Happy Birthday L.M. Montgomery! Born on the Imaginative North Shore of Prince Edward Island, My Home

Despite its global celebrity, Prince Edward Island’s north shore remains a largely unknown treasure. With hundreds of inlets, creeks, wharves, harbours, river valleys, hillside views, and quaint communities to explore, visitors who come here expecting to “see the Island” in a day or two are often disappointed. I would not wish our guests to miss miles of white sandy beaches juxtaposed by jagged red seaside cliffs.

Everyone should visit the Green Gables house in Cavendish and walk the boardwalk in North Rustico, stopping to eat at one of the artisan restaurants or take a harbour cruise or see a play at the Watermark Theatre. Through federal support of the fishing industry, investment by the arts community, the long memories of old friends, and the slow discovery of a place of beauty, the rugged hills and poverty-stricken lanes that made up my Rustico schoolboy days have been transformed into a village of coastal charm.

The Island treasures “on the map” are worth visiting, but the eye hungry for beauty should leave time for wasted hours in the corner and harbour and hamlets of our northern shore.

I still find my own New Glasgow breathtakingly beautiful. 200 years ago, left their farms off the Clyde some 15 or 20 miles from Glasgow, bringing only a few things with them: a fervent religious devotion, a commitment to hard work, a few tools, books, and household memories, and the names “River Clyde” and “New Glasgow” themselves.  While my great-great-great-great grandfather was apparently not worth taxing in the Parish of Houston, Renfrewshire, he managed to find passage to Prince Edward Island in 1820. And somehow in that connection, he married a Catherine Anne Stevenson, whose father became the pastor at the community church in New Glasgow. Though we late-1900s Dickiesons were the heathens to which others would find themselves next door, as a child, I played in the church that Elder Stevenson helped build. In ill-fitting Sunday clothes, I watched the ceiling fan while preachers preached and my grandmother prayed I would be still for just a few moments more. Later, still un-still but eagre, I served that church. My wife and I were married there and ordained there, and it is still a place I think of as home.

10 or 20 miles seaward of my childhood home, there are treasures many wayfarers miss. Though there are few places as Instagram-ready as French River, Prince Edward Island, Stanley Bridge is a brilliant harbour with a wide-mouth bay, archipelagos of dunes and wooded lands jutting into the sea, and a long, beautiful river to explore. Moving inland and east up Trout River, there are miles of wooded trails with red-dirt roads and the little corner of Millvale. I miss the mill, the smell of sawdust and the busy movement of laughing men working speedily inches from what seemed to me then–and still seems to me today, in memory–to be monstrously dangerous saws.

If you were to leave my old family farm in New Glasgow by car, you would pass by my church–what L.M. Montgomery somewhat disdainfully called the “New Glasgow Baptist Church”–as well as the famous Lobster Suppers and Toy Store. After about 8 hilly miles you would come to Stanley Bridge. Turning northeast would bring you within a few minutes into Cavendish, with the National Park along the shoreline, the Green Gables house inland, and Lucy Maud Montgomery‘s homestead at the centre of the village. A 3-mile drive directly west from Stanley Bridge along the 100-acred lots measured out from the river will take you to what I think of as the New London corner–though I don’t know if that’s its real name. Just 4 miles north of the corner is the postcard harbour of French River, and another two miles takes you to Park Corner, a family home where Montgomery felt love and friendship. The Park Corner home would become the image of “Silver Bush” in the 1930s.

Travelling west and south from New London corner will take you to Kensington, the train station where a fifteen-year-old Maud Montgomery would board a train to the West to reunite with her father. It is an auspicious occasion–not least because she met her grandfather, “Senator” Donald Montgomery, with Prime Minister John A. Macdonald and his wife, Lady Agnes. For Montgomery lovers, however, the following year in Saskatchewan would be decisive in Montgomery’s personal and literary life.

But on this day, the anniversary of the birth of Prince Edward Island’s most famous author and undoubtedly the Canadian writer with the most global reach, it is important to remain for a moment at New London corner. Like many PEI villages, New Londoners have extended their hospitality to visitors. There is a tea room, places to buy coffee or ice cream, historic venues for weddings, and nearby places to eat. The Potter’s Parlour is worth a visit for its coffee and craftsmanship, and The Table is a gourmand destination, a “Culinary Studio” in a beautifully renovated United Church–a newer building for what had, I presume, previously been a Methodist congregation, established in one of the earliest areas for Methodist preaching in PEI. As the St. John’s Presbyterian Church just a moment’s walk from the corner was built after Montgomery was born, I do not know where she was christened. However, the church captures the feel of Victorian rural PEI life well at the heart of New London.

And, at this same corner, Lucy Maud Montgomery was born on this day, Nov 30th, in 1874, in a small one-and-one-half-storey cottage, adjacent to the store on the corner. Secured by her grandfather, Senator Montgomery, this cozy home was where “Maud” spent her first months of life until her mother, Clara, died of tuberculosis 21 months later. Not long after, Montgomery‘s father would move to the Northwest Territories, Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, following hopeful ventures for financial success. Maud would live with her mother’s people, raised by her elderly grandparents a short walk from the corner in Cavendish.

