ANNE and the ISLAND
One hundred years after the publication of a book that is synonymous with his native province, PETER SIMPSON contemplates the life of Lucy Maud Montgomery and the legacy of her red-haired heroine
There’s an oft-told tale down on Prince Edward Island about twin brothers who were born on a ferry boat a few metres from shore. Or rather, one brother arrived just offshore, whereas the other made his debut after the boat had docked. The latter was therefore “an Islander,” while the former, born barely a potato’s toss from land, was “from away.”
It’s a rather sublime irony that the most famous Prince Edward Islander of all — the person who for many peo- ple is P.E.I. — is not an Islander at all. For Anne Shirley was “born” in Nova Scotia, and is as “from away” as any can be.
“Certainly the Island has claimed Anne, and I don’t think they’ll ever let her go,” says David MacKenzie, CEO of the Confederation Centre for the Arts in Charlottetown, where Anne of Green Gables: The Musical is about to launch its 44th season. “For some reason, that typical thing that you have to be born here to be an Islander doesn’t apply to Anne,” he says, and laughs.
The cynic might suggest that no province could be dumb enough to spurn its own little moneymaker, especially one that seems immune to the passage of time. But 100 years after the relationship began, it’s clear that Anne could not exist without the Island, and the Island would be different without her. Even those Islanders who weary of Anne-Anne-Anne 24/7 have to understand, down in the deepest red soil of their hearts, that the Island would be a lesser place without her. Less profitable, for sure, but also less storied. Less romantic. And less “the Island.”
She arrived on the Island on June 20, 1908, not in a carriage from the train station, but in a small parcel postmarked “Boston.” In it was the first copy of Anne of Green Gables, and as Lucy Maud Montgomery held it in her hands, she could not have foreseen how her life, and her beloved Island, would be changed by the book. Nor could she have foreseen how the fictional little girl she had created would turn her into an idol for women a century later — not feminist, but certainly progressive. Maud — as she preferred to be called — did things that women just didn’t do in rural Canada at the start of the 20th century.
Though Anne’s immediate success gave Maud the means and opportunity for independence, she still felt the weight of social expectation, and died “miserable” 34 years later. Her life is its own great story, full of triumph, tragedy, and the inevitable collision of dreams and reality. Just like Anne’s.
But as Maud unwrapped that first copy of
Anne, the future was ripe with promise. “There, in my hand, lay the material realization of all the dreams and hopes and ambitions and struggles of my whole conscious existence — my first book,” she wrote in her journal that day. “Not a great book, but mine, mine, mine, something which I had created.”
Not a great book? The critics begged to differ. “Anne is one of the immortal children of fiction,” wrote Canadian poet Bliss Carmen in a review. Most U.S. and British papers similarly fawned.
Readers sent piles of letters, “not only from children, but from soldiers in India, missionaries in China, traders in Africa, monks in faraway monasteries, and from trappers in the Canadian North,” wrote Hilda M. Ridley, breathlessly, in The Story of L. M. Montgomery, published in Britain in 1956. Among the letters was one from Mark Twain, who wrote to Maud that Anne was “the dearest, and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice.”
It’s no stretch to suggest that Anne was the Harry Potter of her day, says Elizabeth Epperly, author of many books and articles on Anne and Maud, and founder of the University of Prince Edward Island’s Lucy Maud Montgomery Institute. “It’s quite a legitimate comparison between Anne of Green Gables and the Harry Potter books and the level of popularity in their own time,” Ms. Epperly says in an interview. “Because of the differences in the markets and the distribution and the availability of the kind of marketing that Harry Potter had ... I think that’s a fair comparison.”
Much of Anne’s story was cribbed from Maud’s own past, as incidentally as the two china dogs that Anne treasures, and as fundamentally as the orphaned feeling that Maud must have felt. She was a toddler when her mother, Clara, died of tuberculosis, and was five when her father, Hugh, moved to Saskatchewan and later remarried. Maud grew up in the strict household of her grandparents, Alexander and Lucy Macneill, in Cavendish.
