Like many Canadian girls, Anne Shirley was a freckled-face redhead embedded in my imagination whose fanciful expressions would often find their way out of my mouth as I can be a kindred spirit in the melodrama department: “I’m in the depths of despair!” “It’s been a Jonah day!” My sister and I, who shared a bedroom for the first eighteen years of our lives, would often rehearse the famous “fishing for lake trout” scene before bedtime where Gilbert Blythe rescues Anne from a leaking boat in which she plays the dead Lady of Shalott in Tennyson’s poem.
Given this background, you’d probably think that I’ve read all eight books in the series, but the truth is—I’ve read none! I’ve seen all the movies, but I have never picked up the books, which is a hard confession to make considering I’m Canadian and an English major who calls herself an Anne fan.
Two friends with whom I recently travelled to the Maritimes thought this was unacceptable (as I was beginning to feel too), and so a few days ago, I fixed this worrisome gap in my literary life. I read the first book of the series, Anne of Green Gables, and what better place to do it than in PEI, the birthplace of L.M. Montgomery’s classic?
Visiting the Green Gables homestead was the fulfillment of a childhood dream for me and my friends. For those of you like me who had only known the house by the movie, you may be a little surprised to learn that the house used in the movie was filmed in Ontario. Disappointing, right? However, the house in Cavendish is the home that inspired L.M. Montgomery. Her grandfather’s cousins lived there. Despite not being like the movies, the house itself is beautiful and old and creaky and everything a farmhouse should be. For a city girl like me, I even felt a twinge of longing to have one season of life in such a setting. The two-storey house is decorated with period pieces to replicate what would be in Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert’s early twentieth-century home: chamber pots, spinning wheels, cast iron stoves.
The grounds are equally lovely. You can take a walk in the surrounding woodlands dubbed Lover’s Lane and the Haunted Wood by Anne. The golf courses encircling Lover’s Lane interfered with the charm of the place, but Cavendish itself is kind of like that. You can visit beautiful Cavendish Beach with its white sand and rugged red cliffs (for $7.50 since it’s part of PEI National Park), but in town are monstrous theme parks and water parks that scream kitschy and would probably have L.M. Montgomery rolling over in her grave.
Speaking of graves, here is the Cavendish cemetery where she is buried with her husband, the Reverend Ewin MacDonald. The Haunted Wood trail from Green Gables leads to the cemetery as well as to Lucy’s Cavendish home, where she lived most of her life with her maternal grandparents, Alexander and Lucy Macneill as her mother died when Lucy was just 21 months old.
This Cavendish home is where Lucy wrote Anne of Green Gables, and although the farmhouse and buildings are no longer standing, just being in the spot that inspired her was enough to inspire me in my writing. It felt like hallowed ground walking around the homestead, reading quotes from the author’s journals and taking in the overwhelmingly green and unadulterated view of wide open fields.
A teenage girl who’s a descendant of the Macneill’s gave a five-minute history of the site and Lucy’s relation to it at the Bookstore, which was really interesting. All of Lucy’s novels are set in PEI except The Blue Castle, which is one of my favourites (set in Ontario). Also, Lucy was about to give up on having Anne of Green Gables published when it was rejected for the 5th time because she thought another rejection would “finish her”, but she decided to open up the manuscript one last time and rework it, and it was on her 6th attempt that it was finally accepted. I love stories of perseverance like that.If you buy a book at the Bookstore, you can even get it stamped with a seal that says “Site of Lucy Maud Montgomer’s Cavendish Home.” After devouring the novel in a few days (which I was pleased to discover parallels the movie very closely), I am now wanting to read the other seven. I am not wanting to read Before Green Gables by Budge Wilson though, the novel that’s meant to be a prequel to Anne of Green Gables, because 1) I’m personally not interested in how Anne got to Green Gables—Lucy didn’t want to begin the story there, so I don’t want to either; 2) I’m a bit leery when people mess with classics that are absolutely fine on their own; and 3) from the excerpt I read of it at the back of my Penguin edition, it was painfully mundane and lacked the creativity and wit that characterizes the original. And I think therein lies the problem of appropriating an author’s story, character, and style while also trying to come up with your own version. Pretty near impossible. I must say reading the books makes me want to revisit the movies though, now that I’ve walked in Anne’s shoes for a small sliver of time.
Have you visited Anne of Green Gables? Read the books or opted for the movies? What’s your favourite line or scene to rehearse?