Rekindle Looking for Anne of Green Gables
A fan-pilgrim expects to find a special world, a sense of belonging. I just wasn’t sure what I’d find on Anne’s island.
Mary and I decided on Prince Edward Island at the last minute. We had been planning to go to Spain for our annual friend-cation, then realized we couldn’t afford it. “What about Green Gables?” I said, already picturing sand dunes, cow paths, an oil lamp lighting Anne Shirley’s bedroom window under the moss-colored hood of the east gable.
Mary and I had bonded in high school over our shared knowledge of Prince Edward Island, home to our favorite fictional heroine, and its red roads, plunging cliffs, and waters of “elusive tintings for which no name has ever been found.” Yet as we made our travel plans, part of me wondered if I was the kind of person who would enjoy a fan pilgrimage. I’d recently gone to see a Pippi Longstocking exhibit at the Philadelphia Swedish Museum, and when I exited the space, a docent eagerly asked me, “Did you play?” At my confusion, she added, “Everyone does, even women twice your age. They see Villa Villekulla, and our Pippi mural, and something just goes off inside them.”
I had to admit that no, I hadn’t played. I felt a sense of deep personal inadequacy. Would it be the same at Green Gables?
A fan-pilgrim loves a place not for its specifics—in the case of P.E.I., lobster fishing, potato chips, the nearly-extinct North Atlantic right whale—but because she expects to find a special, welcoming world overlaying our pedestrian world. She might even feel an instant sense of belonging, as if she has finally come home. I just wasn’t sure that was what I’d find if I went to Anne’s island.
The island surpassed our expectations from the moment Mary and I crossed the Confederation Bridge in our rented Corolla. The air smelled of cows and the sea, and the roads were rusty-red and sock-staining, like baseball diamonds. They curved before us in stripes of deep color, just as Lucy Maud Montgomery had promised.
The problem was me: I was still afraid that the magic wouldn’t be there; that my smiles would be forced; that I wouldn’t feel a deep enough affection for Anne and company. That something wouldn’t go off inside me . As we bumped over the famous red roads, I was too busy worrying about wheel alignment and tire pressure to whoop convincingly along with Mary when our GPS announced we had entered Cavendish.
The beach at Cavendish / photo courtesy of the author
Cavendish is Avonlea, the Avonlea, where Matthew Cuthbert brings Anne by buggy after he picks her up at the Bright River station. He doesn’t have the heart to tell her she’s not the orphan he and his sister Marilla expected—they’d wanted a boy with upper body strength who could take over the farm chores for aging Matthew. I always bristled at the part where Marilla looks, aghast, at skinny Anne in her ugly dress and says she’ll have to go back to the orphanage. Every time, I held my breath in case Anne really was forced to leave the island.
Mary and I had only a short time here ourselves. We made a brief stop to get what the internet had named “the #1 lobster roll in P.E.I.,” and then continued down Central Coastal Drive. We’d made reservations to stay on a working dairy farm, and when I asked the woman running check-in from her kitchen counter how to find our cottage, she said, “Oh, pull in where the cows cross. ” Though I assumed this was just an expression, the cows really did cross right next to our cottage, a plain beige-sided box built for summer living.
Mary and I had walked, in our sundresses and flip-flops, right into a chapter penned by Lucy Maud Montgomery. After evening milking, we watched the Holsteins jog across the road to the field outside our back window. Our excitement must have shown, because a workman smiled indulgently at us and indicated a pen containing a mother cow and two newborn calves—twins, glowing with belonging. They were standing already, messy but upright in belly-deep straw. “Born a few minutes ago!” he offered.
“Is that the afterbirth?” I yelled, indicating the bloody, deflated balloon hanging from the mom.
“Yes, the placenta,” the man said, and stopped smiling.
The waning light of Cavendish possessed the same caul-like qualities as an L. M. Montgomery novel, pinkish and protective. For a few minutes, I felt able to both be and watch ; to experience everything as if I’d ridden here beside Anne on the passenger seat of Matthew’s buggy, under the low-hanging cherry blooms of the White Way of Delight. Then the vision faded, and I was myself again: not a young girl prone to make-believe, but a twenty-something marketing copywriter from the Philadelphia suburbs whose personality ran dry around more exuberant friends. I was sure I was too old to play anymore.
In the morning, we planned to visit Green Gables. Mary decided to wash, blow-dry, and straighten her hair first, and I felt a little despairing: Why couldn’t we be okay with what our appearances averaged out to, given that we were visiting the home of a fictional person? Forty-five minutes later her hair still wasn’t done, so I got in the car and gunned it down Central Coastal Drive alone.
