Media and illustrations by Emily Woster and Elizabeth Epperly
While Cavendish, the real-life counterpart to Anne of Green Gable’s Avonlea, was very much a Protestant, Scottish place, it was also, in many respects, a typical rural community of its era on Prince Edward Island. Scholars often refer to Cavendish as a village, but, really, it was a patchwork of farms laid out along the red clay roads, one farm rubbing shoulders with its neighbours and one community blending almost imperceptibly into the next.
By the 1890s, Cavendish had been settled for a century, long enough to have re-made the landscape and long enough to have become set in its ways.
Local geography might dictate exceptions, but typically, there was a farm every 10 chains (that is, every 660 feet) along most Island roads. The average farm size in the province in 1890 was 87 acres, each farm neatly gridded into small fields with a residue of forest to serve as a woodlot. In the absence of roads, the first homes had been built near the water, but in Montgomery’s day, the second generation of wood-frame farmhouses were most often situated halfway back from the road to afford easy access to all points of the farm.
With its ell-shape, wood-shingled exterior and steeply pitched roof, Green Gables itself is typical of Island farmhouses of the late 19th-century (except, perhaps, for the green gables!). With its wood-shingled exterior, centre dormer, and kitchen wing, the Macneill place was also typical of many nineteenth century Island farmhouses. There was no electricity to provide power or light, and there were no gasoline motors to propel farm machinery. It was a world of lamps and lanterns and candles; of horsepower and handmade tools; a world where pets were less valuable than farm animals and horses ruled all; where dogs fetched the cows, not sticks, and cats were expected to earn their keep by being good mousers.
Just as day and night dictated the daily round, so custom divided the farm between barn and house. Chores were gendered but need often trumped convention. Women frequently performed whatever farm work their strength allowed, and (less often) men might do “women’s work” around the house. When it came to haying or harvest time, the necessary work was even more democratic and made little distinction between male or female hands and backs.
The Circle of Life
Just as Cavendish farms were sturdily self-reliant, so was the community. The boundaries of people’s everyday lives were more or less dictated by the distance a person could conveniently travel in a horse and buggy (or sleigh) and return home the same day. The Island roads that so enrapture Anne were notoriously bad, mired in mud each spring and fall, choked with dust in dry summer weather, and blocked with drifting snow in winter. The railway, the deus ex machina of so many entrances and exits in Anne of Green Gables, was more reliable (in summer, at least), but it was a good half-day’s buggy ride from Cavendish to the nearest station in Hunter River. While there was occasional talk about bringing the rails closer to the Island’s North Shore, a new branch line materialized only in Montgomery’s fiction. The nearby sea (actually, the Gulf of St. Lawrence) is a constant presence in Anne and a highway of sorts, but the people of Avonlea (as of Cavendish) are farmers, not sailors. They live by the sea but are not of it.
The realities of transportation meant that most people worked, worshipped, courted, schooled, socialized, lived, and died within a few miles of home.
While it would be wrong to over-emphasize the degree of isolation and insulation from outside influences, there was a palpable difference, mentally and physically, between “here” and “there.” People entertained themselves, and Montgomery was rightly proud of the level of cultural activity in the Cavendish of her growing years: its debating and literary societies, its Bible study groups and Sunday Schools, its school concerts, church socials, and community picnics.
The Pillars of Community
If small farms were the building blocks of communities such as Cavendish, social institutions were the mortar that bound them together. Sometimes they clustered around crossroads or in little villages. Most often, though, those institutions were scattered across the countryside. There was, for instance, the general store(s), the blacksmith shop, the post office (normally located in someone’s home), the church(es), and the school. Aside from their obvious functions, these were social entrepots, places where people gathered and visited and found entertainment.
The church(es) and school, especially, were rallying points for community pride, identity, and solidarity. Church membership might not be mandatory, but it was expected, and not to attend service risked community censure (and not just by Mrs. Lynde). In the Dominion census of 1901, only seven of the 104,000 people enumerated admitted to having no religion. Roman Catholics formed the largest single denomination, about 45% of the population, but Protestants claimed the majority. Within that catch-all label, “Protestant,” the various different forms of Presbyterianism easily comprised the largest denomination.
