“A window looking seaward” – Finding Environmental History in the Writing of L.M. Montgomery

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This is the fifth in a series of excerpts from The Greater Gulf: Essays on the Environmental History of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, recently published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.

For few things am I more thankful than for the fact that I was born and bred beside that blue St Lawrence Gulf.

LM. Montgomery, “The Alpine Path: The Story of My Career,” Everywoman’s World (June 1917)

Lucy Maud Montgomery is one of Canada’s most famous writers, and certainly the most influential in bringing Prince Edward Island into the global imagination. What kinds of landscapes come to mind when we think of her work? Apple orchards … birch woods … the Lake of Shining Waters. But Montgomery was a child of the Island’s North Shore, and so the Gulf of St Lawrence was central to her understanding of nature and the Island. 

This essay in The Greater Gulf looks for references in Montgomery’s writing to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the wider maritime world, and the environmental changes of the industrial era. With climate change, sea-level rise, and storm surges literally eroding the red shores of Cavendish, we may find clues to past connections with the water in her work.  

In the meantime, however, the image of a small and uncovetous Island became enormously appealing to people from away. Ironically, it also would become quite lucrative. “For we do not think of Abegweit in terms of commerce,” wrote L.M. Montgomery in 1939, rather disingenuously, because she had complained for fifteen years that Cavendish was overrun by tourists and her own fiction frequently featured the tourist landscapes of summer visitors.[i] As historians like Edward MacDonald and Alan MacEachern have shown, the North Shore was a popular summer destination by the late nineteenth century because of its appealing climate and uncommercialized character. As Marilla tells Anne as they drive along the shore road, in a book set in the 1870s: “There are heaps of Americans come there for the summer. They think this shore is just about right.” [ii]

J.H. Meacham & Co., Illustrated Historical Atlas of the Province of Prince Edward Island (1880), courtesy Island Imagined.

The tourist landscape supplied Montgomery with material for setting and plot: the hotels, summer homes, beach walks, etc.; the ways in which they upset the usual social dynamics of shore communities; and the differentiation between Islanders and those from away. In Anne’s House of Dreams, Owen Ford is a “newspaper man” from Toronto who boards at Four Winds to recover from typhoid. (The healthy sea air and quiet shore evidently prove quite restorative; he manages to write the best-selling great Canadian novel and win the tragic widow.) The central schism in Jane of Lantern Hill, between Toronto and the Gulf shore, is resolved when her father proposes that the family spend their “winters in Toronto, summers at Lantern Hill.” [iii] Significantly, this ensures his employment at a prominent Canadian magazine; in other words, it cements their material well-being with secure income and a second home. This seasonal migration would be the most significant element of the Island economy and the Gulf shore in the twentieth century, like other new “cottage countries” colonizing post-industrial landscapes elsewhere in North America.

Nice place you got there. Meachams Illustrated Historical Atlas (1880), courtesy David Rumsey Map Collection.

Part of the Island’s appeal – and here we do see anti-modernist escapism at play – was its ability to seem remote, though not sixty kilometres across at its widest point:

“If you had to have a house, ’Drew, why didn’t you get one near town? There’s a lovely bungalow out at Keppock … you could have rented it for the summer. I could have been near you then to help … and advise …”

“We like the north shore best. Jane and I are both owls of the desert and pelicans of the wilderness.” [iv]

Jane of Lantern Hill (1937).

A wilderness? Andrew Stuart’s turn of phrase betrays the blinkered view of seasonal residents, who see rather what they want to see in their summer homes. But it does confirm the significant erasure of an industrial shore in remaking “nature.” It also hints at the effect of this remaking on gender roles. Other scholars have noted that Montgomery’s spaces are predominantly feminine, in both their domestic orientation (gardens, kitchens) and the types of nature therein (birches, lilies). But Jane prefers to be away from the urban landscape of Charlottetown, the narrowness of the Northumberland Strait, and the suffocating, conventionally feminine, presence of her aunt. While the Gulf shore was once a site for men at work, now it offers an unusual space of freedom and solitude for women – including Anne, Emily, and Montgomery herself. A passage from her journal in 1907 reappears in Anne’s House of Dreams:

There is a great solitude about such a shore. The woods are never solitary – they are full of whispering, beckoning, friendly life. But the sea is a mighty soul, forever moaning of some great, unshareable sorrow, which shuts it up into itself for all eternity. We can never pierce its infinite mystery – we may only wander, awed and spellbound, on the outer fringe of it. The woods call to us with a hundred voices, but the sea has one only – a mighty voice that drowns our souls in its majestic music. The woods are human, but the sea is of the company of the archangels. [v]

Anne’s House of Dreams (1917)
From the PEI Museum Postcard Collection, UPEI (circa 1907).