I felt guilty for spending so much money on a vacation. I’d also begun to wonder if travel was just one more way of tricking others into believing you led a certain kind of life—in this case, one replete with Instagram-worthy dairy products, “unexpected” lighthouses, and a whimsicality that approached yet fell far short of Anne’s. In the book, Anne can be so naively fanciful that you long, at times, to give her a shove into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. But eventually she wins everyone’s hearts, something I’ve always wanted to do, because she is also sweet, open-hearted, and charmingly, lyrically digressive. She tells you there are ghosts in the woods, fairies in the bushes, and kindred spirits around every scenic bend, and even if you never cherished such fantasies yourself, you want them for her. You don’t want her to grow up.
As teenagers, Mary and I used to model our behavior after Anne’s, rolling down tick-covered hills, hunting gnomes in the forest, starting secret societies that fizzled out in hours, and fancying ourselves “irrepressible” even as we earned As and Bs and obeyed our parents. Mary’s nickname was Mary Cordelia (a reference to Anne’s desire to be called anything but the plain name she’s been given), and in college she even dyed her hair red—a sunny terracotta shade, just south of Pippi. Sometimes it felt like we forced ourselves to be quirky and free-spirited, even when it would have made more sense to just be regular, or subdued, or even cynical. Remember that scene in which Anne pretends to be the Lady of Shalott, lying “dead” in a rowboat drifting toward Camelot, and then her boat springs a leak? What Mary and I did instead was walk, fully clothed, into the ocean just before a Bob Dylan concert at Asbury Park. We went to the show drenched and fishy, flecks of seaweed pasted to our clothes like we were water nymphs who had swum up from the murky bottom of Anne’s Lake of Shining Waters. Surrendering ourselves to the sea—and to Anne—seemed like a reasonable answer, at the time, to the persistent question Who should I be?
L. M. Montgomery always said she preferred to write about the very young and the very old, presumably enjoying characters attempting to figure out, often humorously, their shifting roles in life. Nowadays, with fewer clear and universal markers of adulthood, how do you know when to stop figuring out who you are? By the time Mary and I journeyed to P.E.I., I’d started to suspect that I was, at heart, a sluggish, slightly grumpy person; a homebody with none of the coziness the term suggests. I like scalding hot tea with no sugar; I don’t like to party. It was hard to imagine myself morphing into the world’s freest spirit, literary pilgrimage or no. Yet I suspected I could once again hit upon someone I wanted to “be”—if not Anne anymore, then some other character who had more fun than me, or sparkled more ferociously, or inhabited that organic-cotton kind of quietness that looks so impressive on a yoga mat.
I turned the car around. When I got back to the farm, Mary’s hair hung in two straight, glossy sections that displayed a tinge of auburn where the sun struck. I apologized, or tried to, and we were on our way to Green Gables.
Lucy Maud Montgomery’s high-school-aged descendent (I’ll call her Jenny) wore a short side-ruched Juniors’ Department dress with cap sleeves, an item she must have had to drive pretty far to purchase given how far we were from the closest shopping center. She gave us a brief history of Lucy Maud’s birthplace.
“I think the birthplace should be the main tourist attraction, because it’s where everything started,” she said, before a brief, guilty look crossed her face. “I’m glad it isn’t, actually. Cavendish is becoming so . . . commercial .”
She probably wasn’t supposed to voice these concerns to visitors, though her family—the nieces, nephews, and cousins of L. M. Montgomery—surely returned to the topic again and again among themselves, worrying that their tiny section of island would turn into the next Disneyland. Cavendish’s commercial strip was actually one of the least obnoxious I’d ever seen: some beach shops with spinning pinwheels jammed into the gravel outside; a general store; an amusement park less than an acre in size, featuring a rickety wooden roller coaster with the name “Cyclone” in lights across its weathered latticework. Everything was spaced far apart along a quiet single-lane highway.
Jenny might have been objecting to Avonlea Village, a children’s park where you could learn how to card wool, listen to someone in period dress play the fiddle, and of course meet Anne Shirley (one of several energetic teenagers wearing strawberry-colored wigs if they weren’t natural redheads). Jenny wouldn’t have wanted anything like that here. The crumbling foundation of her ancestor’s birthplace was pre-Anne, and deserved to rest in relative peace under the shade of what, according to some informational signage, were Lucy Maud’s favorite trees.
Midway through her talk, an older couple wandered in to ask a single question: “Can you tell us something about Lucy Maud Montgomery that we wouldn’t be able to read in a book?”
Jenny thought about it, digging a finger into her cheek and flashing her eyes up to a corner of the ceiling. I was impressed with her—she was spirited, but also enthralled by her family story, not eager to sidestep the ancestral duties that I, personally, would have groaned at. She had even read all of L. M.’s journals, some of which she admitted were tough going.
