Forget the Fathers of Confederation and other great men of politics and industry, PEI’s most famous citizen is Anne Shirley. She has had quite a life for someone who never lived. In the century + since Anne – with an ‘E’ – poured out of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s pen, this fire-haired, freckle-face, temperamental child from a place called Green Gables has enraptured little girls and adults around world.
Pippi Longstocking author, Astrid Lindgrenan said, “A whole summer my sisters and I played at Anne of Green Gables”. Mark Twain wrote Lucy Maud that Anne was “the dearest and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice” (in Wonderland). During World War II, a copy of Anne left behind by New Brunswick missionary Loretta Shaw was secretly translated into Japanese. That was to prove providential in post-war Japan when a generation of war orphans as well as the boarder population suffering from the devastation to their economy and homeland, embraced the story of this young fireball who also overcame adversity. Since then Anne has taken on ritualistic overtones, as generations of mothers introduce their daughters to her.
As a result, over 5,000 Japanese tourists are drawn to PEI each year, which explains, in a city that sometimes struggles with French, all the Japanese signs in Charlottetown shop windows. In Japan, there are Anne book clubs (members are called Buttercups), travel agents specializing in Anne tours to PEI, and a line of Green Gables-inspired homes. For a time the Japanese even operated an Anne of Green Gables theme park. It’s not uncommon in summer to see young Japanese women wandering PEI dressed like Anne.
Anne always had a reputation for getting into trouble, which is exactly what happened during the height of the Cold War. Don Harron was developing a television program for the CBC with Norman Campbell based on Anne of Green Gables. Working from New York, Harron used the CBC studios in the UN Building to transmit his song lyrics to Toronto. The lyrics never made it to Toronto because Senator Joseph McCarthy was investigating the UN. When his staff heard about ‘red’ soil and ‘red’ hair, they were convinced it was communist code and blocked the transmission!
In spite of going to college on Prince Edward Island and returning every summer to visit friends,
I hadn’t read Anne or visited Green Gables until researching her centennial in 2008. I quickly learned that every woman I know has read Anne. As part of my research I spoke with Susana Petti, who was then Delta Hotels’ public relations director, about the Japanese clientele of their Charlottetown hotel, The Delta Prince Edward. When I mentioned writing about Anne, she said, ‘Oh, I remember sitting on my parents front steps, sobbing my eyes out when Matthew died.’ I screamed out, “Matthew died! I knew he wasn’t well…” I hadn’t gotten that far in the book.
Finally reading Anne, I was in awe of Lucy Maud’s descriptions and zippy dialogue.
An Anne expert later explained to me that the Island is a character in the book. Anne’s way of looking at the Island is nothing short of magical. She elevates the simplest things to something special through her innocence and imagination. Early in the book she says, “It would be lovely to sleep in a wild cherry tree all white with bloom in the moonshine.” While few of us are going to climb into a tree to do this, it wipes the mind clean of disruptions and puts us into a wonderfully vivid, happy place, which is how I think of PEI.
While Prince Edward Island has changed some since Lucy Maud’s childhood, it remains a place and way of life she would recognize. You can still stand on a shore or field’s edge looking “into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness.” You can still wander shaded country lanes, cooled by “a little gypsy wind … laden with the spicy perfume of young dew-wet ferns” and be “confronted … with a golden frenzy of wind-stirred buttercups and a glory of wild roses.”
To experience the places Lucy Maud loved so much I suggest this Anne top 10:
1) Green Gables – this National Historic Site was the home of Lucy Maud’s Macneill cousins. It is the model for the farm Anne shared with Matthew and Marilla. Try to look beyond the hordes of tourists to the pretty, welcoming simplicity of the place. The orientation film quotes Lucy Maud saying she feared leaving Cavendish had done some damage to her soul. I was also surprised to learn that Lucy Maud was a passionate scrapbooker.
2) From the Green Gables House, walk through the Haunted Wood – it’s easy to understand how these
twisted, moss-covered limbs could fire up a child’s imagination, to the original Macneill Homestead. The homestead is a quiet place skipped by most tourists because it doesn’t have buildings to explore. Instead it offers original views of what Lucy Maud saw growing up. There are the foundations of the one room school she attended, a place she describes as “hallowed ground” – and the old homestead where she lived with her maternal grandparents until she was thirty-six.
As I wandered the little winding trail across the property, I experienced what she wrote: “air sweet with scent from the garden, the wind rustling in the poplars.”
3) From the homestead walk to the Cavendish Post Office next door. http://www.historymuseum.ca/exhibitions/lucymaudmontgomery/
Like many a beginning writer, Lucy Maud needed a steady income while launching her career. This was where she worked, wrote and waited for replies from publishers.
This rebuilt heritage-style building serves as both a modern post office and interpretative exhibit. You enter through the back, as Lucy Maud would have. Entering through the backdoor is a very Maritime tradition. In this region front doors are locked to strangers and back doors left open for family and friends.
4) At the intersection just down the street from the post office is the Cavendish Cemetery. Lucy
Maud is buried here under her married name, Macdonald, in a flower-shrouded plot she chose because “it overlooked the spots I always loved, the pond, the shore, the sand dunes and the harbour.” Her grave is fittingly tended by members of the local Women’s Institute.