Maud was ecstatic when, after years of rejection letters from publishers, Anne was accepted by Boston’s L.C. Page and Company. She also realized that success came with its own demands.
“Anne seems to have hit the public taste,” she noted dryly in a letter to a friend, Ephraim Weber, dated Sept. 10, 1908. “She has gone through four editions in three months. As a result, the publishers have been urging me to have the second volume ready for them by October — in fact insisting upon it. I have been writing ‘like mad’ all through the hottest summer we have ever had.”
The books came quickly, including novels following Anne and other young female characters. Anne of Avonlea was published 1909, when Anne of Green Gables saw its first of many translations, in Swedish. Then came Kilmeny of the Orchard in 1910, The Story Girl in 1911, The Chronicles of Avonlea in 1912, and The Golden Road in 1913. Anne of the Island followed in 1915, The Watchman and Other Poems in 1916, Anne’s House of Dreams and The Alpine Path: The Story of My Career in 1917, and Rainbow Valley in 1919. By then, Maud was an international literary star. But even stars don’t always get what they want.
“ The Story Girl ... was the last book I wrote in my old home by the gable window where I had spent so many happy hours of creation,” she said in The Alpine Path, a short autobiography from 1917. It was the last book she wrote in Cavendish because, at 36, she was betrothed (and secretly had been for several years) to Ewan Macdonald, a Presbyterian minister, and his collar called them to Leaskdale, Ont. She was leaving her Island, which had already begun to be changed by Anne.
“People started coming to Prince Edward Island as early as 1909, and seeking out Cavendish,” Ms. Epperly says. “The tourism industry in Cavendish had begun, and by the time they were married, in 1911, it was in full swing.”
Self-doubt followed Maud across the Northumberland Strait. She didn’t much like her second book, Anne of Avonlea, she had earlier told Weber. Maud felt the maturing Anne wasn’t interesting. “The publishers wanted this — and I’m awfully afraid if the thing takes, they’ll want me to write her through college. The idea makes me sick. ... If I’m to be dragged at Anne’s chariot wheels the rest of my life, I’ll bitterly repent having ‘created her’.” She wrote these words three months after Anne of Green Gables was published.
She had long suffered bouts of what today could be diagnosed as depression. Her journals were full of dark references prior to her success, notes Janice Fiamengo in an essay in the 2005 collection The Intimate Life of L.M. Montgomery, and just before Christmas, 1909 she wrote: “I feel so bitter and vindictive — I can’t even cry. It would be a relief if I could.” There would be no enduring relief. Indeed, her husband’s own problems would take her to the point of despair.
After a three-month honeymoon in Scotland and England — paid for with Maud’s royalties — they moved into the manse in Leaskdale and started a family. Chester was born in 1912. Hugh died at birth in 1914, but Stuart was born healthy a year later.
Her husband was deeply troubled, and the demands of propping him up — ever discreetly — and the public demands of literary success must have been tremendous. She struggled, Ms. Fiamengo writes, “first as a young woman fighting to resist emotional breakdown, then as an author striving to keep personal sadness out of her art, and finally as a wife covering for her morbid and suicidal husband.”
Still, says Ms. Epperly, the years 1911 to 1914 were Maud’s happiest: she had her own home, a family and literary success.
Her annus horribilis was 1919: her best friend died of Spanish flu, and Maud saw the depths of her husband’s “religious melancholia” — which, she wrote in her journal, he had hidden from her before their marriage. “A dark cloud began to settle on Maud’s domestic happiness, as the delicate balance of romantic, family, and professional life began to crumble,” writes Canadian scholar Irene Gammel in her recent book Looking for Anne: How Lucy Maud Montgomery Dreamed Up a Literary Classic.
Ms. Epperly describes his fits: “When he was ill he thought he was one of the damned, and he’d get this look: his eyes would bug out of his head, as she describes it, and he would sing hymns to himself and he looked like he was looking into the depths of hell. He would rock and moan, and he was beside himself.”