“My grandmother would kill me if she knew I told you,” she said, “but I don’t think Lucy Maud loved her husband.”
In her journals, Lucy Maud had written glowingly of someone else: a farmer she met when she worked as a schoolteacher in Lower Bedeque. Jenny thought he had been her great love. But, befitting her social class, L. M. married the Reverend Ewan Macdonald and moved with him to Ontario, where for the rest of her life she suffered periodic depression and struggled to recover the peace she had known on Prince Edward Island.
“Lucy Maud’s happiest times were here,” said Jenny. “I truly think everything would have been different if she hadn’t left the island.”
The family had not come forward with their suspicions about Montgomery’s suicide until 2008, perhaps afraid it would cast a shadow over Anne’s beloved story. Hearing about the author’s idyllic early life in the woods, pastures, and tiny white churches of Cavendish, it was tempting to conflate her with her creation. But Lucy Maud, Jenny wanted us to know, was not Anne.
We set off from L. M.’s birthplace to Green Gables, the author’s cousins’ home—a clean, simply constructed white farmhouse with a hunter green roof and trimmings that serves as an adequate stand-in for whatever Green Gables lives in readers’ minds. To get there, you cross a road and take a dirt path through the woods, like you’re Anne’s “bosom friend” Diana on your way for a visit. Break out of the trees, walk over a little electric-green section of an adjacent golf course, and you’re on the front lawn of Green Gables.
The author at Green Gables
I filmed everything as we walked, with the lukewarm goal of putting together an Anne pilgrimage video once we got home. When I watched the footage later, I realized that at times I had caused Mary to bristle. At one point we were on the second floor of Green Gables, peering into Anne’s little floral bedroom to see the brown dress with the coveted puffed sleeves—a gift from Matthew—hanging on the closet door. I always wondered, Why brown? “Would you wear that, Mar’?” I ask in the video, derision in my voice.
“Yes,” she says, her words turning up painfully at the ends. “If that was the style.”
In the backyard, I turned the camera on a bewigged Anne about my age acting out the part where Anne accidentally gets Diana Barry drunk on Marilla’s currant wine. Modern-day actress-Anne wouldn’t stop flagellating herself: “I shall never be able to live this down , Marilla!” A three-year-old with the sun in her eyes followed Anne’s every gesticulation, but even Mary, superfan, was not particularly interested in watching.
Until I’d reread the novel in preparation for this trip, I had forgotten about Anne’s many tear-stained, hand-wringing scenes, in which she sinks to “the depths of despair” over her mistake of the moment. “I’m disgraced forever,” she sobs after messing up a cake she’s baked for the new minister and his wife. And after dying her hair green by accident and ending up with a waifish close-cropped cut, she assigns herself penance: “I’ll look at myself every time I come to my room and see how ugly I am. And I won’t try to imagine it away, either.” Crying in the East Gable, she’s consumed by wishing herself different. “Ever since I came to Green Gables I’ve been making mistakes, and each mistake has helped to cure me of some great shortcoming,” she announces at one point. Anne now struck me as a smidge unhealthy, like she might have benefited from a good summer camp with horseback riding, blindfolded trust exercises, and no mirrors.
I watched a large group of Japanese teenagers photographing one another in the sunny flower garden at Green Gables. ( Akage no An , “Red-haired Anne,” was translated into Japanese in the fifties and became a popular anime in 1979, so Prince Edward Island sees a lot of Japanese tourists.) One girl knelt to smell a stalk of Queen Anne’s Lace from every possible angle, rotating her eyes and puffing out her cheeks as if to blow a kiss. When she finally stood up, she looked exhausted by her pursuit of the perfect shot.
Anne’s room at Green Gables / photo courtesy of the author
You can only guess in advance how you’ll interact with a fan site, how you’ll feel about it when you get there. You might hope to stroll around in a misty-eyed state, happily nerding out over this or that detail—the brown dress! The high-button shoes! The “extremely old” carpet-bag!—or even imagining yourself as Anne, wandering through the rooms and gardens. But to focus only on your gut response is to forget that you can choose your reaction on such a trip. You can choose what kind of fan pilgrim you wish to be—from totally, gushingly accepting to unforgiving, demanding the shrine live up to your devotion.
In the end I settled somewhere in between, at selectively critical: Green Gables struck me as inert and over-staged, like an expensive playhouse children feel guilty about not enjoying. There was plastic food in the kitchen, and a staff member trying to explain butter-churning to a distracted toddler. The spinning wheel in the sewing room threw me a curve, because as far as I knew Marilla had always bought machine-made cloth at William Blair’s store in Carmody. Yet the grounds were charming and well-kept, and if I spent enough time here, I suspected I’d begin to replace my existing vision—the Green Gables in my mind, formed from L. M. Montgomery’s words—with this less lively, real-life twin.