5) Ironically, after visiting her grave, the next strop is Lucy Maud’s birthplace at Clifton Corner in New London. http://www.lmmontgomerybirthplace.ca
I’m always struck by the copy of her wedding dress on display. I always expect famous people to
be as large in life as they are on the pages of books. Lucy Maud was a pixie: five-feet, four-inches tall, with a 22-inch waist and size 3 shoe.
In a small room at the back, is a case containing foreign editions of Anne of Green Gables. In 109 years, Anne has never been out of print and sold over 50 million copies! Until Harry Potter was published, Anne was the world’s best selling children’s book. (And in truth, it’s such a compelling read, this is an everyone read.) Anne has also been made into eight films, four television series as well a film and novel “prequel” about Anne’s life before Green Gables. No other Canadian work or author has achieved such success. No other Canadian author has an institute dedicated to her work. The L.M. Montgomery Institute is housed at UPEI in Charlottetown. http://www.lmmontgomery.ca
6) The Anne of Green Gables Museum, Park Corner http://annemuseum.com
is the family home of Lucy Maud’s cousins, the Campbells, and one of her favourite places on earth. She was married in the living room. The Campbells still allow weddings to take place here, using the organ that played for Lucy Maud’s service.
Lucy Maud described Park Corner as “one of the happiest, gayest spots in the world.”
It’s easy to understand her love of the place. Aside from having children to play with, there is a big barn to explore, fields to run across, and a pond that was the inspiration for the Lake of Shining Waters. Then there is view from an upstairs hall window of the limitless “blueness” across the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Park Corner is a fascinating contradiction, for while Lucy Maud had fun here, it houses dark stories. It’s home to the infamous blue chest Lucy Maud wrote about in The Story Girl. In 1847 a Montgomery cousin, Eliza, was left standing at the altar. It was a great scandal. Eliza buried her wedding cake in the front yard, locked all her wedding clothes and gifts in the chest – which remained locked for 40 years – and ran away without telling anyone where she was. The story is heartbreaking because it’s true. However, the groom hadn’t stood her up, he was arrested in a case of mistaken identity when he went to Charlottetown for the marriage license. With no way of sending a message, by the time he was free, Eliza had fled the Island for good.
In an upstairs bedroom is a heartbreaking letter from Lucy Maud to her cousin Jim. Written months before her death, it shows the famous author, broke, sick, worried about the war and her family. It is surprising that a place she thought of as so happy should contain two such sad memorials.
7) Across the street from Park Corner is Ingleside. It was the home of her grandfather, Senator Donald Montgomery. It now operates as a three-bedroom B&B, The Montgomery Inn at Ingleside. http://www.montgomeryheritageinn.com
8) Back in Cavendish is Avonlea Village of Anne of Green Gables. This is, for all intents and purposes, a type of Victorian theme park. http://www.avonlea.ca
It does contain the actual Presbyterian Church where Lucy Maud worshipped, and perhaps developed Anne’s personality. After her first church service Anne offers this sage observation: “It was a very long text. If I was a minister I’d pick the short, snappy ones.”
Avonlea also contains the Minister’s residence and schoolhouse where she taught.
9) After crisscrossing the countryside, take time to enjoy the musical Anne of Green Gables at the Confederation Centre for the Arts in Charlottetown. http://www.confederationcentre.com/en/
Since taking to the stage in 1965, Anne has been seen by three million people on PEI and another 800,000 theatre-goers in New York, London, Asia and Europe. For more AofGG, there’s Anne and Gilbert, which is a love story. It is presented in The Guild, adjacent to the Confederation Centre. http://www.anneandgilbert.com
10) The final Anne experiences are to taste, see and shop her Island. Shop & Play is the new name of Cavendish Figurines in Gateway Village. http://www.shopandplay.ca
They produce fine porcelain collector pieces based on Anne’s life. They also have a full selection of quality PEI products and for diehard Anne fans, there’s a room to dress up as Anne or other character and pose in front of Anne settings for great selfies (or have others snap your transformation.)
The Anne of Green Gables Stores in Charlottetown, Avonlea and Gateway Village sell all things Anne, from straw hats with red braids, to tea sets, dolls, ornaments to books. For a taste treat try a PEI raspberry cordial. As Anne told Marilla, “I love bright red drinks. They taste twice as good as any other colour.” And watch out for an ice-cream or strawberry social which are held in season. As she said, “I have never tasted ice cream. Diana tried to explain what it was like, but I guess ice-cream is one of those things that are beyond imagination.”
For me, the beauty of Lucy Maud’s words and characters is they put the Island in context. However crazy the rest of the world gets, PEI remains a place of welcome, from the friendly slap of a screen door against a wooden frame, the rhythmic lapping of waves on the shore and the satisfying whack of a club against golf ball. For me it’s a place where I can experience fresh seafood, share laughter-infused conversations and hear what Lucy Maud called the sociable maples “always rustling and whispering to you.”
If you go:
For information about Prince Edward Island, contact your travel agent or call 1-800-463-4734 in North America or +1-902-437-8570 outside of North America. Their website is: