The House of Home: Montgomery’s Macneill Grandparents’ Homestead
Mary Beth Cavert
Montgomery wrote the first lines of Anne of Green Gables at her beloved childhood home, the Macneill farm, in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island. She was surrounded by orchards and gardens which she described in Anne to the delight of readers. Montgomery was the fourth generation in the Macneill family to live in the house and the last one; the house was closed after she moved to Ontario in 1911 and removed in 1920 1, leaving only the foundation and kitchen for visitors 2 to see now.
The structure of the Macneill house was a “centre dormer.” This simple design, built around a central chimney, was very common in the Prince Edward Island countryside in the first half of the 1800s.3 It was clad with shingles as seen in the surviving kitchen section and in a photograph from the 1890s. The house was built by Montgomery’s great-grandfather, William Simpson (Speaker) Macneill, sometime after his marriage in 1806.
Montgomery lived with her grandparents, Lucy and Alexander, on the homestead beginning in 1876, after her mother’s illness and death. The farm was her home until 1890, when she spent a year with her father in Prince Albert, (in what would become) Saskatchewan. During the next seven years, she acquired more education and training and, until the death of her grandfather in 1898, worked as a school teacher in three schools. Thereafter, she lived with her grandmother in Cavendish until her grandmother’s death and her marriage to Ewan Macdonald in 1911.
The Macneill house was not simply where she lived, it was an intimate part of her emotional and creative life. Homes were an essential element of her well-being and bonding with them was important, as evidenced by the abundance of photographs she took of the places and rooms where she lived and the number of homes featured, almost as characters, in her fiction.
The title Anne of Green Gables reflects Montgomery’s ties to place. Although the book title is similar to the very popular Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (published earlier, in November 1903), Montgomery and her publishers fully embraced this successful identity. Half of her book titles were formed with “[a person] of [a place]”: Anne of Green Gables (1908), Anne of Avonlea (1909), Kilmeny of the Orchard (1910), Anne of the Island (1915), Rilla of Ingleside (1921), Emily of New Moon (1923), Pat of Silver Bush (1933), Anne of Windy Poplars (1936), Jane of Lantern Hill (1937), and Anne of Ingleside (1939).
The Macneills of Cavendish
The Macneill farm was in the center of the Cavendish community, at the intersection of an east–west road leading to her Woolner relatives in one direction and her Montgomery relatives in the other, and a north road to the shore and to the train station in the opposite direction. Her grandfather (and later she and her grandmother) operated the post office from their kitchen, making her home a crossroad for hearing news and noticing gossip, if one were so inclined.
Interiors and Exteriors
It was the exterior life of the farm that fully nourished Montgomery and compelled her to include this aspect of herself in her Anne story. Readers who loved Green Gables in their youth return to read it again to immerse themselves in the author’s descriptions of nature, including gardens, trees, and orchards.
Montgomery’s own gardens were a treasure for her, and some of her favorite books were about gardens.5 She frequently shared gardening tips with her friend, George Boyd MacMillan, during their long correspondence. Her lengthy description of an ideal garden in her journal on August 28, 1901 ended with, “Dear old gardens! The very breath of them is a benediction.”6
Anne’s trees and orchards grew from the Macneill orchards. Alexander’s parents planted an orchard in the front of the house. Lucy and Alexander planted apple trees behind their house and named the trees after their children. They formed a beloved place which young Montgomery called “The Bower.” Montgomery’s gable window, where she wrote much of Anne of Green Gables, looked over that enchanting view.
I am writing here by the window of my dear old room. It is a veritable little haven of rest and dreams to me, and the window opens on a world of wonder and beauty. Winds drift by with clover scent in their breath; the rustle of leaves comes up from the poplars, and birds flit by in joyous vagrance. Below is a bosky old apple orchard and a row of cherry trees along the dyke where the old tamarack stands guard. Beyond it green meadows slope down to a star-dusted valley of buttercups and past that wide fields stretch up again to the purple rim of wooded hills in the background. 7
The Birthplace of Anne of Green Gables
Montgomery stitched together details from many sources for her descriptions in her books—readers can rarely find one place that is not a composite of her observations and experience (one exception is Lover’s Lane). The title of Anne of Green Gables is purposeful, for it ties the main character to a specific place and identity.
The fictional place is a rendering of real places the author cared about. Green is the color of choice because it represents the benign and beautiful natural and domesticated environment of the story; green is paired with gables because it is alliterative and because gables are upward reaching and hold rooms that afford views that invite imagination. The Macneill farm with its orchards, gardens, and gabled window was truly a haven for L.M. Montgomery’s imagination.