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Lucy of Green Gables

This Maclean’s Flashback reveals Lucy Maud Montgomery’s favourite writing spot beside the Lake of Shining Waters, where she became “one of the immortal children of fiction.”


 

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ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, the best-loved character ever created by a Canadian author, has been tugging at the heartstrings of millions for forty-three years.

She’s still a steadily moving item on the booksellers’ shelves. This Christmas, seven thousand more Canadian children will be introduced or reintroduced to her. Her favorite places, the Lake of Shining Waters, the Dryad’s Bubble, the Haunted Wood, the Babbling Brook and Lovers’ Lane, are high on the list of Prince Edward Island’s tourist attractions and a national park has been built around them. Hollywood’s two versions of her story—one silent, one with sound—were box-office hits.

Yet Anne, with her red hair and big wistful eyes and freckles and her appealing stream of chatter, might easily have been lost to the world. She spent three years in a trunk in the attic of a modest wooden house at Cavendish, a farming and fishing community on Prince Edward Island’s surf-beaten northern shore.

Then Lucy Maud Montgomery, a slender attractive young woman who helped her grandmother run the Cavendish post office, decided to fix up the dress she planned to wear to a pie social. Looking for a piece of ribbon, she opened the trunk in the attic and found the manuscript of Anne of Green Gables. She had written this in 1904, when she was thirty, and after three publishers rejected it she had sighed, shrugged and hidden it away.

Now, on a fall day in 1907, she glanced idly at the first few poorly typed sheets. The narrative caught her interest and she read on and on until the sun went down, and then she read by flickering yellow lamplight.

The carrot-topped offspring of her imagination moved her to tears and laughter. Anne, she felt, deserved another chance, so she bundled her off to a fourth publisher, L. C. Page and Co. of Boston. This firm, it developed, was willing to buy Anne of Green Gables outright, for five hundred dollars.

Lucy Maud was jubilant. By the standards of Cavendish, with a population of two hundred, eleven miles from a railway and twenty-four miles from a town, the amount offered was large. She accepted it in haste. Later, when more than a million copies of her novel had been sold and it had been twice filmed, she probably repented at leisure, knowing that had she struck a better bargain with Page she might have earned two hundred thousand dollars from book royalties and screen rights. As it was, the one payment of five hundred dollars was all she ever got from her first book although its successors were to earn her many times that sum.

Anne of Green Gables brought her fame, if not wealth. When the first edition came out in 1908, Mark Twain, who sired those great juveniles, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, pronounced Anne “the sweetest creation of child life yet written.”

Poet Bliss Carman termed Anne “one of the immortal children of fiction.” Other reviewers were equally enthusiastic—and the public hurried to the bookstores. Edition followed edition. Anne of Green Gables was translated into French, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, Polish. It was printed in Braille.

Little girls in many lands idolized Anne and tried to act and talk like her. Anne called her friends “kindred spirits.” The phrase spread around the world. Anne disliked having red hair and made an unfortunate attempt to dye it. Countless redheads were inspired to do the same thing, with the same unfortunate results.

Fan mail poured to Lucy Maud from the far ends of the earth, not only from youngsters but from missionaries in China, traders in Africa, monks in remote monasteries, soldiers in India, grizzled trappers in the Canadian north. Rudyard Kipling wrote her; so did His Excellency Earl Grey, the Governor-General. In a single week there were seven hundred letters from Australia. Lucy Maud distributed them among Prince Edward Island school children, who answered them, and for years afterwards there was a prodigious exchange of correspondence between pen pals of P. E. I. and the antipodes.

Miss Montgomery, now an international celebrity, was swamped with invitations to be the guest of honor of important organizations in important cities, but she politely declined them all.

Her sense of duty, her Presbyterian conscience, would not let her leave her widowed grandmother. She stayed on at Cavendish, still helping in the post office, which was a room at the front of the house, and still cooking, washing dishes, scrubbing floors. The fees from the post office were barely enough to support her grandmother and Lucy Maud refused to accept a share of them. Her own income came entirely from her writing, which she sandwiched between more prosaic chores.

