Because when you are imagining, you might as well imagine something worthwhile.
There’s this orphan. She’s a freckled bundle of limbs, a pretty-nosed, bright-eyed, wonder-filled redhead. She’s dreamy, and dramatic, and oh-so talkative. Her imagination gets her into trouble as often as it gets her out of it, and her temper’s not much better.
Her name is Anne, and she is very, very loved.
Anne of Green Gables is one of Canada’s best beloved cultural exports, our darling daughter. I grew up on an island off the west coast of the country, an entire continent between me and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Prince Edward Island. And yet, in all of the tourist shops downtown, it was a guarantee: a shelf of Anne dolls, all different sizes, in their green dresses and aprons, their plaited red pigtails and their straw hats. Anne is ubiquitous.
She has always been this famous. Anne of Green Gables was an instant hit and made Lucy Maud Montgomery internationally famous almost immediately upon publication. Montgomery was invited to literary fetes in Canada and elsewhere, and the world clamoured for more stories of Anne Shirley. Montgomery would end up writing eleven books in all set in the world of Avonlea. Six with Anne as the primary character, three involving Anne’s children, and two collections of stories.
Lucy Maud Montgomery was a literary darling. She should have been able to live any life she chose, based purely on the amount of books she sold. That is not what happened.
Growing up on my own island, I was a very lonely child, but I didn’t always realize it. I had my books, after all. I had plenty of friends, they were just in my imagination. When I was little, Anne was in the top tier of those friends, second only to that other famous redhead, Nancy Drew.
I was not an unhappy child, for all that I may have been lonely. I know, now, that my parents worried about the amount of time I spent reading alone rather than playing with others. But other children could be and were cruel, and my books were more fun anyways. And besides, Anne had taught me to take pride in my natural dreaminess, to be proud of excelling at school. Though I would have liked a study buddy like Gilbert Blythe, or a bosom friend like Diana Barry, I also did not think there was anything wrong with me. I had examples to prove it.
I was at a market a few weeks ago, watching a man demonstrate how to make cordial. An older woman came up to me and asked, “What is he making?”
“Cordial,” I replied.
“I can read,” she snapped. “What is it?”
After she had huffed off, my friend and I turned to each other and said, almost in unison, “Has she seriously never read Anne of Green Gables?”
A woman standing beside us laughed. “That’s exactly what I was thinking!” she said.
My first introduction to poetry, outside the children’s books we never seem to realize are exactly that, was Anne’s frequent quoting and imagining of herself as the Lady of Shalott. I was enchanted: with the boat, with the flowers, with the idea of giving yourself over to imagining so fully, and with the beautiful, beautiful language. To this day I do not think there is a poet in the English language who can top Tennyson for sheer use of sound. When Gilbert stopped the boat, I was as furiously embarrassed as Anne herself.
But there was an inkling there, the first tiny seeds of something planted: it was not just Anne herself that I fell in love with, reading Montgomery’s books, though I didn’t realize it until much later. It was literature, as a whole.
I now hold an honours degree in English, the same course Anne would eventually study, from the university that Anne’s own was based off of. I am poised to gain a Master of Arts from the same university, the university that Montgomery herself attended as well. I did not know this connection before I came here, but once I found out, I felt as though it was always meant to be.
The house Lucy Maud Montgomery lived in while she attended university is an old stone building downtown, on Barrington Street. It looks across at the Old Burying Ground. These days, it’s a solicitor’s office, without even a plaque to recognize its famous once-tenant. I can’t help feel a surge of furious grief every time I look at it. The only reason I know Montgomery lived there at all is a throwaway mention from a ghost tour of downtown.
When I pass the building, I think of Montgomery and wonder how she felt, living there. Barrington is a wind tunnel on the best of days, and in the winter Halifax is very, very cold. I hope that she was happy, here in Halifax, with her literature studies and her stone building and the graveyard and the cold.
I don’t mean to be negative. Anne is a joyful creature, a bastion of hope and creativity who lives in a kind, sunset-filled world. Her books contain most everything that is good, and they are a safe and well-loved place for many, many people.
Nor do I mean to intimate that Lucy Maud Montgomery has been forgotten. On the contrary, I think Anne is likely as famous as ever. There’s a booming tourism industry on Prince Edward Island related to the books, and even a recreation of the Green Gables house. There are the dolls, the tourist trinkets, the books themselves. There are two television series, each of them lovely in their own way.
No, Anne is kindness and imagination and light, and I do not want to touch her with anything other than that. What I am continually amazed at, now that I am an adult with my own hurts and losses and struggles, is that Anne could be created by a woman so apparently unhappy as Lucy Maud Montgomery.
