I admit it. I wanted to go to Prince Edward Island because I read Anne of Green Gables. My mother loved the Anne books but I just couldn’t get interested in them when I was a girl. I didn’t become a Montgomery fan until Mom and my daughter bonded over the Canadian mini-series of Anne directed by Kevin Sullivan with Megan Follows playing Anne Shirley, Colleen Dewhurst as Marilla Cuthbert and Richard Farnsworth as Matthew Cuthbert. From then going forward, I was destined to be one of the 125,000 or so tourists who visit PEI every year to see the island that was bound to Lucy Maud Montgomery’s heart.
We were off to an early start on Green Gables Day, headed for Cavendish, the small town where Lucy Maud Montgomery, who preferred to be called Maud, lived and wrote her classic. If you haven’t read Anne of Green Gables it is probably hard to imagine how the story of an impetuous, imaginative, red-headed orphan, published in 1908, can still capture the hearts of people around the world. However, the story is so much more than that of a girl growing up. It is as much the story of the brother and sister who wanted to adopt a boy to help out with the family farm. Anne is waiting at the train station instead of the expected boy. They keep her because they don’t have the heart to send her away and she needs them. In the end they recognize that they needed her as much as she needed them. Anne of Green Gables is also the story of a beautiful spot in the world and an author whose very soul was fed by its red dirt, green fields and sparkling waters. It is no wonder that people reading Montgomery’s description of the Island want to experience it with senses and soul.
The house that inspired Green Gables belonged to Maud Montgomery’s uncle and aunt. It, along with the site of her grandparent’s home where she was reared, has been designed an historic site.
At Green Gables there is an introductory video and artifacts related to Montgomery, including a replica of one of her scrapbooks—all worth pondering.
Green Gables has been carefully restored to reflect the book. It was very satisfying to feel a sense of recognition while walking through the house. The living and dining rooms, Matthew’s bedroom, pantry and kitchen are on the first floor.
They’ve made guesses about where things should be located based on the book. For example, it was decided that Anne’s room on the second floor and the guest room where she always wanted to sleep, should be light and airy. In a more somber corner is Marilla’s room with her best dress laid out, and the sewing room is across the hall from Anne’s room.
The flower and vegetable gardens are lush and beautifully kept. One can almost see Marilla picking plums for her famous cordials.
Barns have been constructed with attention to period detail. I almost expected to hear kittens in the hayloft at the barn. It would have seemed right to run into Anne racing up the hill from Lover’s Lane. Instead, there were other tourists exploring the grounds. Like Anne, I had to use my imagination.
Half day wasn’t nearly enough, not enough for pondering. I wanted to walk along the “Haunted Woods” path and down “Lover’s Lane,” as well as linger in the house and reflect on what is most important about being alive and able to apprehend the possibilities and beauty that surround me every day. Montgomery’s ability to capture the possibilities and beauty that Anne sees in her world are part of the book’s appeal as is Anne’s capacity to rise above her circumstance through imagining things as if they were otherwise. It is so easy to get stuck in the way things are, to quit noticing the beauty around us, to get too busy to appreciate small things. Anne saw and felt and lived the consequences of one who sees and feels deeply.
Susan Dalziel, our guide, filled in details about the Cavendish area and how it has been shaped by Anne tourism. There are plenty of touristy dressings to the area, ranging from a recreation of the fictional village of Avonlea to Anne of Green Gables Chocolates and miniature golf. We didn’t visit the village, but Susan says it is a big family attraction
during the season when schools are out. It has been built with attention to detail as described in the Anne books.
As we left Green Gables, Susan talked about how Anne’s life mirrored Maud Montgomery’s life in many ways. After her mother died, she was reared by her grandparents. Later, she tried living with her father, but found that she could not get along with his wife. She finished college and found a job in Halifax. She reported loving her job proofreading for two newspapers, but it was short lived, ending when her grandfather died. Like Anne, she returned to the farm. We drove past the Cavendish Presbyterian Church where Maud Montgomery played the organ. Secretly engaged to the Reverend Ewen Macdonald for five years, Montgomery was married in Ontario after her grandmother died.
Montgomery’s books draw upon life experiences, people, and places she knew and loved, rearranged to suit the story. Though she returned frequently to her beloved Prince Edward Island, she never lived there again after her marriage. In the end, she was unable to experience the happiness that Anne enjoyed. Her husband suffered from what we would now call severe clinical depression. Life must have been extremely difficult for her. As Macdonald’s condition became more extreme, she, too, became depressed. It was thought that she died of a heart attack a few months before her husband’s death, but in 2008, her granddaughter disclosed that Montgomery took an overdose of pills, leaving a note in which she asks for forgiveness. In Anne of Green Gables, Montgomery has Anne saying, “Life is worth living as long as there’s a laugh in it.” But for Montgomery, the laughter was gone and she could no longer imagine things as if they were otherwise.
We passed the cemetery where she is buried on her beloved Island, near Green Gables.
Following our visit to Green Gables, we visited Dalvay-by-the-Sea,
known to Anne readers as The White Sands Hotel. It is a Queen Anne Revival building,
built in 1895 by Alexander MacDonald as a summer home. A wealthy businessman, MacDonald lived in Cincinnati. The summer house was named for the home where he was reared in Scotland, as was the Cincinnati home, hence Dalvay-by-the-Sea. MacDonald left the house and his fortune to his granddaughters Laura and Helena Stallo, but their father mis-mismanaged the estate. Eventually the house had to be sold, changing hands several times before becoming the property of the provincial government. When the new Prince Edward Island National Park was created, ownership was transferred to the federal government. Now an inn, Dalvay-by-the-Sea is managed by a private firm. Our lunch there was one of the best of the trip, featuring the sticky date pudding
for which it is famous.
Dalvay-by-the-Sea, aka The White Sands Hotel, faces the Gulf of St. Lawrence and what is now the Prince Edward Island National Park.
We met with a Parks expert, who talked about the delicate balance of animal and plant life along this coastal stretch. Then we had a chance to get some sand between our toes. I couldn’t be that close to an untried ocean (especially if the water promised to be warm) without at least wading along the surf. I rolled up my trousers and got a good splashing anyway. The water was warm, though there was a cool breeze.
Even though I would have liked more time at Green Gables, I wouldn’t have missed the afternoon. But I suppose it comes back to the earlier analogy of a day that was like ordering delicious starters before a meal.
Next: visiting a potato farm and an insider’s look at a family run seafood business.