The Garden of the Gulf: Montgomery’s Prince Edward Island
Media and illustrations by Emily Woster and Elizabeth Epperly
All but one of the 20 novels L.M. Montgomery published in her lifetime are set, wholly or in part, on Prince Edward Island. So brilliantly did she evoke a proud people deeply rooted in a pastoral landscape that PEI has become almost another character in her fiction.
There is a real Prince Edward Island behind the fictional Prince Edward Island of Anne, and the version that Anne offers is both true to, and limited by, Montgomery’s experience as a white, female, European-descended, Scots Presbyterian living in a long-settled rural community. While Montgomery was an independent thinker, she was also heir to the deeply rooted values, attitudes, opinions, and, yes, prejudices of her time and place. They colour the palette from which she paints her portrait of Prince Edward Island.
Cradled in the lower reaches of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Prince Edward Island of the late 19th century was the newest province (1873) in the still new Dominion of Canada (1867). Yet, it had been 150 years a European colony already, and 10,000 years home to the region’s Indigenous peoples. And so, it felt at the same time both young and old. Parts of the province were still being cleared for farming, but many places, such as Montgomery’s Cavendish, had been settled for over a century, their forests painfully converted into a tumbled, green countryside of hedge-rowed fields and bounded woodlots that looked much like southern England. It was that countryside of small fields and gardens, homesteads and villages, sea and sky, that Anne—and readers—fall passionately in love with.
Already, by 1900, the fledgling tourism industry was calling Prince Edward Island “the Garden of the Gulf.”
The Island is a small place, barely 224 km (140 mi) from tip to tip, and only 556,000 hectares (1.4 million acres), yet a world unto itself, as islands often are. It had begun as sediment washed off ancient mountains some 300 million years before. Wind, rain, and glaciers had slowly ground its soft, red sandstone into a layer of sandy, acidic soil so that, alone among Canadian provinces, virtually its entire landmass was arable land. That fact had shaped its industries and its people. Farming was the principal occupation, less occupation, really, than way of life, for 85% of Islanders. And farms constituted the basic DNA for the Island’s society and culture. By 1900, there were 14,000 of them, ranging in size from a few acres to a few hundred.
Working in the Garden
Farming and fishing
The iron-rich red soil that sparks Anne’s imagination was forgiving, if not exactly fertile. Most farms were subsistence operations with any excess shipped out on the coasting schooners that fed each fall at little wharves all along the coast. The crop that grew best of all was potatoes, and in Anne of Green Gables Matthew markets his surplus, but it would be the 1920s before the export of high-quality seed potatoes turned the province into “Spud Island.” The farm specialization of the 1890s was actually dairy to supply community-owned cheese and butter factories, but Montgomery passes over such developments in the same way that she often refers to Matthew’s farm work but seldom describes it.
Not all farms—and not all farmers—were created equal, and behind the superficial egalitarianism of the Island’s farmscape lurked considerable variability, depending on soil quality, aptitude, attitude, and circumstance. Montgomery’s Avonlea, a version of her beloved Cavendish, reads as a prosperous farm community. On either side of Cavendish, though, lay communities whose residents could only make ends meet by supplementing their farm income with other work.
Once, the Island’s busy shipyards had turned out more vessels per capita in the 19th century than any part of the British Empire outside of Britain itself. But in Montgomery’s childhood, shipbuilding had quickly waned, and it finds no place in her fiction. Instead, many Islanders went off to work in the lumberwoods of New Brunswick or Maine each winter, when most farms were idle. By the turn of the century, they were beginning to head West as well, on special “Harvest Excursion” trains, to help with the Prairie wheat harvest.
Back at home, youngsters with few prospects, such as Jerry Buote, hired out on local farms or (as Marilla complains) got temporary work in spring or fall at one of the hundreds of lobster factories that sprang up along Island coasts during the great lobster boom of the early 1880s. By 1900, there were 250 of them, and lobster was the unrivaled king of the Island’s fishing industry. For teenage girls, widows, and unmarried women, too, working at the lobster factory was a coveted source of income. Meanwhile, many farmers (though none in Montgomery’s Cavendish) precariously balanced seasonal lobster fishing with subsistence farming in the perpetual struggle to make ends meet. Most often, fishers and factory workers lived “at the shore,” forming transient micro-societies. 1
Land and sea
Montgomery’s fiction shows little knowledge of, or interest in, the workings of the Island’s second most valuable industry—fishing—even though nearby Rustico had long been one of the province’s chief fishing stations. The romantic white sails of her marine landscapes are never mundane lobster boats (the "Lily Maid's" barge excepted!) or even the less prosaic mackerel schooners that populated the North Shore of her childhood, but imagined voyagers to distant lands, and fishing is merely the incidental backdrop to Montgomery’s vivid tales of shipwreck and nautical disaster.
A third Island industry peeps out of Montgomery’s fiction, especially Anne of Green Gables, though it is seldom mentioned by name. Tourism was still in its infancy on Prince Edward Island when Montgomery was imagining the world of Anne, but it was beginning to stir popular interest as a potential source of seasonal income. The White Sands Hotel, the cultured stage for one of Anne’s early triumphs, is a clear reference to the Seaside Hotel in Rustico, one of the Island’s premiere summer resorts in the 1890s. That many of its summer guests were actually from Charlottetown or Summerside rather than Toronto, Montreal, or Boston masked the emerging importance of the “summer trade” as a potential source of seasonal income. Already, though, the Island’s tourism industry was beginning to focus on the North Shore of the province, with its cooling sea breezes (medicinal “ozone,” as contemporaries termed it), sandy beaches, warm(ish) water, and pastoral scenery.2
Soon enough, Anne herself and the places associated with Montgomery’s novels would become a major attraction for visitors, and that, paradoxically, would eventually transform her Cavendish into something else. In the looking glass world of Anne’s Island, however, the White Sands Hotel reflects less the potential power of tourism than a broader, more cosmopolitan world beyond the Island’s borders. Already, in ever increasing numbers, Islanders were setting out to find it.
Leaving the Garden
Islanders’ seasonal search for work was for many the first step towards permanent departure. Although it does not feature in Anne’s Island, the real Prince Edward Island of the late 19th century was confronting an epidemic of out-migration. Many out-migrants went West, but even more of them moved to the “Boston States,” that is, the northeastern US. In the second Anne novel, Anne of Avonlea (1909), Charlotta the Fourth has three older sisters who have gone to Boston to work and to marry.
At first, newspapers blamed the exodus on the half-laudable wanderlust of youth rather than lack of opportunity, but as the river of out-migration swelled to a flood in the 1880s and ‘90s, bemusement turned to alarm. Alone among Canadian provinces, the Island’s population began to fall, despite its booming birthrate. From 109,000 in 1891, the provincial population dipped to 103,000 a decade later, and to 94,000 in 1911. Rural communities, especially, declined, Cavendish among them. The loss of so many young, ambitious, often talented people (Montgomery and her husband included) had far-reaching consequences for the Island’s economy and society, but also its culture, leaving it less confident and, arguably, more set in its ways, yet more intimately connected with the wider world.
Out-migration also fixed in reluctant expatriates’ hearts an indelible image of “the Home Place” that strongly resembled Anne’s Island. “My parents came from Downhome,” recalled the son of Islanders who had emigrated to New England. “It was a place far away. I would never get there. It was a place like heaven or the garden behind the moon.” 3 The expatriate Montgomery recognized that nostalgia and lived it herself, and it is ever present in her fiction.
For her, “Home” was a physical and emotional space, and like Anne, she was fierce in her love for it.