The Author of ‘Anne of Green Gables’ Lived a Far Less Charmed Life Than Her Beloved Heroine

L.M. Montgomery created a classic of children’s literature, but what about her lesser-known works?

a black and white portrait of a child
Lucy Maud Montgomery, 14. During this period, as she put it in her diary, she had begun to harbor “dreams of future fame.” Courtesy University of Guelph

On a warm, golden day in early August, I sat by the lake in the area of Park Corner on Prince Edward Island, where Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of the beloved 1908 children’s novel Anne of Green Gables, spent her childhood summers. Sunlight glittered on the water; a soft breeze played among the reeds and feathery grasses. The view from my picnic blanket inspired stories and settings that have enraptured readers worldwide for more than a century. Montgomery’s tale of the imaginative orphan Anne Shirley captured the minds of so many people that she and her red-headed heroine quickly became global literary sensations.

a display case hold archival photographs in a museum
At the Green Gables Museum, visitors can see photos of Montgomery’s nemesis, Aunt Emily, with her husband and children, photographed at their New Moon homestead. Courtesy V.M. Braganza

In the palpable enchantment that lingers over the Park Corner house, originally the home of the novelist’s Aunt Annie and Uncle John Campbell, Montgomery found a haven to give her imagination free rein. She later called the house “the wonder castle of my childhood.” It is now the Anne of Green Gables Museum, owned by George Campbell and managed by Pamela Campbell; the two siblings are great-grandchildren of Annie and John Campbell.

Today, of course, Montgomery’s name is nearly inseparable from Anne of Green Gables, and many fans think of her and Anne as the same person. But by the author’s own account, readers have been wrong for more than a century.

a black and white portrait of a person wearing glasses
Montgomery in 1908, the year she published Anne of Green Gables. Courtesy Canada.CA

“People were never right in saying I was ‘Anne,’” she told a fellow writer, Ephraim Weber, in a 1921 letter, “but, in some respects, they will be right if they write me down as Emily.” She was referring to Emily of New Moon, a later novel, the first in a series about the difficulty of making it as a young female writer.

I had come to Park Corner to walk in Montgomery’s footsteps and see the world from which she spun stories that blended fantasy and reality. Yet her fiction, synonymous with bright, idyllic settings and bubbly heroines, also had a darker side—and the picturesque beauty of Park Corner felt at odds with the sober vibe of Emily (1923), her bleakest and most serious book.

“You should go to New Moon,” Pamela Campbell said when I confessed my interest in the lesser-known Emily. The house, she said, “is just down the road.”

On February 15, 1922, at her home in Ontario, Canada, Montgomery set her pen down in triumph.

“Today I finished Emily of New Moon, after six months writing,” she announced in her journal. “It is the best book I have ever written—and I have had more intense pleasure in writing it than any of the others—not even excepting Green Gables. I have lived it, and I hated to pen the last line and write finis.”

A century after its 1923 publication, Emily is powerful and disquieting, a view into the author’s sometimes embattled life. The novel and its two sequels tell the story of Emily Starr, a young girl who weathers prejudices and challenges to achieve her dream of becoming a published author.

Emily, like Anne, is an orphan, but there the resemblance ends. Anne finds not only a home, but “kindred spirits” who fall under the spell of her gift for seeing beauty and possibility in the world. In the Anne novels, the emotional complexity of Montgomery’s art lies in the way that adult characters who are hardened in some way—the stern Marilla, Anne’s adoptive mother, or the rigid widow Aunt Josephine Barry—become more compassionate human beings under Anne’s influence. Montgomery’s perceptive insights into such relations became her trademark.

details inside a school house
Montgomery taught at the Lower Bedeque School on Prince Edward Island for six months beginning in 1897. Restored in the 1980s, the school is now a museum dedicated to Montgomery, with period items that evoke student life. Courtesy V.M. Braganza

In Emily, though, generational relations play out differently. After her father dies, Emily is adopted by her dead mother’s family, the Murrays of New Moon, and finds herself at the mercy of her strict Aunt Elizabeth, who forbids her from reading or writing stories. Emily finds it “maddening that nobody could see that she had to write.” She is obsessed with words—their sound, their music and the magic of finding the right ones, which sparks a thrill of inspiration that she calls “the flash.” Aunt Elizabeth’s harshness is calculated to clip the wings of Emily’s imagination.

“No Murray of New Moon had ever been guilty of writing ‘stories,’” the narrator of Emily tells us. “It was an alien growth that must be pruned off ruthlessly. Aunt Elizabeth applied the pruning shears; and found no pliant, snippable root but that same underlying streak of granite.”

Like the novels of Louisa May Alcott or Mary Wollstonecraft, Emily made the (then-revolutionary) point that young women’s literary ambitions deserved to be taken seriously. Emily’s “granite” stubbornness emboldens her to find ways of defying her aunt’s ban on words, from spending her egg money on paper to scribbling poems on old “letter-bills”—government-issued records of the mail delivered to post offices.

“Aunt Elizabeth is very cold and hawty,” Emily writes in a diary. When Aunt Elizabeth insists on reading her private writing, Emily burns the diary, mentally adding to the entry in her mind, “and she is not fair.”

To some extent, Montgomery did base the Anne and Emily characters on herself, even inserting passages from her diaries wholesale into the novels. But while Anne was a charmed story, Emily was in many respects closer to the author’s reality. After her mother died in 1876, Montgomery’s father left his infant daughter in the care of her maternal grandparents in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island. The elderly couple were a far cry from Marilla and Matthew, the brother and sister who adopt Anne. The young Maud’s willful, imaginative personality frequently clashed with her grandparents’ strict conservatism.

