it (never) happened.

The enduring appeal of Anne of Green Gables is hard to parse. Set firmly in a particular place and time — the isolated Canadian province of Prince Edward Island at the beginning of the 20th century — the stories follow Anne as she grows up. She moves from an unloved orphan who never knew her parents to a beloved part of a close-knit, even clannish, island community, winning over several books’ worth of crusty, hardened, no-nonsense characters in the process. The books have a low-brow reputation for overwrought prose and a series of sitcom scenarios in which Anne is in one pickle or another, but there is a strain of Austen-level truth that is expressed in Anne’s relationships, and particularly in the love that develops between Anne and the people around her. Of these people, Gilbert is chief. In the Pride and Prejudice metric of thwarted romances (is there any other?), he is the Prejudice to her Pride, initially an inverse of the Darcy-Bennett scenario. But then Gilbert softens and changes and all prejudice falls away as he suffers with his love for her. Anne continues to play Darcy, her pride bearing her up in the face of Gilbert’s pain.

The plot serves well as an adolescent girl’s fantasy: here is a handsome, kind, smart boy who loves her (the real her) and waits patiently for her to come to her senses and love him back — all while he prepares diligently for medical school. But I think the story offers something more too, containing elements of reality in the same way that Jane Austen’s parlor dramas do despite being so limited in scale (if not in scope). The reality of Anne of Green Gables is heightened — this is partly the point of the novels — but the novels contain truth, just the same.

The triumph of these characters, what propels them beyond the usual stuff of middle school fiction, is that Gilbert and Anne recognize and overcome their own weaknesses. Anne finally accepts, after a youth spent as a hopeless romantic, the merits of the mundane, the everyday sort of beauty that is the gnarled apple tree long after its lovely blossoms have withered and died. The old Anne would have stood among the wilted, falling petals and pretended they were sparks showering her funeral pyre. But through Gilbert, her sensibilities are tempered: she is able to see apple blossoms — and love — free of metaphor, at least most of the time, tethering her flights of fancy to reality.

Ambitious, driven, and unwilling to conform to what is expected of her, Anne is a modern woman in her way, and Gilbert meets her where she is. In the end, the story transcends the sitcom scenarios and builds into a plot any contemporary reader or viewer can get behind: a strong-minded man encounters a strong-minded woman and they come together as equals, hysterical deathbed scenes notwithstanding

So it’s not a bad thing that young women everywhere adore the character of Gilbert Blythe. Our collective mourning at the death of Jonathan Crombie, even though the millions of us watching him act on screen never knew him, is not out of keeping with what is at the heart of the matter. Compounding our sadness at the fact that a good man died far too young is the sense that two good men died far too young: Jonathan Crombie and his fictional counterpart, Gilbert Blythe.

Crombie-as-Gilbert, his dark eyes shining, a lock of hair just so on his smooth forehead, fully understood the kind of guy he was playing. Gilbert Blythe was the type who could experience the new girl smashing a slate over his head in front of a roomful of classmates and see her actions for what they were: the impassioned self-defense of a modern young woman. The actions of a girl so amazing, he falls for her straightaway. It comes down to this: Gilbert Blythe was a really, really good guy, and we will always love him for it.