I have recently been enjoying L.M. Montgomery’s romantic and hilarious 1936 novel, Anne of Windy Poplars (Anne of Windy Willows outside of North America). I was interested in the book because it is one of Montgomery’s few attempts at epistolary fiction, and a late-in-life insertion into the Anne story.
In the novel, Anne has finished a B.A.—a lofty degree for a Prince Edward Island woman in the Victorian era. This was a dream that Montgomery was not able to accomplish for herself, though she did study literature at the nearest elite school, Dalhousie, after completing her teacher’s two-year teacher’s license with honours in one year (a very Anne-like and C.S. Lewis-like accomplishment). In Windy Poplars, Anne has taken a position as a Principal of a school in Summerside, PEI. The book is largely made up of love letters to her fiancé, Gilbert, while he is studying medicine in Halifax, NS. Most of the love-letteriness is excised from Windy Poplars for propriety, and the book is filled with quirky stories of Anne’s encounters with the colourful locals. It was this book that provided the content for the 1987 Kevin Sullivan production, Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel. Though not my favourite Anne book–there really isn’t any overarching plot tension, but a series of wonderful stories where Anne is a sometimes accidental hero–it is an engaging experiment late in Montgomery’s life.
As I was reading Windy Poplars the other night, I became confused. I had closed the book the night before imagining—in my erroneous brain—that Anne’s next adventure would be to the house of the Archibald MacKays. My confusion came from the fact that I am also reading Lucy Maud Montgomery’s diary that runs from her teen years through to the early days after the publication of Anne of Green Gables in 1908. As Anne is filling time teaching in Summerside while Gilbert studies medicine, Maud—as she was known—is teaching for a year in Ellerslie-Bideford, PEI, about 40kms by train West of Summerside and about 70kms from the “Avonlea” of her childhood, Cavendish, PEI. As Montgomery’s diary is filled with western PEI local encounters, I had confused and melded the two books together in my mind.
There is some reason for allowing the two to blend as Anne’s biography and personality have some overlap with her creator’s—though it was Emily of New Moon who, according to Montgomery, best captured her spirit. Unlike Anne, Montgomery did not immediately marry a Gilbert and move into a House of Dreams. Instead, after a couple of years studying a select course in literature at Dalhousie, she took small country schools in Prince Edward Island. When not teaching or caring for her aged adoptive parents (her grandparents), Montgomery was developing her writing. In the 10 years leading up to the bestselling Anne debut she published at least 100 short stories and poems. While Anne was rejected several times before publication, L.M. Montgomery proves the old adage that it usually takes a decade to become an overnight success.
15 years before this success, Maud is in rural PEI in an overfull one-room schoolhouse and settling into the community. On 6 June 1895, she wrote the diary entry I attach below. While the prose is not as polished as it would later become, we see here the short story writer that defines Montgomery’s 500 short stories and 20 novels. Evident is Montgomery’s knack for character and voice and her incessant hunger for humour—Anne of Windy Poplars is a funny book, though written at a dark period in her life.
The localness of Maud’s visit to the MacKay mansion is so evident. I wish you knew the PEI accent well enough to fill in the details, but that Island accent is missing in most of the Anne films. Beyond localness, we also see the hidden class realities of Montgomery’s early life. Although she could not afford to take a full B.A. from Dalhousie and was often short of luxuries, there was a settled and comfortable middle-class reality that she had always known—and some reason to be proud of her family heritage. The MacKay visit shows the darker side of Island poverty and poor education that sits quietly in the background of the Anne-Avonlea series—though it shows up more obviously in some of her short stories and the Emily books. These diaries can be sometimes shocking revelations of the assumptions of the age, as well as shocking pictures of the interior life that Montgomery struggled with. In this case, I am not certain that Montgomery then knew how difficult this visit would be for the Archibald MacKays, for a local poor, uneducated family to host the “schoolmarm”–though later in life as a minister’s wife no doubt she would discover the awkward and terrible sacrifices that some make to do the right thing when they have no power to do it.
I hope you enjoy this entry by the 21-year-old Lucy Maud Montgomery as she uses her diary to develop her storytelling voice in years to come. I wonder, too, if the MacKay mansion doesn’t also form the architecture of some of “Spook’s Lane” in Windy Poplars, but I haven’t found any of the MacKays in the Anne books. It looks like this journal entry was dashed off on the same evening it happened; I have changed the paragraphing a little but none of the content.
I have the experience of my life to chronicle—at least, I am very sure that one such experience is enough for a lifetime. Every tale must have a beginning, no matter how it is spelled, and I’ll have to go back to my first arrival here to come to the root of mine.
