Over on my young people’s book blog (www.picturesandconversations.co.uk) I’ve been writing about books that have made me (want to) travel to their settings and places that have made me seek out books set there. For as long as I can remember, books and places have been inextricably linked. I didn’t always realise it, but it’s always been true. I like to travel, to follow the path less taken by tourists where I might get to know the local people. But I also like to follow the path taken by characters I’ve met in books. I get over excited about natural beauty, particularly if there’s sea or a sunset involved, but really it’s the places I visit, the people I meet and their shared history that fascinate me most. And the same is true of my reading. I don’t need a complicated plot but I do need places I can visualise and characters who develop.
One author is conspicuous by her absence in my aforementioned series: Lucy Maud Montgomery. This is all the more surprising as the first books that made me want to be somewhere else were hers. And Anne Shirley and her friends were the first to get under my skin to the extent that I wanted to be part of their lives. During our long lockdown here in Scotland I have been participating in a Facebook page readathon, firstly of Rilla of Ingleside, the last in the Anne of Green Gables sequence, and currently of Jane of Lantern Hill, a standalone novel, written and set in the 1930s. These books and the discussions and the photographs shared on the page have re-awakened, or perhaps strengthened, my desire to visit Prince Edward Island, Canada’s small Maritime province. It’s always been there, firstly as an unlikely dream, then a possibility and now as an option. But I’ve held back, afraid that the place I’d love to see might have been spoiled by the very books that draw me to it.
Back in the days of my childhood and teenage years, tracking down information was a proper pastime needing skill, determination and patience. There was no click of a mouse bringing up details accurate or otherwise. Books had to be consulted, libraries visited and friends persuaded to bring resources back from abroad. I still remember my utter delight when my honorary uncle Hector gave me a road atlas of North America. For the first time I could see how Prince Edward Island fitted together. Having just finished reading the Anne series I had an overwhelming need to find out all about the setting. I even wrote to the Tourist Information Office in Charlottetown and was thrilled when they sent me some leaflets. I created a scrapbook using this information along with some stills the BBC sent me of their 1970s productions of the early books, and quotes from, and thoughts on, the books themselves. A bit later on I watched the Kevin Sullivan films (Kim Braden remained Anne for me but Jonathan Crombie was the embodiment of Gilbert) and drooled over the scenery – although I later discovered that very little filming was done on Prince Edward Island.
In the heady days of the 1990s when building societies were turning into banks I accumulated enough windfall money to go to Canada. But I hesitated, too scared that I’d be disappointed. In 2008, the centenary year of the publication of Anne of Green Gables, I found myself in the country at that year’s IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations) conference. It was in Quebec, a beautiful city (although populated in part by citizens displaying all the worst Parisian traits), and slightly closer to Prince Edward Island than I was in Scotland. I flew through Montreal and experienced a pang of regret when I saw Charlottetown on the departures board. Once again, I had chickened out and would remain firmly in the French speaking province being snubbed by shopkeepers. Unusually, not even playing my Scottish card could save me from their disdain at my poorly remembered, and appallingly pronounced, Higher French!
By then I had visited Norway and fallen in love with its sea and splendour. (I’d also started learning the language and after a year of evening classes had attained a better level than my French ever reached.) In amongst moving house and changing jobs my heart and mind were consumed by travelling north to the exclusion of all other destinations. LM Montgomery and her island lingered only in my subconscious. It has taken a hasty and horrendous return from the other side of the world, a protracted lockdown imposed by a cautious and concerned government and the heart-warming meeting of minds and generous sharing of knowledge on a Facebook page to rekindle my passion for, and desire to visit, Prince Edward Island. Naturally, these have been re-awoken at a time of global and personal travel uncertainty! But visit I shall.
So what is it I want to see? Here, I have a confession to make. In spite of the very obvious clue in the province’s name and my own predilection for it, the Avonlea books have never suggested the sea to me. Reading them, it is their rurality that is impressed upon me. Certainly Anne’s House of Dreams floats in my memory and mind but (perversely perhaps) it is open countryside that I first think of in connection with LM Montgomery’s books. To be completely honest, it took the Kevin Sullivan films to make me properly realise the coastal setting of the books. But I want to see both: the wide green expanses and the rippling blue of the sea. And the red roads.
That seems simple enough. The problem is that I want the island to be Anne’s. Counting back from Rilla places Anne of Green Gables around 1870, although I have long suspected that it was actually set in the early 1900s in Montgomery’s mind, and either of those dates is when I want to see her place. I’m scared of the cars and crowds and coaches. How will I ever be able to feel the setting, to make-believe that I am about to meet Anne and her friends? I yearn to see Green Gables but I am terrified that the created Avonlea village will turn out to be nothing more than an exercise in separating devotees from their money – a more literary Disneyland if you like.
I hear that I have nothing to fear, that everything is in the best possible taste. And, logically, I have no reason to doubt that but fear is so often illogical… Deep down I know that nothing will be able to spoil the books; they are too good for that. But still I have hesitated. However, I am hesitating no more. And interestingly it’s not because of the Anne sequence that I have made up my mind but instead it is my namesake who has persuaded me.
It is so long since I read Jane of Lantern Hill for the only time that it feels like a new book to me. I’m approaching it without the (positive) emotional baggage attached to Anne and I’m enjoying the words, rather than the feelings they evoke. And those words are painting a picture of a landscape I know I will always regret not going to see for myself. So as soon as travel becomes a pleasure and not something to be endured I will wing my way to the island I have so often dreamed of.