Then Hollywood embraced Anne, with a silent film. Maud didn’t see it until 1921 and was aghast at the “sugary sweet” Anne played by Mary Miles Minter, who was “not a scrap like gingery Anne.” More irksome was the U.S flag flying over Anne’s schoolhouse, but she had no say in the film. She had left L.C. Page over disputed royalties, and launched a nine-year legal battle that she eventually won. (“They had developed into regular scamps,” she wrote to Weber.)
She realized her fame would outlive her, and began to revise her early journals (to the perplexity of scholars decades later). “After 1922 she’s deliberately leaving things,” Ms. Epperly says, “so someone, like me, would find them.”
More books followed: Rilla of Ingleside in 1921, Emily of New Moon in 1923, Emily Climbs in 1925, and The Blue Castle — her only novel not set in P.E.I. — in 1926. There were plenty of awards, including membership in the Royal Society of Arts in London (the first Canadian woman to be so honoured), the Literary and Artistic Institute of France and the Order of the British Empire (as an officer).
In 1926 the family moved to Norval, north of Toronto. Ewan continued his decline. “They had to hide him from the congregation,” Ms. Epperly says. “I think of what that did to her children, that their father had to be hidden away in their house and (being told) don’t talk about it.” Still, Ewan was “friendly and jovial with most people,” says Ms. Epperly, who believes Maud enjoyed her husband’s company during the good times, even though she had long realized “they were not soul mates.”
She met the powerful and famous, went on speaking tours, and published more books. There were visits every two or three years to her beloved P.E.I., and there was another movie.
“During the holiday season of 1934, Hollywood’s new Anne of Green Gables lit up the screen of the Uptown Theatre on Toronto’s Yonge Street,” Ms. Gammel writes in a recent edition of Canadian history magazine The Beaver. Maud liked this “talkie” more than the first Anne film. (The young star, Dawn O’Day, was so taken with her success that she changed her stage name to Anne Shirley.) Maud also maintained a sharp, Wilde-esque sense of humour. Once, when asked about equality for women, she said: “I have no desire to be equal to men: I prefer to maintain my superiority.”
Yet the pressure built. Ewan was looking into the depths of hell again, and spent several months in an institution. Then there were the shenanigans of her first-born son, Chester, who “had all kinds of trouble with money and the law,” says Maud’s granddaughter, Kate Macdonald Butler, in an interview. Her marriage was “unfulfilling,” her husband was unbalanced, and the two sons both “gave her a run for her money.” Ms. Macdonald Butler’s father, Stuart, found the straight path, but Chester continued to stray.
By 1935 there was too much muttering in the congregation, and Ewan had to retire. The family moved to Toronto. Maud gave in to pressure from her publishers and finished another Anne book ( Anne of Windy Poplars), and visited the Island in 1936 to see the federal government
declare Cavendish — including Green Gables, the distant cousins’ house that inspired her books, and which later adopted the fictional name — a national park.
She had a nervous collapse in 1938, but finished the last novel to be published in her lifetime, Anne of Ingleside. The next year she visited P.E.I. for the last time. Her health continued to decline. In 1940, Anne Shirley (the actress) starred in the film Anne of Windy Poplars, which, according to the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com), “received very lacklustre reviews.”
Two days before Christmas in 1941, Maud wrote a final letter to longtime friend George MacMillan. “I am no better and never will be,” she wrote. “Remember me as I used to be, not as I am now.”
On April 24, 1942, the heart that gave birth to the inextinguishable effervescence of Anne gave out. Lucy Maud Montgomery was dead.
A year later, Ewan joined her, and for 65 years they’ve lain side by side in Cavendish Cemetery, just a short walk from the house the world knows as Green Gables.
In a TV special last New Year’s Eve, comic Ron James recounted a visit to Green Gables. “I said to the guide, ‘I guess this is where Anne sat at the kitchen table doing her homework, is it?’ She looked at me and said, ‘She’s not real.’ I said, ‘You mean to tell me this little province has built a multimillion-dollar tourism industry around a fictitious little girl? Geez, hats off. I’m opening up Spider-man’s cottage’.”