Soon after I came to Bideford I noticed on a hill not far from the P.O. [Post Office] a large, old-fashioned house of a very “shabby genteel” appearance, situated in once beautiful but now sadly neglected and overrun grounds. On inquiry I found out that said house had once belonged to a well-to-do family; but reverses came to them and after several changes, all tending downward, the property has passed into the hands of the present possessors, who, I was told, were a by-word for oddity and dirt. When Amos MacKay came to school I found that he lived at this place, old Mr. and Mrs. MacKay having adopted him. Well, last Tuesday morning Amos appeared with a letter addressed to me. I took it with inward misgiving, expecting to get a going-over for some sin of commision or omission in regard to Amos; but this is what I read.
As you have never been to see us since you came here I wish you to come and visit us and let us know by the bearer of this note when you will come.
Well, of course I had to go, so I sent word that I would go Thursday evening. To makes things pleasanter Maud Hayes and all the rest immediately began to prophesy what I would get to eat et. etc. etc., and really among them all they succeeded in nearly driving me wild.
After this I came home from school this evening I dressed and went over, wishing myself a thousand miles away. When I knocked at the front door there was great hurrying and scurrying and whispering! The door was opened and I stepped into a large dim, dusty, hall where I was met en masse by the whole family, down to Amos, who came sliding along the wall, looking like a small goblin in the extraordinary garments he wears.
The first to greet me was the mistress of the mansion herself—a withered old dame with her hair twisted around her ears in the fashion of 50 years ago. I was really frightened that she was going to kiss me but I escaped this by hastily dropping her hand and extending mine to her lord and master, who was literally a hideous old creature, all whiskers and rags. Bringing up the rear were son and daughter who did not greet me at all effusively—probably for the excellent reason that they are deaf mutes!
I was pushed, pulled and cornered in the dining room where Mrs. MacKay took my hat and left me to talk to old Archie while she got the tea. He kept up a steady stream of questions in a mumbling indistinct voice and while I floundered through my answers I kept my eyes on the table, mindful of Maud’s dismal prophecies, and saw to my dismay that “the half was never told”.
Words fail to describe my feeling as I sat down to that meal! Did they really expect me to each such stuff? I wished the floor would open and swallow me up but as it didn’t, I grimly threw myself into the fray, determined to eat something or perish in the attempt—and I rather believed I would do the latter.
The old lady poured out tea in cups which looked as if they had never been washed since the day they were bought. Inside and out they were liberally daubed with ancient tea-stains. I tried vainly to find a clean spot to drink from and, failing, shut my eyes and took a wild gulp, the taste nearly finishing what the night had begun, for it was an atrocious brew with huge lumps of sour cream floating round like ice-bergs in a muddy sea. As soon as I had partially recovered from this dose, I opened my eyes and examined the contents of my plate to see what I could dare eat. It was nearly filled with a huge lump of—well, I suppose it was intended for pie. Peering out timidly was a leathery edge of thick brown crust. Inside was a slimy mass of pale green stuff—presumably stewed rhubarb, although Maud insists that it was burdock!!—and a huge spoonful of course brown sugar mingled with sour, lumpy cream was spread over this. This inviting mixture was furthermore crowned with a huge splurge of “cranberry sarse”.
Well, that was hopeless! I did take one spoonful but had death been the penalty I could not have swallowed another. So I took a huge slice of bread fully and inch thick, plastered on some butter—such butter! I found three hairs in it:—and washed down each mouthful by a gulp of tea. I actually ate a whole slice and then, chocked down a “patty pan” [a patty-cake or cupcake]. Honestly, I was afraid I would vomit at every bite. I shall never forget that awful meal. I would not have minded the food being poor and badly cooked if it had only been clean!
When all was over we went into the parlor where I had to sit for the rest of the evening and talk to my host and hostess. The floor was covered with hideous red mats and the chairs with equally hideous crocheted tidies—all of which, the old gentleman proudly informed me were “Maggie’s work”. Dirty lace curtains hung in the windows and the walls were adorned with a marvelous assortment of newspaper prints, cards, almanacs, prize pig cuts, etc.
What they I could depict our conversation! But one example must suffice.
“D’ye understand Lating and all that?” demanded the old gentleman.
“Oh, yes,” I responded, glibly and rashly.
“What’s that?” he asked, darting a very dirty finger at the newspaper I held. “What’s that in Lating?”
“This?” I gasped feebly, wondering if he expected me to translate the whole sheet off into “Lating” extempore.
Now, considering that newspapers are rather more modern than the empire of the old Caesars’ I might be pardoned for not knowing but old Archie could not be made to understand this and my reputation for classical learning was at stake. But I solemnly aver that every word of Latin I ever knew fled from my memory except “papyrus” and I blurted it out as a drowning man might clutch at the proverbial straw.
But it answered the purpose for old Archie thought it was simply wonderful and remarked “De-e-arr, de-e-arr”, in a tone of profound marvel at my erudition!
But everything comes to an end sometime, if you only live to see it, and at last I got away and crawled home. Verily we schoolmarms have troubles of our own. And I have acutely realized the truth of Pope line, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”