‘Canada’s Jane Austen’

Melanie J. Fishbane reads from her book 'Maud' during a stop in at the Prince Albert Historical Museum. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Lucy Maud Montgomery spent a year in P.A., a year that would prove important to her later in life. A new book explores the life of the teen, and her adventures in Prince Albert.

In 1890 a 15-year-old girl moved to Prince Albert from Cavendish, PEI.

Her mother had died when she was just 21 months old. She had been away from her father since she was 11, when he headed west to fight in the Riel Resistance.

She had lived with her grandparents, and was young, bookish and ambitious.

Her hope was she would finally be part of a family – with her father, his new wife, and their family in their home at what is now Central Avenue and 11th Street East.

The Montgomery home, where Lucy Maud Montgomery spent part of her teen years, was once located on this Prince Albert corner. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Things didn’t quite work out that way.

That 15-year-old lgirl left a year later, but in the time in between she went to high school, fell in love with the city and a boy in town, became a published writer in the local newspaper and became a young woman.

That woman was Lucy Maud Montgomery.

“Montgomery came here a very young girl, and she becomes a woman here,” said Melanie Fishbane, author of Maud, a fictionalized account of Montgomery’s teen years.

“This is the place she grows up, this is where she does her first writing, true writing. This is where she is first published. I truly think Prince Albert was the fodder for future writing.”

While fans of Montgomery are well versed in her history in P.A., not everyone is aware of how important it was in her life. Fishbane describes them as her formative years. She describes how she falls in love with the city, which Montgomery described as having a “medieval” flare. Montgomery also described the landscape with rolling hills, open spaces and winding rivers as “a western Eden.”

All of this is described in Montgomery’s journals, letters, poems and essays. She was a meticulous note-taker, writing in journals from the time she was nine. She actually kept all those journals, and they have since been published.

Fishbane read each of these journals, as well as dozens of poems, hundreds of short stories and all of Montgomery’s 21 novels. It was an obsession from an early age.

Fishbane, like Montgomery, kept a detailed journal. She started when she was 12, to deal with the emotions of growing up and going through puberty as a (self-described) overweight girls with “that hair” and “those horrible braces.”

Her love for stories, history and reading started with Little House on the Prairie. Fishbane would watch it with her mother.

“My mother was kind of in love with Michael Landon,” she said.

When she was about 7, Fishbane’s parents bought her the book series. Seeing the name of the author, and discovering it was actually a real person with a real family and a real life, was life-changing.

“I read everything, I possibly could about her,” Fishbane said. “ There’s always more. There are a lot more letters and writing and all this stuff that has been coming out. I read everything. I still do.”

Fishbane’s love of all things Laura Ingalls Wilder extended to the actors who played the roles on TV. She followed the career of Melissa Gilbert, which led her to Anne Frank and Helen Keller.

Eventually, Fishbane discovered Anne of Green Gables. That was around the same time she started journaling. The character of Anne spoke to her.

“She was not wanted, and she charms everyone into falling in love with her,” Fishbane said. “She survives, she is a survivor.”

Fishbane did what she had done with Laura Ingalls Wilder and read everything she possibly could about Montgomery. She started when she was 13, and never stopped. She wrote her first L.M. Montgomery paper in second-year university.

She has since written essays about Montgomery, and about Wilder. But then, she turned to her big project, Maud.

“When I got the opportunity to do this work, which was all of the things I love about writing historical fiction, I also had to keep in mind that L.M. Montgomery is well-loved, and (Anne of Green Gables) is what people think of when they think of her,” Fishbane said.

“How do you take this, and create a character that is authentic and part of history, but also an individual resident for the book I’m writing?”

On top of reading all of Montgomery’s journals in detail, backwards and forwards, Fishbane also visited the places that were important to her life. Her visit to P.A. was particularly enlightening. She even re-wrote a scene when she realized the character would have been walking up a hill, not down it.

“It was that specific,” Fishbane said. “It was great that I was here.”

She also made an effort to talk to family members of the real people who influenced Montgomery’s life. She also, of course, visited the places Montgomery frequented, like the building that is now the On the Avenue art gallery, located on the same corner the Montgomery house stood, or the Royal Hotel, which was once Montgomery’s high school.

In essence, Fishbane had to get inside Montgomery’s head. She even tried to mimic her prose. When Fishbane read excerpts from her book and from Montgomery’s journals, the similarities were striking.

Melanie Fishbane shows off the chart she used to plot her book, Maud. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Fishbane, in fact, may be the person who knows teenage Maud the best.

“I like to think that,” she said. “At least in terms of her as a teenager, I feel like I have a really good sense of her.”

The book itself was released back in April, and consists of three parts – P.A. is the second section, bookended by two years in P.E.I. It chronicles Maud’s life from the time she is 14 -17 years old.

So far, it has been well received.

“There have been some really good reviews,” Fishbane said. “I get a lot of lovely reader comments.” The book was also chosen by the Hamilton Public Library as their next top novel, a contest where teens chose their favourite new book.

“Maud won, so that’s really exciting.”

Fishbane hopes that people come away from her book with an appreciation of the importance of Maud’s teen years, and especially those spent in Prince Albert.

“It was a significant year. The year from 15 to 16 is significant. She talks about coming back to Cavendish and people not recognizing her,” Fishbane said.

“She expanded here. I think it’s a significant year in her young life. That’s what I’m hoping, that people will come away with that. I’m glad to be here to be able to talk about it.”

While Maud is one of many books, fictional and non, that explore Montgomery’s life, Fishbane thinks Montgomery’s legacy is only growing.

“She could be Canada’s Jane Austen,” Fishbane said, after an audience member in her talk suggested the equivalency. “I think she’d really like that, because she was a big fan of Austen. Hopefully, unlike Austen, it doesn’t take 200 years for her legacy to be recognized.”

It likely won’t. Anne of Green Gables has never been out of print, and it’s been translated into 36 languages. In fact, none of Montgomery’s books have ever been out of print in Canada. She’s beloved across the country, and around the world.

“She’s big in Japan,” Fishbane said.

Montgomery has become one of Canada’s most widely read authors. And she got her start in Prince Albert.