The Public Gardens are known for their natural beauty—their flower and trees, the pond and waterfowl. To get a taste of this beauty, we’ll turn to one of Canada’s most beloved writers, celebrated for her descriptions of nature: Anne of Green Gables creator, L. M. Montgomery. Montgomery attended Halifax’s Dalhousie College (now Dalhousie University) in 1895-6. It was in her Dal English class that her connection with the Public Gardens comes into play.
Her professor, Dr. Archibald MacMechan, was an early champion of Canadian literature. Shortly after meeting him, Montgomery confided to her journal that MacMechan “seems very nice, but is, I think, rather a weak man” (Sept. 25, 1895, p. 287). For Anne readers keeping track, a similar character shows up in a later installment of the Anne series, Anne of Windy Poplars: Dr. Carter “was undeniably handsome and distinguished-looking, with crisp dark hair, brilliant dark eyes and silver-rimmed glasses, but whom Anne, in the days of his Assistant Professorship at Redmond, had thought a rather pompous young bore.” Despite this first impression and (possible) fictional re-creation, MacMechan proved influential on Montgomery’s education, offering her praise and encouragement. Professor MacMechan found one of Montgomery’s assignments “particularly good and interesting,” and she received a “first” in her first-term English course (the highest category of grade possible) (Oct. 9, 1895, p. 290; Jan. 10, 1896, p. 304). When her English class was over for the year, she wrote in her journal, “I have enjoyed that class so much and got so much benefit from it” (April 2, 1896, p. 317). A few weeks later, she shares that “Prof. MacMechan told me today that I had handed in a splendid Senior English paper,” an optional assignment granting distinction in a course (April 17, 1896, p. 319).
MacMechan assigned Montgomery’s class a descriptive landscape piece—or “theme,” according to her journal—on the Halifax Public Gardens (Oct. 22, 1895, p. 291). To prepare for this assignment, Montgomery and her friend Charlotte Shatford took a walk through the Gardens one fine Sunday evening in October. Although Montgomery’s finished assignment hasn’t survived, that evening, back at the Halifax Ladies’ College, where she boarded for the year, she wrote in her journal:
"It was a delightful evening, clear and crisp. The gardens seem lovely and deserted now but are sadly beautiful even in their desolation. The gray paths were littered with whirls of crinkled leaves. The horse chestnuts were splendid amber-gold, and the lakes and ponds were calmly silver in the dusky light." (Oct. 22, 1895, pp. 291-2)
Nature, rather than human recreation, is highlighted here; gone are summer crowds and urban buzz. As is typical with Montgomery’s writing, readers are transported to this fall day in the late nineteenth-century Public Gardens. Not only is this a vibrantly colourful visual scene with its “splendid amber-gold” and “silver,” but it’s a sensory experience too with “clear and crisp” air and “whirls” of wind moving the leaves.
Decades later, after Montgomery had achieved international acclaim thanks to Anne of Green Gables and other work, MacMechan praised her writing in his pioneering book of Canadian literary criticism, Head-Waters of Canadian Literature. Perhaps Montgomery’s Public Gardens stroll had some bearing on her writing of Anne of Green Gables. After all, Montgomery’s description of the autumnal Public Gardens brings to mind a declaration made by the beloved Anne Shirley: “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”
MacMechan, Archibald. Headwaters of Canadian Literature. McClelland & Stewart, 1924.
Montgomery, L. M. Anne of Green Gables. Boston: L.C. Page & Co, 1908.
___. Anne of Windy Poplars. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1936.
___. The Complete Journals of L.M. Montgomery: The PEI Years, 1889–1900. Edited by Mary Henley Rubio and Elizabeth Hillman Waterston. Don Mills, ON: Oxford UP, 2012.
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