Before Anne of Green Gables was accepted, she had produced hundreds of verses, articles and short stories for Sunday-school papers and other publications for children. Her output was tremendous but the rewards had been dismally small—rarely as much as ten dollars in a week.

After the success of Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud concentrated on full-length novels. She wrote a total of twenty-two and Anne was the heroine of half a dozen of them. She also wrote a volume of poetry. All her books, with the exception of the poetry, were popular and met with a ready reception, but Anne of Green Gables was her one outstanding triumph, her one best seller.

Lucy Maud’s “studio” at Cavendish was a sunny corner in the kitchen, beside a window through which she could gaze out on an apple orchard. When she was writing she perched on a table, her feet against the arm of a sofa, and held her portfolio on her knee.

She would scribble the first draft of a story with a pencil on the backs of official government forms, with which the post office was invariably oversupplied. When she had revised and corrected her work she typed the final draft with two fingers on a battered secondhand machine “that never made capitals plain and wouldn’t print m’s at all.” She forced herself to rise early, so she would have more time for what she wanted to do, and once confided to her diary: “I didn’t roll out of bed until six thirty this morning. I mustn’t be so lazy again.”

Avonlea, the village in which she set Anne of Green Gables and a number of her other books, was actually Cavendish, and the spots she loved were at her doorstep.

There was a pond, Anne’s Lake of Shining Waters: “A bridge spanned it midway and from there to its lower end, where an amber-hued belt of sand hills shut it in from the dark blue gulf beyond, the water was a glory of many shifting hues... Here and there a wild plum leaned out from the bank like a white-clad girl tiptoeing to her own reflection. From the marsh at the head... came the clear, mournfully sweet chorus of the frogs."

There was a spring. In Anne of Green Gables, Anne says: “We’ve agreed to call the spring down by the log bridge the Dryad’s Bubble. Isn’t that a perfectly elegant name? I read a story once about a spring called that. A dryad is a sort of grown-up fairy, I think.”

There was a spruce grove, Anne’s Haunted Wood: “A haunted wood is so very romantic... We chose the spruce grove because it’s so gloomy. Oh, we have imagined the most harrowing things... I wouldn’t go through the Haunted Wood after dark now for anything. I’d be sure that white things would reach out from behind the trees and grab me.”

There was a tiny stream, Anne’s Babbling Brook: “Have you ever noticed what cheerful things brooks are? They’re always laughing. Even in winter I’ve heard them under the ice. If there wasn't a brook I’d be haunted by the uncomfortable feeling that there ought to be.”

There was a path between tall maples, Anne’s Lovers’ Lane: “So romantic! Maples are such sociable trees; they’re always rustling and whispering to you. I like that lane because you can think out loud there without people calling you crazy.”

And there was a fine old farmhouse. It was owned by Lucy Maud’s good friends, bearded and bashful David MacNeill, a wise and kindly bachelor, and his spinster sister, Margaret MacNeill, who had a stern face and an austere manner, but a heart of gold. In fiction, this house became Green Gables, Anne’s home. Lucy Maud used David and Margaret MacNeill as the models for Anne’s unforgettable foster parents, Matthew Cuthbert, bachelor, and Marilla Cuthbert, spinster.

Most of Lucy Maud’s characters were, like the Cuthberts, drawn from life. They were her neighbors and schoolmates, disguised and glorified a bit, but still recognizable. Generally, her plots and incidents were suggested by real happenings. She delved into her own memories for ideas and also borrowed and embroidered old tales told by the villagers around their winter fires.

At Cavendish, people say Anne of Green Gables “just sort of evolved.” They can sketch in the background. When Lucy Maud was an infant, her mother died. Her father later departed for Saskatchewan, where he opened a store at Prince Albert, and she was left behind to be brought up by her maternal grandparents, Alexander MacNeill, a farmer, and his wife, the postmistress.

She was a bright precocious child. When she was nine she had read Longfellow, Tennyson, Whittier, Scott and Burns, was composing verses herself, and was already determined to be an author. At eleven she had written a boxful of stories. “They were very tragic creations in which almost everybody died,” she once recalled. “In those tales, battle, murder and sudden death were the order of the day.” At twelve she won a short-story contest for children sponsored by the Family Herald and Weekly Star, of Montreal.

