November 2008


Commemorating the Uncomfortable

The same week that I learned about the history of Green Gables in light of the bigger picture of national park development (discussed in my previous post), my friend Ellen sent me another email. It contained a link to an article on The Globe and Mail, one that I have only had a chance to read recently.

The article’s title is significant: it promises to reveal “The heartbreaking truth about Anne’s creator.” Its author, Kate Macdonald Butler, is the granddaughter of Lucy Maud Montgomery. In the article, Butler shares how her grandmother suffered from immense depression. Despite the success that Montgomery achieved, Butler writes that “she was isolated, sad and filled with worry and dread for much of her life,” an experience borne in part from having married a man who also suffered from mental illness as well as from the restrictions that she faced, as a clergyman’s wife and as a mother of three, during a generation which, in Butler’s words, “simply did not acknowledge personal dysfunction, let alone seek help.” [1]

While the details of Montgomery’s depression have been generally known, Butler reveals a solemn fact about its extent which her family has kept to themselves for over half a century: that Lucy Maud Montgomery, whose writings speak of enduring beauty, hope, and renewal, ended her own life in 1942, at the age of 67.

I was shocked to learn about this other history, yet another sad component to this PEI story – but I was also moved. I was even encouraged, not because of the sobering truth behind Montgomery’s death but because of the reasons that motivated Butler to share this truth.

Butler mentions that the Globe’s recent series on mental health caused her to consider depression and its effects on her own family’s history. Additionally, the 100th year anniversary of the publication of Anne of Green Gables, which has inspired commemorative events around the world, convinced her and her family that it was the right time to share the truth about the famous author.

Here commemoration – so often just a tapestry woven from golden threads of celebration, of nostalgia, of selective memory; an act that usually conceals, rather than reveals, the unattractive aspects of the past – becomes the unlikely backdrop for Montgomery’s descendants to share a more complete, if uncomfortable, history about one of Canada’s most revered authors. In sharing this difficult story, Butler hopes to help dispel some of the stigma and myths surrounding mental illness – that it only “happens to other people, not us – and most certainly not to our heroes and icons” – as well as to offer her conviction that secrecy is not the way to go about dealing with this enduring condition of humanity. In breaking the silence, she also wishes to help those currently going through similar situations: “I hope,” she expresses, “that by writing about my grandmother now there might be less secrecy and more awareness that will ease the unnecessary suffering so many people experience as a result of such depressions.” [2]

I was encouraged (if a little melancholy) after reading this article because it suggests that commemoration need not only be acts of selective memory, warm and fuzzy half-pictures of a past that is too often re-constructed to suit the needs of the people doing the remembering. The appearance of this article, indeed of the Globe’s series itself, also suggests the changing perceptions of mental illness and the possibility for more openness in dealing with this difficult subject. The recent focus on this subject is also particularly relevant, as our Public History class is working on creating a digital exhibit to present the history of a particular asylum, and I am reminded that how we discuss mental illness – down to our very word choices – carries with it a certain social responsibility and a need for respect and understanding.

I was also mostly encouraged by the public response to this article. Many of the comments posted by Globe readers thanked Butler for revealing the truth of Montgomery’s history. Many of them also included an honest and thoughtful reflection on how her writings touched them personally. Thus, far from being discomfited by the truth of the past, readers affirmed that their appreciation of Montgomery’s writings was not in any way diminished, that, in fact, their admiration for her novels, and for the author herself, only increased when they realized the duress under which Montgomery was writing.

I think this response supports well Wilton Corkern’s remark, in the particular context of heritage tourism, that “visitors” – and here we can substitute the more general term “people” – “seek authenticity” rather than the sort of safe, non-controversial, predictable, and even inaccurate histories, as Corken has shown, that are often presented in the public realm. [3] And I think people seek out such authentic history not because of a voyeuristic impulse or what sociologists have called a “fascination with the abject” (though, granted, this can be the case too at times, as in the appeal, I think, of “dark tourism,” outlined by John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, who show how death has become a commodity, readily packaged and sold at historic tourist sites [4]). I think people seek out and respond to authentic history because it shows us how those from another time and place still face some of the same, enduring problems of humanity. It reveals to us the ways in which we are not, after all, so very different from those who came before us. It is, I think, the same appeal that classical literature commands, what makes it stand the test of time to become those stories that, in the words of one writer, “never finish telling their tales.”

Søren Kierkegaard, an influential 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian, once pondered the question: what is a poet? He concluded that “a poet is an unhappy being whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music.” I have only ever heard the beautiful music of Montgomery’s writings. To be more fully aware of her secret sufferings, and even of her untimely end, only makes the poetry of her work that much more moving.

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[1] Kate Macdonald Butler, “The heartbreaking truth about Anne’s creator,” The Globe and Mail.com, September 27, 2008, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080919.wmhmontgomery0920/BNStory/mentalhealth.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Wilton Corken, “Heritage Tourism: Where Public and History Don’t Always Meet,” American Studies International 42, 2&3 (2004): 7-16. The quote is from page 16.

[4] John J. Lennon and Malcolm Foley, Dark Tourism (London: Continuum, 2000), 1-12.

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Constructing Green Gables

Several weeks ago, my friend Ellen emailed me to say that she was re-reading Anne of Green Gables in light of the 100th anniversary of its publication this year, and to suggest – because, I’ll confess, we are both ardent fAnnes of Montgomery’s creation – that we ought to watch the movie together again when I returned to Vancouver.