Our last remaining site of importance was Charlottetown, which required leaving the reliably quaint section of P.E.I. and entering the part where Old Navy and Target remind you you’re still on Earth. Charlottetown, to Anne, is the big city. She goes there with Diana to see a musical performance, and Marilla worries she’ll catch a cold from all that heady excitement. But the only real attraction for Mary and me turned out to be the Anne of Green Gables Store, the world’s biggest Anne-themed gift shop.
We browsed the bookshelves in the back of the store. Montgomery had written a total of eight Anne novels, partly because they provided a reliable source of income in a tough wartime economy. Nestled among those familiar volumes was a novel billing itself as “the last Anne book.”
“It must have been ghost-written,” Mary said. “Lucy Maud Montgomery didn’t write a ninth Anne book.”
The Blythes are Quoted had been published in 2009, over sixty years after Lucy Maud’s death. As I raced through the forward, I discovered that Lucy Maud had written it, combining both old and new material and working through a fog of depression. Just before she died, she mailed it to her publisher to be published posthumously.
I wondered why. It’s not as if she killed Anne off in a final act of authorial resentment stemming from decades of being stuck in harness with—or even mistaken for—her own creation. Instead, she embedded Anne and Gilbert Blythe and their many children in the larger scheme of island life, diluting their stories in a world of other characters. When I turned to a section in which the Blythes chat, fireside, Gilbert comes off as comfortably condescending and Anne is drawn and wistful, no stronger than the smoke from their chimney.
“I don’t want to know,” Mary said, plugging her ears as I started to read aloud. She had made the decision to believe that Anne had never faded—that Anne would always be a spunky girl weaving flowers for her hated red hair. I was annoyed at first: Don’t you eventually have to face the truth about people?
But maybe freezing Anne in time is a choice as valid as skipping the part where Matthew dies, or hoping (as I did) that, had L. M. Montgomery lived to write another book, some of Anne’s drama would have burned off over a hot, bright P.E.I. summer—if not all of it. “Don’t give up all your romance, Anne,” Matthew tells her after the Lady of Shallot incident. She picks herself up with dignity, still dripping with Shining Waters, still half Elaine en route to Camelot but, of course, all Anne.
That evening, walking along the narrow beach behind our dairy farm lodgings, I asked Mary the Anne Question: “Which would you rather be if you had the choice—divinely beautiful or dazzlingly clever or angelically good?”
In the book, Anne asks this of Matthew, who has clearly never envisioned himself with any of these qualities. My dad, when asked to name the one thing he’d change about himself, once drew a total blank: “I’ve never thought about it,” he claimed, spreading his arms in a gesture as bare and honest as a side of beef. Gilbert Blythe, Anne’s love interest, would probably struggle to answer for a different reason—he’s already smart, attractive, and kind. Mary said, “Hmm,” as if deliberating, then let the question drop.
The sun was setting over the Gulf of St. Lawrence, brightening the red cliffs and darkening the water. This was a good place to take pictures of ourselves, facing the sunset, then facing the sea, seafoam stinging the fly bites on our ankles. We hoped we looked okay; maybe “divinely beautiful” was our unspoken answer to Anne’s question after all, though who wants to admit that?
But Anne leaves off a whole range of other options, like tender, sunny, wisecracking, effervescent, unconventional. Though I’d tried to be Anne when I was younger, I’d also reacted against her in that I’d refused to regret my mistakes, my weirdness, my dripping clothes. I’d draped myself in dignity I didn’t necessarily feel. Perhaps when you choose to act in accordance with a story that feels out of your control, you are propelled to do strange and fanciful things: Envision yourself not as an orphan destined for drudgery, but someone with a more promising life-shape to fill; spin in your dress and become Cordelia, with an alabaster brow and puffed sleeves so large you could pull whole worlds out of them, magician-style; book a ticket to P.E.I. in an attempt to live out your childhood literary fantasies. Perhaps nothing would ever “go off inside me” unless I convinced myself it was there first, and lit the fuse on my own. But I had no answers as to which reactions were worth igniting and which were best left quiet and still, like endpapers cradling a story.
As we walked, the sand gave way to shale with its prehistoric scent and hostility to the bottoms of our feet. Down the coast were P.E.I.’s famous white “singing sands,” there to welcome you when you are done with Anne. But even as we scraped our toes on shale and slapped insects off our legs, Mary and I agreed that our beach was better—weird, wild, even otherworldly. “It just has more character than other beaches,” we kept saying, as if it required a reasoned defense. Of course, I wanted to stroll on those perfect singing sands, too. If we kept walking, we thought, maybe we’d get to them eventually.