Montgomery was born on Prince Edward Island in 1874. Her mother died before she reached two years old, and her father was so stricken with grief that he gave up custody of young Maud to her maternal grandparents. He left PEI for an area of Canada that is now northern Saskatchewan when Montgomery was seven years old, and she went to live with her grandparents full time.
Her childhood was not a particularly happy one. She was lonely much of the time, and compensated with daydreaming and imaginary friends. She would later credit the period with developing her creativity. It was also during this time that she developed dreams of future fame, borne from her writing.
It’s tempting to see Anne as an autobiographical depiction of herself, then, but I don’t think that’s the case. Montgomery’s other famous heroine, Emily of New Moon, has a situation more like Maud’s own, carted off to relatives who were not expecting to ever care for the girl. Emily’s books, too, are a little bit sadder than Anne’s, a little bit more tinged with the disappointments and cruelties of the world.
I think that Emily is the autobiographical fiction, and Anne is the dream-life, the could have been.
“It’s all very well to read about sorrows and imagine yourself living through them heroically, but it’s not so nice when you really come to have them, is it?”
Montgomery was dissuaded from marrying the great love of her life by her family, who thought the match unsuitable. He would die only a year later, a loss which devastated her when she learned of it.
Eventually Montgomery would marry a Presbyterian minister by the name of Ewen MacDonald, three years after the publication of Anne of Green Gables. One would think after such literary success a woman, even in the early 1900s, could afford to be independent if she really wished to be, but Montgomery seems to have been lonely, and entered the marriage looking for friendship more than any sort of passionate romance.
It was to be an unhappy marriage. They were not well-suited, but Montgomery thought it her duty to be as good a wife and mother as possible despite the trying situation. MacDonald was also given to attacks of severe religious melancholy, and Montgomery was to become depressed herself. She was also profoundly affected by WWI, taking all Allied victories with great joy, but becoming horribly depressed over losses in the trenches.
In 1942, Montgomery was found dead in her room. At the time, the death was attributed to natural causes, but in 2008 Montgomery’s granddaughter revealed that her grandmother had suffered from horrible depression, and that a note had been found in her room. It read, in part:
…I have lost my mind by spells and I do not dare think what I may do in those spells. May God forgive me and I hope everyone else will forgive me even if they cannot understand. My position is too awful to endure and nobody realizes it. What an end to a life in which I tried always to do my best.
It is not definitively proven that Montgomery committed suicide, and an alternate explanation to the note (that it was simply a part of a journal entry) has even been put forward by her biographer Mary Henley Rubio.
Regardless of how her life ended, however, it is definitely true that Montgomery spent most of it lonely or unhappy or both. That is why I hope she was happy in Halifax. The years Anne spends at university are some of her happiest, golden-tinged in the books even as they’re occurring. I hope that is because Montgomery loved her time at university that much as well. I know that for myself, I found a sense of community and contentment I thought I might never reach, here amongst the books and all their fellow lovers. It takes time, sometimes, to get to where you need to be. But for those of us who read, or imagine, or make believe, at least we don’t have to be fully lonely along the way.
‘Dear old world’, she murmured, ‘you are very lovely, and I am glad to be alive in you.’
Maybe Anne of Green Gables was wish-fulfillment. Maybe it was autobiography. Maybe it was just fiction. Whatever Montgomery’s reasons for writing it, in doing so she gave us an everlasting heroine, the kind of strange, sweet girl that shows other strange girls that it’s okay for them to be who they are.
She gave us friendship, and silliness, and boating mishaps and mistakes made over cordial. She gave us a romantic partnership built on equal footing and shared love. And she gave us a family that built itself out of that same love, love that is worked towards and solid and steady; and that steadiness gave us all a place to retreat to in times of need or even just want. That’s what the Anne books are made out of, in the end, crafted by someone who seemed to feel she was constantly lacking it in her own life: love. •
The Anne books themselves, of course, by LM Montgomery
Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings, by Mary Henley Rubio
Maud: A Novel Inspired by the Life of LM Montgomery, by Melanie Fishbane
Jacqui Deighton still considers London, England “home”, but currently lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia and is pretty okay with that. Her writing has appeared in One Week / One Band, Goblin Fruit and elsewhere, as well as winning some awards. She likes lip gloss, stompy boots, and cephalopods. Probably she was Remus Lupin in a past life.
She is a Shakespeare and Punk staff writer. GIRLisms, a column about girls and the worlds they hold inside themselves, is her brainchild.
(Images [in order] © tourismpei.com, Netflix, KINDREDSPIRITMICHAEL)