It’s a testament to Maud’s creation that some people believe Anne was real. Campbell Webster, producer of the musical Anne & Gilbert, recalled a public dust-up a few years ago over a nudist colony near Green Gables, and a defence mounted in the local paper. “One of the people who was defending it had this fantastic quote,” Webster says in an interview in a Charlottetown coffee shop he owns. “ ‘If Anne Shirley was alive today, she would approve.’ ”
That Anne is now ubiquitous in P.E.I. — summoned even from the dead to take positions in public debates — is undeniable, though not irresistible. When the provincial government removed Anne from Island licence plates in 1997, to make room for an image of the new bridge to the mainland, some Islanders quietly cheered. Enough already, they said, she gets too much attention.
The skepticism of a few Annegnostics counts for little against the industry the girl has become. One walk through The Anne Store in Charlottetown gives some perspective; there are Anne light switches, drinks, hats, dresses, bookmarks, teaspoons and Anne dolls of every size. There are cards, Christmas ornaments, DVDs, CDs, songbooks, books by Maud, books about Maud, books about Anne, and enough Anne candies and chocolates to keep all 135,000 Islanders on a sugar high until the end of summer, when the tourists will be gone again.
All of this bric-a-brac, and a thousand business names across the province that refer explicitly or implicitly to Anne’s world, reflect an interest that continued to grow after Maud died.
The very next year, in 1943, the federal government declared Maud “a person of national historic significance” (a similar distinction was given to Green Gables in 2005).
In 1956, the CBC hired a young Ontario entertainer, Don Harron, to direct an adaptation of Anne of Green Gables for the network. It sparked new interest in Anne, but it would be 20 years or so before TV really gave Anne a boost. For now, her big moment would come on the stage, and Harron would be a key player.
In 1964, the curtain rose on Anne of Green Gables: The Musical, at the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown. Written by Mavor Moore, Norman and Elaine Campbell, and Mr. Harron, it was a hit. It has since been seen by more than two million people across Canada, in the U.S., Japan and in London’s West End.
Mr. Harron visits the Island every summer, and never misses the musical. “It’s faster,” he says, when asked in an interview in a Charlottetown hotel room if the musical has changed. “There are no blackouts in the segues now. I guess they’re trying to make it run quicker for young audiences. The Americans think it’s too long, and they’ve been cutting things down, cutting dialogue. Directors never cut the dances,” he says, in a timeless writers’ lament. “They always cut the dialogue.”
Mr. McKenzie says the musical is a bit tighter than it used to be, but it’s the same show written by Harron et al, and he’s not about to mess with a good thing. “We’ve, frankly, been blessed for 44 years,” he says in an interview in his office in Charlottetown. “It’s been really a godsend ... Everything sort of revolves around the fact that Anne is our treasure.”
The musical put Anne back in the headlines. “More than that,” Mr. Webster says, “it reignites the connection between this novel and this island.”
Still, even a wildly successful musical in little Charlottetown could do only so much to popularize Anne. It was the ’70s, and if you wanted to be big, you had to be on television.
In 1972, the BBC produced and broadcast Anne of Green Gables, a five-part miniseries, followed three years later by a four-part Anne of Avonlea. Japan got in on the act in 1979 with the animated series Akage no An ( Red-Haired Anne).
The big year for Anne, and Maud, was 1985. Sullivan Entertainment released the four-hour miniseries Anne of Green Gables, starring Megan Follows as Anne, which was broadcast on CBC to great acclaim. It was a worldwide success in syndication. Two years later came Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel, on CBC in Canada and the Disney Channel in the U.S.
The first series was seen in Canada by almost six million viewers, “making it the most popular drama ever shown on CBC,” writes Eleanor Hersey in the 2008 essay collection Making Avonlea: L.M. Montgomery and Popular Culture.
“In the United States, too, the film quickly became a household name ...”
Maud’s granddaughter, Kate Macdonald Butler, who represents the interests of the Montgomery heirs, says that after the Sullivan films, “interest started to swell, and particularly in terms of merchandise.”
The interest sparked many years of legal battles between the heirs, the province, and Sullivan Entertainment. First, the P.E.I. government and the heirs talked about licensing, and settled into a partnership. Though the books are in the public domain in most of the world, the Anne of Green Gables Licensing Authority uses registered trademarks to “maintain some sort of control over this property,” says Ms. Macdonald Butler, who works full-time representing the interests of the heirs.