When she was fifteen the Charlottetown Patriot printed one of many poems which she had submitted, thereby giving her what she described as “the greatest moment of my life.”

She attended Cavendish District School (Anne’s Avonlea) and Prince of Wales College at Charlottetown (Anne’s Queen’s). At Prince of Wales she qualified for a teacher’s license (like Anne) at the age of seventeen. After that she visited her father in Saskatchewan for a year, spent a year at Dalhousie University in Halifax, then taught at the Prince Edward Island villages of Biddeford and Ellerslie. Meanwhile, Sunday-school papers and juvenile magazines bought some of her stories.

In 1898, when she was twenty-four, her grandfather died. She put a comforting arm around her lonely old grandmother and said, “I’m coming home to stay with you. You’ll always have me.” She resigned her teaching post and returned to Cavendish, where she wrote for her living. She was happy, in this period, if an editor paid her as much as five dollars for a contribution.

From her tenth birthday on she had been filling scribblers with notes on things which struck her as having story possibilities. When a small niece arrived to stay with David and Margaret MacNeill, Lucy Maud—virtually an orphan herself—had wondered whether the child was an orphan. She had also wondered what the outcome would be if the MacNeills had wanted a boy orphan to help work the farm and had received a girl by mistake. So she jotted down this sentence: “Elderly couple apply to orphan asylum for boy; a girl is sent them.”

That single sentence led to Anne of Green Gables. At the outset of the novel, Matthew and Manila Cuthbert apply for an orphan boy. Through an error, they get Anne, an orphan girl. They plan, at first, to send her back to the orphanage, but she is so grateful, so delighted to have a home, that they hesitate. For awhile Anne’s fate hangs in the balance, but she so endears herself to the Cuthberts that they keep her. As she grows up, she repays them many times for their kindness.

While the arrival of the niece of David and Margaret MacNeill gave Lucy Maud the idea, Anne is not patterned after the niece, who, as it turned out, was not an orphan, and is now Mrs. Ernest Webb of Cavendish. In Anne, Lucy Maud unconsciously painted a charming self-portrait. Apparently, she was about the only person in Cavendish who wasn’t aware of Anne’s identity, although she sensed that Anne was a real individual and once said, “When I tell people that she is entirely fictitious I have an uncomfortable feeling that I am not telling the truth.”

Her Feather-Sprouting Nose

Lucy Maud’s hair, if it wasn’t red, had a reddish glint. Her eyes, like Anne’s, were big and wistful, and her face, like Anne’s, had an elfin quality. She had freckles like Anne, Anne’s flair for fantasy, Anne’s genius for tumbling into awkward situations.

As a teen-ager in a day when a lovely woman was supposed to have an “alabaster” complexion, she hated her freckles and once plastered them with a sticky blemish-remover that had to be left on for two hours. Waiting for the two hours to pass, she sorted a sackful of goose down with which she intended to fill pillows. And she dreamed she was a duchess. Suddenly, there was a knock on the castle door and the duchess swept majestically to answer it, and there on the threshold stood the parson, come to call on her grandparents.

“Great heavens, child!’’ he exclaimed. “Your nose—there are feathers sprouting all over it!”

That couldn’t have happened to anybody but the girl who was Anne, although it is not chronicled in Anne of Green Gables or other Anne books.

In Anne of Green Gables a clergyman and his wife, who are new at Avonlea, accept an invitation to tea at Green Gables. Anne, who has been learning to cook, is allowed to bake a layer cake for the occasion—a coveted privilege.

“Cakes,” she remarks, “have such a terrible habit of turning out bad just when you especially want them to be good. However, I suppose I shall just have to trust to Providence and be careful to put in the flour.” She puts the flour in all right but, in her excitement, uses liniment instead of vanilla for flavoring. Lucy Maud herself made the same blunder under the same circumstances.

Anne was poor at mathematics; so was Lucy Maud. Anne was a gifted elocutionist: “Her fright and nervousness vanished and she began her recitation, her clear, sweet voice reaching to the farthest corner of the room without a tremor or a break.” Lucy Maud was likewise a gifted elocutionist—one of the most popular performers aï the fortnightly meetings of the Cavendish Literary Society.

