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‘Ellen’ the Orphan that inspired Anne of Green Gables

Agatha Krzewinski

On April 15, 1907, Montgomery received a letter from her publisher, The L.C. Page & Company of Boston, accepting and offering to publish her manuscript Anne of Green Gables. Despite the huge amount of international success the book had, Montgomery still had a difficult time starting the novel.

 

I have always hated beginning a story. Montgomery wrote in her journal. All my life it has been my aim to write a book… but somehow it seemed such a big task I hadn’t the courage to begin it. (Selected Journals, Vol. I, p. 330)

Montgomery kept a notebook where she jotted down ideas for plots, incidents, and characters. At the time she had only written short stories. However in the spring of 1905, when she was looking in her notebook for a suitable serial for a Sunday School paper, she found an entry saying, “Elderly couple apply to orphan asylum for a boy. By mistake a girl is sent them.”

I thought this would do. Montgomery continually wrote. I began to block out chapters, devise incidents and ‘brood up’ my heroine. Somehow or other she seemed very real to me and took possession of me to an unusual extent. Her personality appealed to me and I thought it rather a shame to waste her on an ephemeral little serial.

 

Then the thought finally occurred to Montgomery. Write a book about her. She had the central idea and character. All she had to do was spread it over enough chapters to amount to a book.

In the town of Cavendish, Prince Edward Island where Montgomery grew up, there were a few neighbours who lived nearby. One of them were Pierce and Rachel MacNeill who lived directly across the Green Gables Property.

Pierce was Montgomery’s grandfather’s cousin who had lived with his wife Rachel, and were a childless couple that applied for 2 orphan boys to help with farm chores in 1892.  But when Pierce and Rachel went to go pick up the orphans at the train station, they found a 5 year old boy siting along with his 3 year old sister.

 

The MacNeills contacted the orphanage about the mistake, and were told that since there were so few boys, they were hesitant to separate the siblings. Like Matthew and Marilla in Anne of Green Gables, they also decided keep the orphans, and named the girl sibling Ellen MacNeill. This would inspire John Willoughby to write the book Ellen, which is an extended account on Ellen’s life. It is also believed that the character Rachel Lynde was based on Rachel MacNeill.

Despite multiple researchers trying to trace her origins, little is known about Ellen and her family. John Willoughby suggested that the siblings were ‘home children’ brought from England. Irene Gammel, the author of Looking for Anne: How Lucy Maud Montgomery dreamed up a Literary Classic, argued that that the siblings had originated from Nova Scotia.

The MacNeill home was owned by several generations of the MacNeill family. In 1942, it was moved by a team of horses and sleigh to its present location on Cawnpore Lane. It was later converted to an Inn by Mrs. Leta Andrew, who was one of the first tourism operators of PEI. The inn is now currently owned by the Wood family and resides as The Shining Waters Inn.

Despite the impetus Ellen provided for Montgomery, she has assured in her journal that there were no similarities between Ellen and Anne, even though it was pointed out that Ellen did look a lot like the drawing of Anne on the book cover:

There is no resemblance of any kind between Anne and Ellen Macneill who is one of the most hopelessly commonplace and uninteresting girls imaginable (Selected Journals, Vol. II, p. 40).

References:

A Fashionable Frolick: Novel Beginnings: The "Real" Anne of Green Gables

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