Roots and Branches of the Family Tree: L.M. Montgomery’s Families
Mary Beth Cavert
When L.M. Montgomery received a copy of Anne of Green Gables from her publisher, she wrote: “On the dedication page was the inscription ‘To the memory of my father and mother.’ Oh, if they were but living to be glad and proud. When I think of how father's eyes would have shone!” 1
Montgomery’s parents never read Anne of Green Gables or knew of her immense success as a writer, but other family members did. In her mother’s name itself, “Clara Woolner Macneill Montgomery,” we see the three families who were important to the author’s identity and upbringing.
Montgomery grew up in the home of her maternal grand-parents, Lucy and Alexander Macneill. Lucy Ann Woolner (1824-1911) was born in England and immigrated to North Rustico, P.E.I., with her parents, Robert and Sarah (“Sally”) Kemp Woolner in 1836.2 She married Alexander Marquis Macneill (1820–1898), of nearby Cavendish, on January 16, 1843. They lived in North Rustico, P.E.I., for the first few years of their marriage.
There were several marriages between the Macneill and Woolner families. Montgomery’s Cavendish neighbors, Margaret Rachael Woolner and Franklin Pierce Macneill, were married, and they adopted a boy from an orphan asylum. However, someone else got the boy and they got the boy’s younger sister instead. Montgomery recorded this event in her notebook of ideas in 1892 and used it as the plot point in Anne of Green Gables.3
The Woolners were industrious and intelligent early settlers in the Rustico area. Montgomery’s great-grandmother, Sally Woolner, grew up near Buckingham Palace in England and served as a nurse and midwife on Prince Edward Island. Grandmother Woolner’s skills and some medical supplies were passed down to her granddaughter, Tillie MacKenzie (Houston), Montgomery’s beloved cousin, to whom the Chronicles of Avonlea (1912) is dedicated.
Clara Woolner Macneill was born on April 5, 1853 at the Macneill home in Cavendish; she married Hugh John Montgomery on March 4, 1874 in the same house. Their only child, Lucy Maud (Lucy after her grandmother, Maud after Princess Maud of Wales) Montgomery, was born on November 30, 1874. Clara died in her parents’ home on September 14, 1876. Montgomery had no memory of her mother during Clara’s lifetime.4 Because her father was often working elsewhere, little Maud was left in the care of her Macneill grandparents and her Aunt Emily Macneill.
The dedication page Chronicles of Avonlea: "To the memory of Mrs. William A. Houston, a dear friend, who has gone beyond."
The Macneills were early settlers in Cavendish (Lot 24), starting with John and Margaret McNeill, (Alexander’s grandparents). In Montgomery’s childhood, she counted 10 families of Macneills there.5 John’s son William served in the legislature as Speaker and in the community as a magistrate. A few years after Alexander and Lucy Macneill were married, they left North Rustico and moved back to the Macneill homestead to farm and help his parents, William and Eliza.
At the Macneill homestead Montgomery was in the care, primarily, of her Aunt Emily from age two to eight. She looked back on her childhood as sometimes difficult, living and working in a household of older relatives whose expectations were not aligned with her needs for affection and encouragement. Nonetheless, she loved her home and admired the intellectual talents of her family; she respected and loved them, and grieved when they passed away.
Grandfather Macneill’s sister, Mary, was an important supporter of her grand-niece. Aunt Mary Eliza Townsend Macneill Lawson (1825-1912) lived long enough to read the first five of Montgomery’s best-selling books. Montgomery dedicated The Golden Road in 1913 to Aunt Mary because it contained stories and anecdotes that Montgomery learned from her.
The dedication page to The Golden Road: "To the memory of Aunt Mary Lawson who told me
many of the tales repeated by the Story Girl."
Lucy and Alexander had six children and each of their three daughters married grandsons of Donald and Nancy Penman Montgomery; Clara married Hugh John, Annie married John Campbell (whose mother was Elizabeth Montgomery), and Emily married John M. Montgomery. All of the men were first cousins.
Hugh John Montgomery (1841-1900), Montgomery's father, was the oldest son of Donald and Ann Murray Montgomery and was expected to run the Montgomery farm and general store in Park Corner (which Donald acquired from his aunt Jane Penman Townsend).6 Hugh was more interested in seafaring despite being shipwrecked on the Magdalen Islands in 1864. However, by the time Hugh John married Clara Macneill in 1874, his employment had become land-based.
Donald Montgomery established a career in politics and became a senator in the Canadian Senate in Ottawa. Senator Montgomery financed Hugh John’s proprietorship of a store called Clifton House and built a small cottage for him and Clara in Clifton (New London). But the prosperity in the New London Harbour area was coming to an end; the economy declined rapidly after 1875 in part because of the decline in the shipbuilding trade.7 The Montgomery store failed soon after Lucy Maud Montgomery was born.
After Clara’s death, Hugh John left P.E.I. for a job as a clerk in Boston. However, he also acquired other jobs on the Island, probably living in Park Corner, for the next five years. Montgomery remembers seeing him frequently until 1883 when he began to split his time between the Island and the Northwest Territories. In 1884 he nearly became engaged to Maud’s dear cousin, Tillie MacKenzie, before moving west.
Like his daughter, he was ambitious and a multi-tasker, but he never found the single talent that would sustain him as Maud found in writing; he held numerous positions and married again in 1887.8 Maud lived with him and his new family for one year in 1890 in Prince Albert, making her first close life-long friendships with classmates and publishing her first poems and essays. Maud’s beloved father died on January 16, 1900 but not before he saw the beginnings of his daughter’s successful career.
Montgomery dedicated many books to her relatives. Besides her parents, Woolner cousin, Tillie MacKenzie Houston, and her Aunt Mary Macneill Lawson, she honoured other relations who gave her encouragement: Beatrice Alberta (Bertie) MacIntyre, Kilmeny of the Orchard; Stella Campbell, Emily’s Quest; Alec and May MacNeill, Pat of Silver Bush; and Ernest and Myrtle Macneill Webb, Mistress Pat. She chose her closest friend and cousin, Frederica “Frede” Campbell, for two dedications in The Story Girl and Rilla of Ingleside.9