Straw Hat with Red Plaits

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Last summer, during a trip to Canada’s maritime provinces, my husband and I went on a literary pilgrimage. After attending a wedding in Nova Scotia we drove northwards across the Confederation Bridge to Canada’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island. From the bridge we drove further north still, up to the Gulf of St Lawrence. We were looking for a settlement called Cavendish, and for a small, green-gabled farmhouse that draws visitors from all over the world.

I am not a particularly gifted navigator, but there was little chance of us getting lost on Prince Edward Island. Cavendish takes its role as a place of pilgrimage seriously, and its most famous attraction, the farmhouse which inspired L. M. Montgomery to write Anne of Green Gables, is impossible to miss. However, as we turned in to the Green Gables site, I was more than a little disappointed by the disjunction between reality and the house of my imagination. Nowhere in my Green Gables were there billboards advertising the Avonlea Village Experience; nor were there signs marking the start of a Lovers Lane Trail. My husband’s response to the overcrowded carpark was brutally succinct. ‘It’s like Fleet service station,’ he sniffed.

It wasn’t always thus. When Lucy Maud Montgomery was sent to Cavendish at the age of 7 to live with her strict grandparents, Green Gables was occupied, not by cheerful ticket-sellers sporting ‘Anne’ straw hats with red plaits attached, but by her cousins, David and Margaret Macneill. She was a lonely, imaginative child, who craved people to love and kindness in return. Both were missing from her unhappy childhood, so she lavished affection on the landscape around her instead, and it remained vivid in her mind long after she left Prince Edward Island. ‘Were it not for those Cavendish years’, she later wrote, ‘I do not think Anne of Green Gables would ever have been written.’

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About the contributor

Daisy Hay has recently moved from New Hall, Cambridge, to St Antony’s College, Oxford, where she is the Alistair Horne Fellow. Her first book, a group biography of the younger Romantics, will be published next spring.

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