A little history is perhaps in order here. I discovered Montgomery’s Anne series at the age of 11 and fell in love with these stories from the outset, not only with the humorous adventures of the spirited redhead but also with the beauty, hope, and longing that Montgomery’s writings evoked. They were the formative books of my childhood and youth. I grew up wanting to taste raspberry cordial and plum pudding, uttering phrases whose meanings I only vaguely discerned, like “castle in the air” and “depths of despair,” and mourning change while keeping one eye yet open to its tragic romance.

These books also immersed me in late 19th/early 20th century Canada; they provided one of my earliest glimpses into Maritime history and, before I understood yet what it meant to be a Canadian, they connected me to other young (and not so young) Canadians across the country. We were, to borrow Benedict Anderson’s formulation, [1] an imagined community of Anne-appreciators; whatever our ethnic backgrounds, we shared a culture centred on a romantic version of rural life in PEI at the turn of the century.

Receiving Ellen’s email that day made me smile wryly. Its timing was rather ironic: I had just started reading Alan MacEachern’s chapter, “The Greening of Green Gables: Establishing Prince Edward Island National Park, ca. 1936” for my Public History course. The chapter itself begins by noting a humorous irony – that of how Green Gables didn’t actually have green-coloured gables – as a starting point to consider deeper and more troubling ironies that characterized the development of PEI’s National Park in the 1930s.

In the course of the chapter, Dr. MacEachern traces the constructed and contested nature of the park, from the public debates over its physical coordinates and touristic appeal, to the subsequent disenfranchisement of long-time residents whose farms were unfortunate enough to fall in the strip of land unilaterally acquired by the federal Park Branch to constitute the National Park. No one who lived in the designated area had the right to remain; their homes were not spared. “The Parks Branch,” writes MacEachern, “tore down the houses and barns of families who had worked and lived there for generations.” The one building that was spared – and not only spared, but restored beyond the ordinary upkeep of PEI farms – was Green Gables. [2]

I was surprised, and a little dismayed, to learn about this other history connected to the house that had inspired Montgomery. It is, as MacEachern has shown, a revealing history of expropriation, of how tourism interests trumped individual rights. It is also a history that emphasizes the social construction of parks, highlighting its unnatural characteristics, its superimposed boundaries that cut across homes and lives with little regard. It’s a history, I imagine, that is not and has not been told by tour guides to the many visitors that travel, and have travelled, to Cavendish each year to see Green Gables. MacEachern’s chapter reveals well the irony of this story, how a house connected to a work of fiction – “never Lucy Maud Montgomery’s home, and never more than a real home to a fictional character” [3] – has endured in what became Prince Edward Island National Park when those of its very real inhabitants did not.

And, I would add, there is another sad irony that emerges in this history: the way in which Green Gables and its surrounding area have been preserved and developed is hardly in keeping with the spirit of Montgomery’s writings. The site’s tendency to become a tourist destination avec “the obnoxious amusements” [4] – from the golf course that the Parks Branch developed back in the 30s, which encircled the house and “overwhelmed all pre-existing landscape, including Green Gables itself,” [5] to the present day “circus” feel of the place, to use the description of one of my disapproving friends in the Maritimes – surely does not give visitors an authentic sense of the heart and soul of Montgomery’s books, even though these works have been the basis, to some extent, of much of this preservation and development.

It’s probably not too much of a conjecture to say that Lucy Maud Montgomery, before her death in 1942, was likely very dismayed to find out about the touristic transformation of Green Gables under the National Parks Branch. I imagine particular horror on her side over the discovery that the holes of the newly established golf course were named after her book, with titles, according to MacEachern, like “Haunted Wood” and “Ann Shirley” (Ann without an e!). [6]

The intrusion of commerce into what ought to have remained beautiful and sacred in Montgomery’s eyes would have, I’m certain, brought the author grief. After all, her most famous character goes through a similar situation. Anne is horror-stricken when one of her stories wins a contest sponsored by a baking powder company. This story, initially rejected by a national magazine, had been secretly entered in the contest by her well-meaning but misguided best friend, who had simply inserted the requisite line to advertise baking powder in the story. Despite winning substantial prize money, Anne feels that all that was beautiful and innocent has been desecrated, tainted by commercial interests:

I feel as if I were disgraced forever. What do you think a mother would feel like if she found her child tattooed over with a baking powder advertisement? I feel just the same. I loved my poor little story, and I wrote it out of the best that was in me. And it is sacrilege to have it degraded to the level of a baking powder advertisement. [7]

It is sad that the interests of tourism have outweighed the importance of authenticity in the presentation of key aspects of Cavendish’s past. The stories of those inhabitants affected by the development of Prince Edward Island National Park – both their lives and experiences before expropriation as well as their struggles against it – are an important part of the historical record. Yet, it is unlikely that visitors to Cavendish will ever hear about this other history. What they will learn about is characterized by a sad irony: in making a pilgrimage to see the actual place and town that inspired a very real author, what they’re mostly seeing is the influence of tourism on the physical landscape, rather than the authentic presentation of the spirit and beliefs of the author who was moved by it.

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[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London and New York: Verso, 2006), 6.

[2] Alan MacEachern, Natural Selections: National Parks in Atlantic Canada, 1935-1970, (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990), 73-97. The quote is from page 73.

[3] Ibid., 87.

[4] F.H.H. Williamson, deputy commissioner of parks, quoted in ibid., 82. Williamson’s idea was to develop PEI’s National Park as “a typical seaside resort, sans the obnoxious amusements.”

[5] Ibid., 94.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of the Island (1915), Google Book Search, October 2004, http://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&id=CPVSKM6X5oYC&dq=anne+of+the+island&printsec=frontcover&source=web&ots=YZ_qEee__a&sig=xB0pm9_jtX27AVPKv1JabuKjN-M&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=4&ct=result#PPA153,M1