To Montgomery the writer, the Gulf supplies a useful glimpse of the sublime to complement the more familiar and more comprehensible scale of the rural landscape.[vi] But it is precisely because it is so vast, complex, and unknown that it cannot be the usual setting for her stories. Faced with its vastness and complexity, she regularly fell back on poetic cliché (notably her endless recycling of Keats’s “opening on the foam / Of perilous seas in fairy lands forlorn”).[vii] The connection is constant but muted (the murmur of the sea in the distance), intimate yet removed (a bedroom “window looking seaward”). She can offer relatively little detail about a living Gulf, in terms of plant or animal life, just as scientists tell us how little we know about its ecologies. Even with her proximity, cultural inheritance, and depth of affection for the sea, it remained something apart. She was still a land dweller, a spectator of the maritime. Montgomery’s relationship with the Gulf was quintessentially that of humanity and the world’s oceans.


[i] L.M. Montgomery, “Prince Edward Island,” in The Spirit of Canada (1939), Reader, vol. 1, 353; Selected Journals vol. 3 (4 August 1923) 140-141; My Dear Mr. M., 6 February 1928: “Cavendish is being overrun and exploited and spoiled by mobs of tourists….” (130).
[ii] Anne of Green Gables, 43; Edward MacDonald, “A Landscape … With Figures: Tourism and Environment on Prince Edward Island,” Land and Sea, 61-77; Edward MacDonald and Alan MacEachern, “Rites of Passage: Tourism and the Crossing to Prince Edward Island,” Histoire Sociale/Social History 49:99 (2016) 289-306; Alan MacEachern, “The Landscapes of Tourism: Scenic Images in Prince Edward Island Tourism Literature,” Time and a Place, 246-263Janice Fiamengo has suggested that Montgomery – often credited with creating the most sellable image of the Island – was influenced by the language of promotional tourist literature at the time. “Towards a Theory of the Popular Landscape in Anne of Green Gables,” in Making Avonlea: L.M. Montgomery and Popular Culture, ed. Irene Gammel (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002) 229. It should be said that the character of Owen Ford (who visits from Toronto in Anne’s House of Dreams) is something of an exception, as summer visitors rarely comport themselves well next to Islanders, having more money than class or brains most of the time. “‘She must be one of the Americans down at the hotel,’ thought Marigold. ‘And she thinks it fun to fool a silly little down-easter like me if she can. But she can’t!’” (119). 
[iii] Jane of Lantern Hill, 274.
[iv] Jane of Lantern Hill, 126. To further amplify the separate status of the north shore, Jane’s parents met when her mother and grandmother first came to the Island and “were staying at the big hotel on the south shore,” after which her parents eloped to the Harbour Head on the north shore.  
[v] Anne’s House of Dreams, 55; also, Complete Journals, vol. 2, 9 October 1907 (174). See Complete Journals, vol. 2, (23 August 1901): “went for a walk down the old shore lane – a lane so remote and lonely that one can think out loud in it without being mistaken for a lunatic” (18). I do not go so far as to agree with Elizabeth Waterston that Montgomery’s references to purple seas and purple mists symbolize womanhood and feminism, in Kindling Spirit: L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (Toronto: ECW Press, 1993), 54, but it is worth noting that even the scholarship is gendered. Consider the schism between environmental history, fisheries history, etc. (overwhelmingly male) and L.M. Montgomery and Island landscapes (overwhelmingly female). 
[vi] Joy Alexander argues that the sea is minor in Montgomery’s work for two reasons: it does not fit with the small and intimate scale of the Island’s rural landscape – “This is nature close-up and intimate rather than sublime and awe-inspiring” (47) – nor with Anne, the orphan, longing for order and stability. See Joy Alexander, “Anne with Two ‘G’s: Green Gables and Geographical Identity,” in 100 Years of Anne with an ‘E’: The Centennial Study of Anne of Green Gables, ed. Holly Blackford (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2009) 41-60. Anne Furlong explains that long views are rare on Prince Edward Island “the view is stopped by the crest of the hill, or the other side of a valley; the lack of elevation confines the vision to the local and immediate.” Montgomery’s narrative style, she argues, mimics this by segmenting views into small, manageable parts, or focusing on bends in the road and other spaces that cut our view. “Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Island” (2014). Irene Gammel suggests that because Montgomery was able to experience the woods in multisensory ways – through sound, touch, smell, and sight – the woods were more vivid and thus more appealing to her. It is interesting to speculate how our limited physical experience of a particular environment (like an oceanic littoral) affects our empathy toward or curiosity about that environment.
[vii] John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale,” 1820. By my count so far, it appears in Anne of the Island, Anne of Windy Poplars, Anne’s House of Dreams, Emily Climbs, Jane of Lantern Hill, Magic for Marigold, Kilmeny of the Orchard, and Pat of Silver Bush. 

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Professor of History at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where I revel in Canadiana and environmental history. Also a lover of exploring, maps, Jane of Lantern Hill, and Scandinavia.

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