Anne gave up school teaching to look after her foster parents when they needed her. Lucy Maud gave up school teaching to be with her grandmother. She was so faithful to her pledge, always to look after her grandmother, that although she fell deeply in love she would not marry while the old woman was alive.

Rev. Ewan Macdonald, with whom she “kept company,” was born at Valleyfield, P. E. I., and, like Lucy Maud, he attended Prince of Wales College. He was the Presbyterian minister in the Cavendish district. Lucy Maud was thirty-seven when she and Macdonald were finally wed in 1911, a few months after the grandmother’s death. He was forty-one. He had been waiting for her for ten years and rather than leave Cavendish and be separated from her he had turned down several opportunities in bigger places. He and his bride soon moved to Uxbridge, Ont., but it was too late to repair his career and all his life he remained an underpaid country parson.

His lean income was augmented by his wife’s earnings. Up to 1911 four of her books—Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, Kilmeny of the Orchard and The Story Girl—had been published. Between 1911 and 1939, although she had the management of the manse and the upbringing of two sons on her hands, she wrote Chronicles of Avonlea, The Golden Road, Anne of the Island, Anne’s House of Dreams, Rainbow Valley, Further Chronicles of Avonlea, Rilla of Ingleside, Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, The Blue Castle, Emily’s Quest, Magic for Marigold, A Tangled Web, Pat of Silver Bush, Mistress Pat, Anne of Windy Poplars, Jane of Lantern Hill, and Anne of Ingleside. She also wrote her volume of verse, The Watchman and Other Poems, and countless short stories and articles. She once estimated that her writing brought her a total of seventy-five thousand dollars.

When Lucy Maud’s sons, Chester and Stuart, were toddlers, she improvised bedtime stories for them, but she taught them to read at an early age and from then on expected them to find their own literary entertainment. She had no daughters. Chester is now a lawyer at Fort William, Ont., and Stuart is a doctor on the staff of St. Michael’s Hospital at Toronto.

Lucy Maud, in middle age, was a handsome and incessantly busy woman. She was active in congregational work, kept her house spotless, and prepared wonderful meals—yet she shut herself up in her bedroom for hours each day to write. She had an enormous collection of books, which she read and reread. They ranged from cheap detective thrillers to metaphysical tomes. A prolific correspondent, she tried to answer all fan mail, and often sent personal friends letters that were twenty or thirty pages long.

Her memory was fantastic and she could recite all Sir Walter Scott’s epic poems. She was fond of cats, would talk to them as though they were human, and always had a grey-striped one named Daffy. There were three Daffys. The youngest died at fifteen, the oldest at twenty-one.

In Anne of Green Gables Anne rebels amusingly against Sunday school, but Lucy Maud didn’t carry this whimsical approach to religion into her personal life. She was not belligerently “churchy,” but her outlook did reflect the austere and puritanical influences that surrounded her in her childhood at Cavendish, where nobody, in those days, would have dared cut wood on the Sabbath, even to keep from freezing.

When Chester or Stuart Macdonald needed discipline it was Lucy Maud who applied the palm of the hand to the seat of the pants.

Her husband was proud to have descended from the Macdonalds of Sleath, who, he boasted, were the wildest of the Scottish clans. But he himself was the mildest of men—an absent-minded scholar who was usually to be found in his library. When his youngsters wanted spending money, he was a soft touch.

Like Anne, Lucy Maud had a temper. It flamed in 1920 when Page—the publisher who bought Anne of Green Gables for five hundred dollars—brought some of her longer short stories out in a book. She sued Page, claiming unauthorized publication, and the case was before the courts for nine years. Finally she won a verdict in her favor.

Her temper also flared in 1921 when she saw Hollywood’s silent version of Anne of Green Gables, starring Mary Miles Minier. Apart from receiving nothing for the film rights, she had no control over the treatment of the story, since she had sold it outright to Page. She considered Mary Miles Minter “too sugary sweet not a scrap like my gingery Anne.” But what burned her most was that the scene of Green Gables had been transferred to the United States and the Stars and Stripes flew over Anne’s school.