Then came a protracted legal dispute between the heirs and Sullivan Entertainment over royalties. “I can’t talk about it, because I’m bound by a confidentiality agreement, but all I say is that it’s over and done with,” she says. “We’ve settled ... It was such a relief to have that behind me. It was incredibly stressful.”
Interest was also growing on another front. The first full biography of Maud had been published by Mollie Gillen in 1975, but the sensation in 1985 was the publication of the first volumes of Maud’s journals. Volume 2 followed in 1987.
“Readers were shocked to learn that their beloved Montgomery had never loved her husband, had hated her social duties as minister’s wife, and in fact had scorned many of the people who thought she was their friend,” writes Ms. Gammel in The Intimate Life of L. M. Montgomery. The journals are much debated among academics, given the many revisions Maud made.
TV dealt Anne another strong hand in 1990, when the series Road to Avonlea debuted. It was a Sullivan/ CBC/Disney co-production, and it ran for six years in Canada and in the U.S. It remains popular 12 years later, with websites such as www.avonleaguide.com maintaining busy fan forums.
Japan’s love for Anne grew again in 1991 with the opening of Canada World, a theme-park on the island of Hokkaido. The main attraction is “Avonlea,” with an exact replica of Green Gables. A few years later, a P.E.I. company began selling complete kits to build Green Gablesstyled homes in Japan that, with materials and shipping, cost about $250,000, not including land.
Tourism wasn’t the only front that was growing. In 1993 Ms. Epperly founded the L. M. Montgomery Institute at U.P.E.I. The institute disseminates reams of information, targeting academics and fans, and every two years hosts a conference in Charlottetown. The eighth conference is later this month and will see presentations by researchers and others from around the world, including one paper titled “Teaching Anne in Islamic Iran.”
The provincial government gave Anne a signature, if transitory, honour by putting her on Island licence plates in 1993. You could hardly see one in Cavendish, where plates “from away” pack the two-lane roads, parking lots and campgrounds. It was getting hard to imagine Matthew’s carriage clattering back from the train station on these roads.
There were two more TV series in 2000, Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story on CBC, and Anne of Green Gables: The Animated Series on PBS in the U.S. Then, in 2005, another Anne musical was born.
Anne & Gilbert is based on the second and third Anne books, and it was an immediate success, says Mr. Webster. It sold every seat during its first season in Victoria-by-the-Sea, and now, having moved to a larger, 500seat theatre in Summerside, continues to sell more than 20,000 tickets each summer at $46 and up.
Mr. Webster knew the show had to overcome Anne skepticism among the locals. “There’s a tremendous fatigue about the commercialization of Anne,” he says, “so the expectations were somewhere below the gutter for opening night of the show. ‘ Anne & Gilbert? Oh, for Christ’s sake.’ ... And that actually helped us a lot. People sort of went with their heads down out of duty to see it and had a good time.” Later this year, Anne & Gilbert will tour theatres across Ontario, including a stop in Ottawa.
Earlier this year an official prequel, Before Green Gables, by Budge Wilson, was published, and more titles are being added to the pile of books about Anne and Maud. Events are being held in many places around the world. This week, an exhibition opened at Library & Archives Canada. On June 20, Canada Post will release a stamp. In P.E.I., two new theatre productions will debut — one in Cavendish that will mount plays that were contemporary to Maud (such as The Wind in the Willows), and one in Georgetown, The Nine Lives of L. M. Montgomery, which will tell her story through characters playing Maud and the eight key female characters she created. A large exhibition of Maud’s photos, scrapbooks and other items, curated by Ms. Epperly, opens Thursday at the Confederation Centre, and a new series, Anne of Green Gables: A New Beginning, airs next year on CTV.
There’s no empirical figure for what this means to the Island economically, but survey after survey shows that many tourists — especially those from outside Canada — cite Anne as a key reason for their visit to the Island. A 2007 study showed that one in four tourists to the Island visited an Anne-related site.
