September 03, 2010

A Visit to the Land of "Anne"

The tiny Canadian province of Prince Edward Island is known for red sand beaches, delicious seafood and for hosting the 1864 Charlottetown Conference that led to Confederation and the Dominion of Canada three years later. But most of all, it is famous for the fictional red haired orphan known around the world as "Anne of Green Gables".

After the near record breaking heat in New York this summer, I decided that a little break to cool off and chill out was in order and what better place than the shores of P.E.I. This was not my first trip to the Island - it was my family's regular holiday destination when I was growing up - but it had been several years since my last visit. Fortunately some things never change and though a few more of the red dirt roads had been covered with pavement, the pristine, pastoral beauty was the same. The late August days were warm with a gentle sea breeze and perfect for touring or walking the beach with the promise of a scrumptious lobster dinner to follow.

But what about Anne-Spelled-With-An-"E"? Who could have imagined when Lucy Maud Montgomery's novel was published in 1908 that her heroine would achieve international fame with a movie, a long running musical, a tv miniseries, countless licensed products and an industry unto her (fictional) self? I dare say that Anne Shirley is as closely associated with Prince Edward Island as a certain jolly old elf is with the North Pole - and probably a whole lot more lucrative for the residents!

For anyone unfamiliar with the story, an elderly brother and sister living in the fictional community of Avonlea are hoping to adopt a boy to help them on the farm but through a twist of fate they receive a girl instead. Not just any girl, but a scrawny, freckled, totally un-tamed red head with a wild imagination who clearly needs them as much as they discover they need her. Anne Shirley slowly captures the hearts of Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert and turns the house of "Green Gables" into a home. Subsequent novels follow Anne as she goes to college in Halifax and returns to the Island as a teacher, marries her former tormentor Gilbert Blythe, and becomes a mother. All of this is pretty tame by today's standards, but given the setting and the epoque, it was quite a remarkable story indeed and told with extraordinary charm.

Lucy Maud Montgomery's birthplace
New London, P.E.I.

Many people believe that the story of Anne is an autobiography, and while there are some striking similarities, it is a work of fiction based upon her childhood and the environs in which she was raised. Lucy Maud Montgomery was born in a little clapboard house in Clifton, now New London, Prince Edward Island, in 1874. Her mother died of tuberculosis when Maud was a baby and her father gave custody of his only child to her maternal grandparents, the Macneills, in the nearby town of Cavendish and he later relocated to the prairie province of Saskatchewan. Maud's childhood was a lonesome one but visits to her cousins in Park Corner and her fertile imagination made the grim situation bearable. She amused herself with writing and her early poems were published in the local paper. She attended Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown where she received a teaching certificate and taught school for several years. In an exceptionally plucky move for a woman at that time, Maud Montgomery took a leave of absence to study English literature at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, before returning to the Island.

The death of her grandfather Macneill in 1898 left her virtually hostage in the family home as caregiver to her widowed grandmother. Through the 13 years that followed she supplemented their income with the sale of poems and stories to various magazines and newspapers and in 1903 earned the tidy sum of $500 from her "scribbling". The publication of "Anne of Green Gables" in 1908 brought both financial and critical success and paved the way for her continued writing.

When Grandmother Macneill passed away in 1911, Maud was finally free to marry though by that time her quest for "romantic love" had dimmed. Despite several flirtations and marriage proposals she settled for what she thought would be a steady if boring arrangement with Ewan Macdonald, a Presbyterian minister. The couple moved to Leaksdale, Ontario, where they lived in the Manse and she bore three sons, two of whom survived. It was here that she discovered that her husband suffered from acute depression, a religious melancholia that haunted them throughout their married life. Although Maud Montgomery Macdonald continued to write and express her love of life, nature and beauty in her fiction, she never again lived on her beloved Prince Edward Island.

Lucy Maud Montgomery published over 20 novels, 500 short stories, an autobiography and a book of poetry. She was the first woman in Canada to be named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in England and was invested in The Order of the British Empire in 1935. Like her heroine Anne she overcame adversity with a brilliant imagination and love of writing and defied custom by seeking a higher education and becoming self sufficient. She has achieved iconic status as a Canadian writer and a feminist and her work continues to be published and studied by scholars everywhere. The immortal "Green Gables" is now a National Historic Site visited by thousands of pilgrims annually and Anne lives forever in the hearts of legions of fans, myself included, captivated by the charm of this spunky red headed orphan!

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