After a week's hiatus, the Anne of Green Gables Read-a-long is back with a post by the Chair of L.M. Montgomery Studies and Assistant Professor, Applied Communication, Leadership, and Culture Dr. Kate Scarth. Scarth will be speaking at the L.M. Montgomery and Reading Conference on "Reading Halifax with Montgomery," and holding a pre-conference workshop on "L.M. Montgomery and Public Engagement New Readers, New Ways of Reading" on the 23rd of June.
Chapter XXXV: “The Winter at Queen’s”
By Kate Scarth
L.M. Montgomery and Anne of Green Gables usually conjure up images of rural Prince Edward Island. But Montgomery was also a chronicler of urban Canada. She wrote journals and letters about her life in urban locations like Prince Albert, Charlottetown, Halifax, and Toronto. Several novels, Anne of the Island and Jane of Lantern Hill in particular, have significant urban settings.
Of course, Anne decides, after her first trip to Charlottetown, that she “wasn’t born for city life,” as Tara K. Parmiter’s contribution to this read-a-long reminds us. Given Montgomery’s and Anne’s attachment to the north shore, it’s not surprising that towns don’t always live up to Green Gables and Avonlea. However,Montgomery doesn’t advocate a rejection of town. Charlottetown in the Anne series has many benefits, after all: fashionable shops (pearls and hats and slippers are some of the goods Anne mentions), restaurants (ice cream!), secondary and post-secondary education (for more on this, see Michaela Wipond’s read-a-long post), a hospital, banks, and cultural institutions like the Academy of Music where Anne and Diana enjoy a concert with Josephine Barry. And when aspects of urban spaces are unsatisfactory, Montgomery’s solution is to just make her fictionalized towns more like Avonlea and rural PEI generally. Faced with ugly, dusty streets or school/work stress, Anne consistently seeks out parks, gardens, and graveyards whether in Kingsport (a fictional Halifax) in Anne of the Island or Summerside in Anne of Windy Poplars. Anne’s enjoyment of ruralized urban spaces and her viewing of them in ways reminiscent of how she reads rural landscapes begins, like so much else, in Anne of Green Gables.
For example, after the first winter at Queen’s, spring has sprung in Avonlea, “But in Charlottetown harassed Queen’s students thought and talked only of examinations.” Anne takes a different tack: “sometimes I feel as if those exams meant everything, but when I look at the big buds swelling on those chestnut trees and the misty blue air at the end of the streets they don’t seem half so important.” As students’ exam obsession shows, the city and city dwellers are, for the most part, out of tune with the rhythms of nature. Even with Anne’s urging, her rural-born Avonlea friends are too immersed in town culture to enjoy this natural scene, pointing to how cities can lead to the loss of connection with nature. Montgomery, however, reminds readers that urban nature not only exists but can be enjoyable and rejuvenating. Anne, who has spent so much time looking out of her Green Gables bedroom window at the Snow Queen, now finds natural beauty just outside her Charlottetown window. For Anne this natural beauty in town puts exams in perspective—it’s a reminder of a world beyond her immediate concerns—and is thus grounding, even therapeutic.
A few minutes later while her friends’“chatter drifted into a side eddy of fashions,”
Anne, with her elbows on the window sill, her soft cheek laid against her clasped hands, and her eyes filled with visions, looked out unheedingly across city roof and spire to that glorious dome of sunset sky and wove her dreams of a possible future from the golden tissue of youth’s own optimism.
In both these descriptions, nature (chestnuts, the sky) evokes beauty and is a springboard to imagination and dreaming, just as it is for Anne in Avonlea. However, both of these scenes very much describe urbannature, since urban features (street, roof, spire) overlap with the sky and trees. Beauty is not found here by just imagining Avonlea’s natural beauty or seeking out Charlottetown spaces devoid of urban features, but in seeing the natural beauty intermixed with the city.
Montgomery’s descriptions of urban nature reflect her broader literary—Romantic-influenced— concerns of exploring place, nature, and belonging. Her engagement with wider cultural change is also apparent: Canada in the early twentieth century was rapidly urbanizing and Montgomery engages with contemporary debates about livable cities, suburbanization, and the importance of public green spaces. Montgomery also reminds twenty-first-century city dwellers—a huge demographic as now over 80% of Canadians live in cities and suburbs—that nature exists all around us, even in the city, and can make our everyday life healthier, both physically and mentally, as well as more pleasurable and beautiful.
Kate Scarth is the Chair of L.M. Montgomery Studies and an Assistant Professor in Applied Communication, Leadership, and Culture (ACLC) at UPEI. Her latest research interest is tracking L.M. Montgomery and Anne Shirley through cities and towns in the Maritimes. She is always looking for new ways to share Montgomery’s writing with diverse audiences through her work with UPEI’S L.M. Montgomery Institute and through a literary walking tour of Halifax she is developing. Hear Kate talk more about Montgomery, Anne, and PEI cities here. Follow her on Twitter: @katescarth