Following in the footsteps of literary heroines

Green Gables
Green Gables

Last summer, I fulfilled a long-held ambition to visit Prince Edward Island, setting for one of my favourite childhood books, Anne of Green Gables. I wrote about it here, and was then inspired to re-read the whole Anne series. (If you’re interested, you can read what I’ve said about the books on my children’s literature blog. My opinions have changed over the years.) This got me thinking about other places that I have been inspired to visit by books.

Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt is also a children’s book, although I read it as an adult, and the heroine, Dicey Tillerman, is every bit as strong a character as Anne. At the beginning of the story, she and her younger brothers and sister are waiting for their mother in a mall parking lot. She never comes back, and thirteen year old Dicey has to decide what to do. She has $10, a road map and the last known address of Aunt Cilla, the relative they were supposed to be driving to see. Scared to ask for help in case the family is separated, she takes them on a long trek in search of Cilla, which requires all her ingenuity.  You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens next – and if you get hooked, there are several sequels. I can feel another re-reading project coming on myself.

So where did Dicey inspire me to go? Although the story opens in Connecticut, the family’s home is in Provincetown at the very tip of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. The description of the sand dunes and the sea reeled me in, and for my very first visit to the US that was where I wanted to visit. I like to think I am somewhere near Dicey’s cabin on the dunes in these pictures – yes, that young woman in the pink top is me in Provincetown in 1992. I’m not sure I can quite believe that, although the other beach picture from our second visit in 1997 is much more recognisably “me”. How did that happen in just five years?

 

Lyme Regis
Lyme Regis

Another place I longed to see was Lyme Regis in Dorset. Jane Austen fans will remember that this is where Louisa Musgrove fell from the Cobb (harbour wall) in Persuasion. However, a stronger pull was that the Cobb is also where Sarah Woodruff stands staring out to sea in John Fowles’ brilliant and complex French Lieutenant’s Woman, a Victorian novel written from a twentieth century perspective. So a few years ago I too walked the Cobb (avoiding the fall) and the coast where Charles Smithson, Fowles’ hero, searches for fossils. I read the book again and, as with the Anne books, found my opinions had changed with the passage of time – not about its quality, I enjoyed it just as much, but about the ending. Fowles provides alternatives. When I was 21, the romantic ending seemed the most attractive but in later years I wondered whether the more independent life Sarah has forged in the second ending would not be better. Again, read it for yourself and decide!

Which places have other people visited because they read about them in novels?

A day with Anne of Green Gables

I couldn’t come to Nova Scotia and not detour onto Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province and the location for LM Montgomery’s books. I read Anne of Green Gables and all the sequels as a child and have reread the first book several times since, most recently a few years ago when a prequel (Before Green Gables by Budge Wilson) came out. I was pleasantly surprised at how close to the spirit of Anne that book was, and had to read the original again to check if Wilson had got her facts right. She had. It all dovetailed perfectly, and the story ended with Anne sitting on a station platform waiting to be collected – just where the “real” story begins.

Lucy Maud Montgomery (Maud) was born on PEI, and moved to live with her grandparents in Cavendish (Avonlea in the books) before she was 2. Her mother had died and her father eventually moved to Saskatchewan to start a new life. Her grandparents’ house, where Anne of Green Gables was written, is gone now, but their descendants still own the site and run a small bookshop there. The foundations of the house are visible, set in pretty gardens.

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From there, you can walk to the post-office, which is not original, but has a display giving you an idea of Maud’s life as a young woman. Her grandparents ran the local post-office in their home, and when her grandfather died Maud gave up her job as a teacher to help her grandmother. She was thus able to send out the manuscript of her book to different publishers and deal in private with the many rejections she received before it was finally accepted. When it was eventually published in 1908 it was an instant success, but Maud said she might not have persevered if she’d had to take her parcel anywhere else to be posted.

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Behind the post-office is the church where Maud was organist and where she met her future husband when he came to be minister there. They are both buried, along with her mother and grandparents, in the cemetery across the road.

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The main event, of course, is Green Gables itself. This house belonged to relatives of Maud’s and she was there frequently. There’s an excellent visitor centre, two informative films and displays in the reconstructed farm buildings about life in the community at the turn of the last century. I think, going by John’s reaction, that it’s possible to be interested in this from a historical point of view without ever having read the books. The house is laid out as closely as possible to the descriptions in the novel. Maud confessed that she herself found it hard to admit that Anne wasn’t real so I don’t feel too bad about being sad in the kitchen and thinking to myself “This is where Matthew died”.

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Outside, you can walk two trails of about 1 km each, both of which Maud knew and which she used in the books. “The Haunted Woods” is the route to her grandparents’ house and the Balsam Hollow trail begins in “Lovers’ Lane”. There are also other museums in the area connected to LM Montgomery which we didn’t have time to visit, and we gave the Avonlea theme park a deliberate miss. However, we did go to Anne of Green Gables: The Musical in Charlottetown that evening. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was very well done – faithful to the story, although it could only deal with a selection of the events in it of course. There were perhaps too many large song and dance numbers for me – I preferred the more intimate scenes between Anne and her guardians, Matthew and Marilla, in the Green Gables kitchen, but it was great fun and the three main actors were excellent. “Anne” in particular threw herself into the role with gusto, and the other two were great at showing how much they loved her without, in their different ways, being able to express it in words. And, of course, I knew it was coming but I still had to bite my finger to avoid sobbing at Matthew’s death.

I want to read the books again – all of them – now that I can see the parallels between some of the events in the story and Maud’s own life (though so much, of course, is due to a vivid imagination.) I’d also like to read Maud’s journals, but they go on for volumes and I wasn’t about to carry them back home! I bought a slim memoir she wrote mid-career instead. All in all, for an Anne fan, this was a day not to be missed.

Practicalities: there are two ways of getting to PEI by car: over the Confederation Bridge, which was built in 1997 and stretches for 13km, or by ferry. We arrived by bridge (which involves a detour into New Brunswick, adding a fourth province to our tally this holiday) and left by boat.

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We stayed in Charlottetown, the provincial capital, which is a lovely little place to which we didn’t have time to do justice. Our B&B was again to be recommended – the Cranford Inn – and we had two good meals, in the Brick House and in Mavor’s, which is part of the complex that houses the theatre, public library and other Arts venues. We tried out some PEI wine, Rossignol Estate’s Isle St Jean, but missed out on the beer this time. On the way back from Cavendish, we drove along some lovely coastline and it is obvious that there is so much more to PEI than we saw. However, I guess the locals are used to a certain kind of tourist coming for one thing, and one thing only. Anne. With an “e”, of course.

There are a few more pictures on my PEI Pinterest board.