For Victorian Protestants, religion was the sole road to salvation, and together with the Bible, the minister was expected to provide the congregation’s moral compass. But the local church was a social as well as religious hub. Much of the community’s social activity and entertainment was organized by church groups.1 Even if “congregation” and “community” were not quite synonyms in Cavendish, where there was more than one Protestant denomination present, they came close.
The bureaucracy of religion was somewhat more contractual; ministers were called, came, and eventually went (sometimes pushed out) with discouraging regularity. That process brings the fictional Anne her future mentor, Mrs. Allan (the minister’s wife), just as it brought the real-life Montgomery her future husband.
Teachers in the local one-room school came and went with a similar frequency. The Island was justly proud of its free education system, the first in the region. The “Free Schools Act ” of 1852 had done away with tuition fees for students, putting education within reach of almost every child in the colony. It also put the local schools—some 475 of them by century’s end, one every five miles or so—under the direct control of three local trustees elected2 in each community. While government paid teachers’ basic salaries and set the standard curriculum, the trustees collected dues within the school district to supplement wages and to maintain, equip, and beautify the schools, which often doubled as community halls. Prospective teachers, such as L.M. Montgomery, qualified for licenses by taking the prescribed program of study at Prince of Wales (the “Queen’s College” of Anne of Green Gables), the publicly funded college located in the provincial capital of Charlottetown.
While education officials continued to tout the Island’s “free schools,” the limitations of the educational system were becoming increasingly apparent by Montgomery’s day. It was chronically under-funded. Wealthier districts and those where education was prized supplemented salaries, and so attracted better teachers (such as Montgomery's Miss Gordon and Anne's Miss Stacy). Some farm families often didn’t see the point of education beyond basic literacy, and they took their children out of school for long stretches to help with the farm work. As a result, the education imparted in many schools was frequently unimaginative (the inspiring, nature-oriented Miss Stacy being an exception), and the education received was frequently inadequate and incomplete.
Graded schools were just coming into vogue at the turn of the century. The Avonlea School of Anne, for instance, still clings to an older, more informal system where students progressed through a series of “Readers” instead of grades. Most rural students seldom stayed past age 14 unless (like Anne and Montgomery, herself) they hoped to pass the intimidating entrance exam for admission into Prince of Wales College. Most went there to become teachers, one of a handful of respectable careers for (unmarried) women and a stepping stone for many young men. Fewer still aspired to university and professional careers. (Montgomery’s year at Dalhousie University—Anne’s Redmond College—was exceptional rather than routine.) Those that did seldom moved back to Prince Edward Island. Even so, the Cavendish of Montgomery’s day had been schooled to admire elocution and recitation, and those drawn into the world of books shared a common literary canon in the same way they shared the familiar rhythms of farm life.3
Despite the limitations of its education, the one-room school, like the church, was a shared place where lives overlapped, and where the community saw to its own needs. Another such mecca was the general store, which supplied those necessities that Cavendish farmers could not grow, raise, forage, or make for themselves. Like the blacksmith shop, the store was a masculine place in the late 19th century, since it was mostly the men who did the shopping. It was a social crossroads where gossip was traded and stories unrolled during long, leisurely, smoke-filled visits. No wonder Matthew is discombobulated by encountering a female clerk!
The post office performed a similar, though slightly different, function. In the days before radio, it was the most notable link between the local community and the outside world. And it was the repository for mail provided another forum for visiting. Indeed, living in a post office was a crucial element in the development of Montgomery’s writing life, allowing her the privacy she craved for writing to, and receiving mail from, prospective publishers, as well as access to story ideas.
Reflecting the Real
In creating the world of Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery was not writing history or creating a travelogue. Her Avonlea and Prince Edward Island are informed by her experience and coloured by her particular perspective, then translated by her writerly genius. The reflection that we see when we look in her mirror may be distorted—all mirrors in the end distort—but it bears a striking and revealing resemblance to the real place that she loved so deeply.