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Virtual exhibition takes readers into the Anne of Green Gables manuscript

Portrait of L.M. Montgomery (Courtesy of the Anne of Green Gables Museum)

More than a century after Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables was first published, a just-launched virtual exhibition will give readers from around the world a rare glimpse at the original manuscript of this iconic work of Canadian literature.

The Anne of Green Gables Manuscript: L.M. Montgomery and the Creation of Anne is a project of Charlottetown’s Confederation Centre of the Arts, in partnership with the L.M. Montgomery Institute at the University of Prince Edward Island, and the Robertson Library at UPEI, with funding by Digital Museums Canada.

The free bilingual virtual exhibition is slated to run for five years with renewal for 10. Visitors to the site will be able to see a fully digitized manuscript for Anne of Green Gables, Montgomery’s first of many successful novels.

Q&Q spoke to the project team and Dr. Emily Woster, an L.M. Montgomery scholar and curator of the exhibition, about how the exhibition came to be, what viewers can expect to see, and how they can help solve a mystery.

How did the idea for the exhibition come about?

Woster: The idea to create an exhibit featuring the digital pages of Montgomery’s first and most famous manuscript came about through the success of the Confederation Centre Art Gallery’s first major Montgomery digital project in 2002. Montgomery’s personal scrapbooks were literally falling apart, two in PEI and four in Ontario. No one could imagine taking a photograph of each of the hundreds of pages of a manuscript even if conservators would have allowed us to expose each page to the heat. Years later, digitizing of manuscript pages has become possible (and affordable) without damaging the pages. Elizabeth Epperly, the founder of the L.M. Montgomery Institute, had worked on the 2002 project, and on the manuscripts since 1979. When asked in 2018 if now (finally!) seemed like a good time to approach the digitizing of a manuscript, she eagerly agreed. Fans and scholars have always wanted to see the manuscript for themselves, and finally the technology, expertise, and knowledge have come together.

How long did it take to construct the exhibition? What was involved in putting it together?

Project Team: We submitted the proposal for this exhibit to Digital Museums Canada in the fall of 2019 and began work in earnest in the spring of 2020. Pandemic lockdowns delayed our digitization work, but our web developer began building the framework for our site based on a rough sketch Emily Woster made that fall. We spent much of 2021 transcribing the manuscript and working with contributors from 14 countries on various articles and content for the site. In early 2022, the website started to take shape, and we reached out to a variety of archives and experts for help creating annotations, and used audio, video, and text to add interest to each page.

Were there any precautions that needed to be taken in handling the various documents?

Project Team: The manuscript is small and fragile. Montgomery wrote it on a variety of types of paper, including irregularly sized or torn sheets with ragged edges that would make it easy to tear a page as it is turned. Staff at the Robertson Library Digitization Lab wore gloves as they carefully scanned both sides of each of the 571 sheets. To capture the true colour of each sheet, a piece of acid-free cardstock was placed behind each one as it was scanned. Some of the pages are thin, and the ink from the other side bleeds through.

Anne of Green Gables manuscript (Photo by Jean-Sébastien Duchesne)

What can virtual attendees expect to see?

Project Team: They can click through the manuscript pages and slowly browse each one, zooming in to every detail of every page. Visitors can also spend time reading each of the accompanying articles about Montgomery, her writing process, her island, or the legacies of Anne. Most exciting, visitors will find never-before-seen content, like the bits of previously written or published material on the backs of the pages of the first 15 chapters of the novel.

Did working on the exhibition alter your perspective of this iconic work?

Woster: Absolutely. I have a new appreciation for Montgomery’s system of revisions – the alphanumeric notes she used to keep track of additions to the text – and for her spontaneity. On one hand, she was clearly methodical and careful, building each chapter out from some previous outline or plan, but on the other hand, you can see in the rush of her pen that there are passages which came to her in the moment. I knew that Montgomery had a systematic approach to writing and revising her novels, but to see her first one establish that system so clearly is fascinating.

What do you hope viewers take away from the experience?

Woster: I hope all visitors, whether new readers or seasoned scholars, come away having learned something new about Montgomery, her thinking, or her place in time and literary history. We designed the site to be accessible to all readers. I also hope visitors help us solve a mystery: on the backs of many of the early pages – pages which contain material from previously written or previously published work – Montgomery left a series of mysterious numbers. These numbers don’t seem to correspond to anything on the page (word count, etc.) but they do appear (sometimes) sequentially. I look forward to others trying to decipher their meaning!

This interview has been edited and condensed.