In the 19th century, when folks were calling this area Clifton, no one could have imagined the global impact this lonely orphan of a child would have. Her early days were as inauspicious as mine, just 10 miles southeast and 101 years later. L.M. Montgomery would go on to be the author of 20 novels, 530 short stories, 500 poems, and dozens of essays. She was a church organist and Sunday School teacher, a director of plays and fund-raisers, a life-long correspondent and journal writer, and a benefactor to her rural Canadian kin. She was a minister’s wife, a friend of farmers and Prime Ministers, a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, an officer of the Order of the British Empire, and a lover of cats. Montgomery is probably in the 100 million club in terms of books sold, and according to this research, Anne of Green Gables is Canada’s most translated book (in at least 36 global languages, see photos below).

And, recruited by a well-meaning United Church minister in the 1980s, in Montgomery’s Cavendish church, I once gave an underwhelming reading of “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night….” punctuated by “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy” shouted with red-face exuberance. In that church some forty years earlier, Montgomery had, in 1942, been laid to rest in a state funeral–a rare occasion in Canada’s far-flung rural reaches.

So, when you have the chance one summer day, I would encourage you to visit the Lucy Maud Montgomery Birthplace museum at Clifton corner. It is an authentically decorated Victorian home, painted white and green as an homage to Green Gables. There is a replica of Montgomery‘s quite tiny wedding dress, as well as a number of her personal scrapbooks where she pasted many of her stories, poems, and personal memories. It is a pretty little place that gives me a sense of what that home might have been.

More than the museum, however, is the north shore drive. That our little Prince Edward Island could produce one of the world’s most transformative modern authors is a complete mystery until you can see what Montgomery saw–the landscapes and seashores and skyways, the stunning geography of land brimming with imaginative possibilities, and the places that Montgomery called home. I am afraid to think about how much of the shoreline has changed because o Hurricane Fiona earlier this autumn. However, PEI’s beauty is ever-changing, and no doubt the charm and allure with remain.

So on what Anne might call an auspicious moment, I wish our own Lucy Maud Montgomery a happy birthday, and invite lovers of her writing to come and see the real-life imaginative world behind her works.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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18 Responses to Happy Birthday L.M. Montgomery! Born on the Imaginative North Shore of Prince Edward Island, My Home

  1. djhockley123 says:

    Well written! Tourism PEI may well come knocking at your door!

    Like

  2. bcjcw1 says:

    I am glad I took time this past summer to visit the manse and church at Leaskdale, Ontario. It gave me a new perspective on the challenges she encountered through the her personal circumstances and literary career. Looking out the upper hall window there, past her sewing machine to the road where her boys returned from school, I imagine her heart ached for home many times. Though it is a pleasant prospect, it hasn’t the “scope for imagination” that you have described in your post today.

    Like

    • That is an intriguing way of seeing things. I think Montgomery came to love aspects of the beauty of the Credit river valley and other Ontario places. This was, though, the place where her soul was fed.

      Like

  3. robstroud says:

    I love the “global celebrity” descriptive… just like my hometown of Poulsbo “Little Norway” Washington, which was actually visited by the King of Norway some years ago…

    Like

  4. danaames says:

    So evocative, Brenton. Makes me want to get on a plane, even in winter.

    We don’t give importance to place anymore, and how much it influences us (when given a chance – not so common anymore in our age of mobility). It’s lovely to also see how much the old buildings are constructed with that sense of place and fittingness in mind.

    Dana

    Like

  5. milljud says:

    So good, thank you!
    Some day…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. milljud says:

    So good, thank you!
    Some day…

    Like

  7. John Gough says:

    This is another brilliant celebration, Brenton, of L.M. Montgomery, and your home. If you ever need another job, then promoting Prince Edward Island and L.M. Montgomery would be right there, waiting!!!!
    Your post is SO enticing to potential visitors!!!!!!
    Of course, Prince Edward Island is not the whole of L.M. Montgomery’s life and places. You have probably explained this before, but a biography / time-line of L.M.M. and her locations would be helpful, with a timeline, showing her major books, and places.
    I wonder, Brenton, how you see, retrospectively, L.M. Montgomery as an ordained minister, addressing her parish through her specific minister-like comments in her novels, or other writing.

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    • I did mean to entice!
      I have been think a lot about Montgomery and ministry–her own roles, her perspectives, and her role as a wife of an ordained minister. I’m not ready to speak to it yet, but I’m in the mind frame for it.

      Like

  8. Ocean Bream says:

    What a glorious post to come by this evening while I drink my tea. Anne of Green Gables and its sequels had such a massive impact on me growing up and the books remain to this day my favourite novels ever written. Anne’s voice was my inner voice growing up. I’ve pretty much memorised Anne’s thoughts and phrases. Halfway across the globe I have been hankering to visit Prince Edward Island. I savoured every work. You’re incredibly lucky to be able to live and grow up in such a beautiful place! I think perhaps in some way it’s more beautiful because of the love with which Montgomery wrote about it? Either way, it’s definitely on my list of places to drag my husband to one day.

    Like

  9. Pingback: A Quick Note on the Death of Dreams and Private Career College Corruption | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  10. Annette says:

    Thank you so much. I really enjoyed this post!

    Liked by 1 person

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