“It is amazing every year to see Japanese people, male and female, come into Anne and the light in their eyes when they’re coming in here,” says Mr. MacKenzie of the original musical, going strong in its 44th year in Charlottetown. “It’s like they’re coming into a place of worship.” And how long will the musical last? “Well,” says the 80-something Don Harron, “it’ll last longer than I will.”
There are challenges ahead. The strong Canadian dollar and soaring fuel costs don’t bode well for tourism, and Anne is not impervious.
“Anne generally follows the tourist pattern to the province,” Mr. MacKenzie says. “If tourism is up a little bit you’ll see Anne is up a little bit, and that’s been pretty much historical. ... 9/11 was bad for tourism and it was bad for Anne. About 80 per cent of our ticket sales are from off-island, so as tourism goes, Anne goes.”
Increasingly, Anne is getting a boost from Maud herself. Maud has long been the subject of scholarly debate, and her life is increasingly inspiring interest outside academia. “Women didn’t really have careers in those days, and she had a really happening career,” says Ms. Macdonald Butler. “I think of what she accomplished as a woman and I think, ‘Wow.’ We could all take a page out of that book, that’s for sure.”
Ms. Epperly agrees. “More people have caught on now that Montgomery is as interesting as Anne, if not more interesting than Anne, and Montgomery’s own writing about life is fascinating.”
Mr. Harron, in the fading light of a winter afternoon on Charlottetown’s waterfront, leaves no doubt to the extent of his admiration. “People knew about Stephen Leacock before they knew about Canada — now that’s fame. I think with Lucy Maud it’s the same. She’s not just Canadian, she’s a universal factor.”
The road from Charlottetown to Cavendish weaves through the Island countryside like a stitch in a giant quilt. There are patches of green, gold, and rusty red, with the blue of the ocean all ’round. A memorial to fallen Canadian soldiers at Cavendish Beach reads: “They will never know the beauty of this place, see the seasons change, enjoy nature’s chorus.” Maud walked among these dunes, and their beauty inspired her to set Anne among them too. “Were it not for those Cavendish years,” Maud wrote, “I do not think Anne of Green Gables would ever have been written.”
Up the road at Green Gables, tourists come even on a cold, crisp day in winter. A random sampling shows the breadth of Maud’s reach. Travis Murray and Laurie Gonsalves are visiting from Burlington, Ont. Mr. Murray stands out among Anne tourists because, unlike most, he’s wearing a Harley-Davidson owner’s patch. “I think the group would probably be pretty interested in seeing it,” he says of his fellow bikers. “Coming up here would just be a beautiful ride, through the green fields and all.”
Kana and Yuki Makishima are sisters who live near Tokyo, and as children they watched the animated Anne on Japanese TV. A stilted conversation, through ad hoc translation and hand gestures, proves incomprehensible to all, but it’s clear enough why everybody is here: for Anne.
You can walk from the house to Cavendish Cemetery, where Maud lies with her husband in a plot that, before nearby trees grew tall, had a commanding view of the ocean. “She purchased the plots during a visit to the Island in 1923,” writes James De Jonge in an essay in Making Avonlea, “so that when her time came, she could, ‘lie among my kindred in the old spot I love so much better than any other spot on Earth.’ ”
Still her spirit lives on the Island, in the shape of an irrepressible orphan girl. Anne came to this place as fiction and turned into something real, something that endures a century after she was born.
Green Gables: This home at Prince Edward Island National Park in Cavendish (now restored) was inspiration for the beloved books.
Lucy Maud Montgomery had a nervous breakdown in 1938, but finished the last novel to be published in her lifetime, Anne of Ingleside. The next year she visited P.E.I. for the last time. She died three years later.
As a young girl, Kate Macdonald Butler, now 51, granddaughter of Lucy Maud Montgomery, settles down with a favourite book.
Above, Mary Miles Minter from a 1919 poster of Anne of Green Gables.
Japanese and Korean photojournalists snap pictures of Lucy Maud Montgomery's gravesite for their magazines back home. Montgomery is buried beside her husband, Ewan Macdonald, in Cavendish Cemetery, P.E.I., not far from Green Gables. Montgomery...