Lucy Maud Montgomery

Lucy Maud Montgomery

BORN: Clifton, Prince Edward Island • 30 November 1874

DIED: Toronto, Ontario • 24 April 1942

They come every summer without fail. From the United States, from Britain, from Europe, and especially from Japan, they head for New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. By the thousands, they load into ferries, or they drive the new causeway across the Northumberland Strait and land in Prince Edward Island.

Cameras loaded and aimed, they arrive in search of a romantic, idyllic place called Green Gables and the ghost of a red-headed kindred spirit who never existed.Since the 1920s, many millions have flocked to Prince Edward Island, Canada’s tiny perfect province, to find this place.

They come because of author Lucy Maud Montgomery, who was not yet forty when she created a children’s story destined to become the most influential single book written by a Canadian this century.It almost never happened.

Montgomery was a university-educated teacher and an unknown writer living an obscure existence in PEI when she finished Anne ofGreen Gables in 1905 and offered it to several publishers. One company immediately rejected it; others soon did the same. Frustrated, she vowed never to look at the manuscript again.

It was only after she stumbled on it by accident two years later that she tried again, and in 1908 a Boston company agreed to publish the book.Anne had an overwhelming, overnight impact.It sold out several printings almost immediately, and to the surprise of both author and publisher, adults rather than children were its biggest fans.

Montgomery’s Anne Shirley was a childhood heroine for the ages: a lonely but loving orphan with a passion for learning and a zest for life.Sensitive about her looks, uncomfortable in a stiffly conventional society, Anne appealed to everyone everywhere who had ever felt like an outsider while growing up.

Adopted by an elderly brother and sister who had wanted a boy, Anne was rejected and then embraced by the towns¬ folk of small-town PEI—and readers around the world were smitten. Wholesome, episodic, romantic, and set on a lovingly sketched, bucolic Prince Edward Island, Anne of Green Gables simply struck a chord.

The royalties from the book made Montgomery a woman of independent means, an unusual circumstance in Canada in 1908. But success was a burden: Montgomery was sentenced to a lifetime of trying to duplicate the feat of her first book. She was never able to do so, and, sadly, the life of the woman who had given the world such joy was mostly an unhappy one.

In 1911 the middle-aged Montgomery married Ewen Macdonald, an unassuming Protestant minister, after dutifully waiting for her dependent grandmother to die. Her private journals reveal that he was neither her first love nor her best, but marriage was a necessary choice for most Canadian women at the time.

The couple moved to a parish in small-town Ontario and Montgomery continued to write. In response to a demanding public, she produced sequels that followed Anne Shirley into maturity.

These books had none of the freshness of the original, however, and the author admitted privately late in her life that she had grown to dislike the red-headed girl she had created. Burdened by periodic bouts of depression and by a husband bewildered and confused by her talent and her fame, Montgomery died in 1942 in Toronto, still known for a book written nearly forty years before.

But Anne lived on. Buoyed by two major film adaptations and translation into at least a dozen languages, PEI’s most famous daughter continued to make new friends. In 1965 a musical based on the story premiered in Charlottetown, and it has run to packed houses every summer since.

“Green Gables” is one of the largest tourist attractions in the country and the cornerstone of the island’s tourism industry. A new film version of the story was an instant classic in 1985, and a television series based on Montgomery’s characters was one of Canada’s most successful ever.By the 1970s and 1980s even serious students of Canadian literature were grudgingly giving Anne new respect. Where the book was once dismissed as superficial and melodra¬ matic, it is now embraced by critics as a nuanced period piece, especially valuable for its perceptive portrayal of late Victorian Canadian society.

Though its style is dated, and the way of life it describes is increasingly distant, the appeal ofAnne ofGreen Gables continues to grow. It is that rarest of Canadian cultural products: equally popular at home and abroad. In a bright, irresistible Canadian orphan girl, Lucy Maud Montgomery found a story whose appeal was universal.