“Grandfather Macneill, in all the years I knew him, was a stern, domineering, irritable man,” Montgomery wrote in her own diary in 1905. “Grandmother was kind to me ‘in her own way,’” she continued. “Her ‘way’ was very often torture to me and I was constantly reproached with ingratitude and wickedness.”

Another adult who played a formative role in Montgomery’s childhood was her maternal aunt, Emily Macneill Montgomery, who babysat young Maud before marrying and moving to a new homestead—a house in Malpeque called New Moon.

But Aunt Emily is not, as her name might suggest, Montgomery’s inspiration for the heroine in New Moon. In fact, she probably inspired quite a different character: the “hawty” Aunt Elizabeth.

“As for Aunt Emily,” Montgomery wrote in the same 1905 diary entry, “I have never cared for her. She jars on me in every fibre; she has no intellectual qualities; she is unsympathetic, fault-finding, nagging and ‘touchy.’ I can never forgive her for the sneers and slurs she used to call upon my childish ambitions and my childish faults.” These lines describe the fictional Aunt Elizabeth to a T.

By the time Montgomery began writing Emily, in August 1921, she had already shot to international fame. But the road to renown had been fraught. In her 1917 memoir, The Alpine Path, Montgomery recalled a poem that she had clipped from a women’s magazine as a child and pasted into her writing portfolio for inspiration. Echoing her own ambitions, the poem’s speaker wondered,

How I may reach the far-off goal

  Of true and honored fame,

And write upon its shining scroll

  A woman’s humble name?

The question is a poignant reminder of the obstacles early 20th-century women writers faced—even those who, like Montgomery, defied the norms that curtailed the aspirations of many women. During this era, Canadian law often did not recognize women as “persons,” barring them from participating in political life and sharply limiting their financial independence.

Aunt Emily’s animus toward her niece’s achievements became family lore. Pamela Campbell recalls stories her mother told her: On one occasion, Aunt Emily began to read one of Montgomery’s books but threw it down in disgust.

“There was [another] book [Montgomery] wrote called A Tangled Web,” Campbell adds, “and Emily started to read it and said, ‘I’m ashamed I know her!’ and shut the book.”

The source of Aunt Emily’s antagonism toward Montgomery remains unclear. Campbell recalls, “My mother thought maybe there was resentment. Maybe Aunt Emily saw herself in the book.” To this day, Montgomery’s descendants report a family rumor that Aunt Emily herself longed to be a writer, so perhaps what she “saw” in Emily was a version of her own disappointed hopes and dreams. Poignantly, Montgomery’s colossal achievements came at the price of ostracism and censure from members of her own family.

I drove until the road met the ocean. At last, I spotted the house from behind. There seemed to be a shadow over it. Perched high atop the red cliffside, stark and flanked by firs, New Moon would only be fully visible from the ocean, so I waded out into Malpeque Bay. As the chilly wavelets crept up my ankles and I turned back to face the house, I felt a surge of gratitude toward the author who had climbed the “Alpine Path,” whose stories had defined my own childhood and inspired me to become a writer. A century after Emily’s release, she has not only inscribed “a woman’s humble name” on readers’ hearts: Her vision has shaped a future in which readers like me could dare to imagine and to write.

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This article is a selection from the April/May 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine

Novel Readership

Why Japanese readers became some of Montgomery’s most devoted admirers

By Brandon Tensley

a portrait of a women from Japan and a book cover
Left: Translator Hanako Muraoka. Right: A first Japanese edition of Anne of Green Gables. Confederation Centre of The Arts; Courtesy Hanako Muraoka Library
While Anne of Green Gables was translated into more than 36 languages, perhaps its most ardent fan club emerged in the 1950s in Japan.

Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, the Japanese writer and translator Hanako Muraoka was given a copy of the book in English by a Canadian friend. Working at night and in secret—Muraoka feared that being caught with a book from an enemy nation might mean prison—she lovingly translated the novel. Her version was finally published in Japan in 1952, under the title Akage no An (“Red-Haired Anne”) and became a best seller. It began entering school curricula that same decade, and in the 1990s, a theme park in the Hokkaido prefecture unveiled a replica of the Green Gables house.

Why did Anne become such a sensation in Japan?

“Earlier readers of Akage no An, in the 1950s and ’60s, strongly identified with the orphan Anne’s difficult situations, as the war produced more than 120,000 orphans,” says Yuka Kajihara, an L.M. Montgomery researcher who works at a library in Toronto. “Japanese readers must have welcomed Anne’s determination and optimistic nature and the model she represented for young Japanese women, and some men, on how to build themselves new lives and futures amid the chaos of postwar Japan.”

Terry Dawes, a writer who grew up on Prince Edward Island and has researched Anne’s Japanese fandom for years, adds that Shinto, Japan’s ancient national faith, might play a role.

The novels feature “long passages where [Anne] is just communing with nature,” Dawes says. “She has a kind of spiritual connection with things like the water, the rocks, the soil, the sky. I think that for people raised under Shintoism, that [connection] makes sense.”

Anne’s popularity among Japanese readers persists today. If you hop on an airplane to Prince Edward Island, Dawes says, you’ve got a good chance of being seated beside a Japanese mother and daughter, on their way to explore the place where Anne’s story was created.

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