She forgave Hollywood in 1934 when Anne of Green Gables was filmed with sound. Anne’s second name was Shirley. The young actress cast in the role adopted Anne Shirley as her screen name and became well-known under it. “The little girl who played the part of Anne is a good Anne,” Lucy Maud commented. “There were many moments when she tricked me into feeling that she was Anne... Matthew, whom I have always seen with a long grey beard, seemed a stranger to me at first, but he was so good I finally forgot his clean-shaven face... Marilla was not the tall thin austere Marilla of my conception, but it was impossible to help liking her. And Canada and the Island were given some credit for the story.”

The Sapphire Isle

Lucy Maud and Ewan Macdonald were longer in Leaskdale, north of Toronto, than in any other parish. Their sons recall that Christmas at Leaskdale was strictly a family affair, with a tree, presents, surprises and a goose dinner—Turkey being reserved for Thanksgiving.

For their summer vacations the Macdonalds journeyed to Prince Edward Island, for Lucy Maud never lost her passion for “that colorful little land of ruby and emerald and sapphire.” There she visited her relatives, held reunions with schoolmates like Mrs. Mary Beaton and Mrs. R. E. Miltch, had tea at Green Gables with Mrs. Ernest Webb, and made a pilgrimage to the small house she was born in at Clifton. This house is now owned by Mr. and Mrs. Harlan Found, of Charlottetown, who use it as a summer cottage. Lucy Maud was one of their close friends.

“Peace!” Lucy Maud wrote. “You never know what peace is until you walk on the shores or in the fields or along the winding red roads of Prince Edward Island in a summer twilight when the dew is falling and the old old stars are peeping out and the sea keeps its mighty tryst with the little land it loves. You find your soul then. You realize that youth is not a vanished thing but something that dwells forever in the heart.”

She couldn’t have written with such feeling about her native province unless she had truly loved it. Prince Edward Islanders loved her, too, and don’t believe there will ever again be anybody quite like her. In Cavendish National Park most of the landmarks associated with her childhood—and Anne’s—are carefully preserved, although the house in which the author lived with her grandparents has been torn down.

Green Gables, the house in which she placed Anne, has now been taken over by the federal government. On an average summer day, six or seven hundred people go through it—people from all over North America and from other parts of the world. As a rule tourists are fairly noisy; they laugh and shout. At Green Gables they speak in hushed voices, as though at a shrine.

Outside, mothers and grandmothers who were thrilled long ago by the adventures of fiction’s immortal redhead wander from the Babbling Brook to Lovers’ Lane and watch the sun setting over the Lake of Shining Waters, and suddenly realize, as Lucy Maud did, that youth dwells forever in the heart.

Thousands of Sad Friends

Lucy Maud Montgomery Macdonald was sixty-eight when she died in 1942, one year before her husband. She is buried in a graveyard on a hill overlooking Green Gables, and there’s a big stone monument to her near the entrance of Cavendish National Park. When this was erected the park had a new superintendent from the Canadian mainland who didn’t know the sentiments of Prince Edward Islanders. He worried about the unveiling. Would anybody turn up for it?

He instructed his workmen not to set out too many benches. The roads were bad, he explained, and Cavendish was a long haul from the town of Summerside or the city of Charlottetown, and it would look better to have a few persons standing than to have rows of empty seats. So that the speakers on the program would at least have somebody to speak to, he asked the workmen to be on hand themselves.

But on the day of the unveiling the highways to Cavendish were choked with automobiles hours before the ceremony. In hamlets and villages there were folks who rose while it was still dark so they’d have time to travel to Cavendish by horse and buggy. The Gulf of St. Lawrence hummed with the sound of motor launches bringing fishermen and their families. Lucy Maud’s friends came by the thousands from every corner of Prince Edward Island and also from the mainland. The park superintendent hurriedly changed his instructions and told his men to round up all the benches they could find.

“I guess,” he said quietly, “that she must have been a wonderful woman.”

She was. She had the qualities of the truly great—simplicity, wisdom, courage, humor, honesty, kindness. They flowed through her life as through her books. For she herself was Anne of Green Gables.

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