Prince of Wales College’s Most Famous Alum!

On July 28th, as another part of the Alumni Weekend events at UPEI, I was invited to be the luncheon speaker for 150 Prince of Wales College alumni.  One person graduated in the 1930s!  My talk was entitled “The L.M. Montgomery Institute Today” — hoping to wow the audience with how busy the LMMI has been for the past 24 years.  They are clearly proud of their most famous alum — Montgomery graduated in 1894.

Here is what I offered them.

Thank you for inviting me to speak with you today.  I am forever grateful that I got to live for a school year in Montgomery Hall on the old PWC campus and thus feel I was given a partial pass to consider myself one of you.  I am going to speak briefly about the L.M. Montgomery Institute and then about some current projects.

The mandate of the L.M. Montgomery Institute (I will call it the LMMI) was and is to support and to promote the study and informed celebration of the life, works, culture, and influence of L.M. Montgomery. 

Next year marks our 25th anniversary.  Next June we will host the 13th biennial international Montgomery conference.  The Montgomery conferences are fun gatherings – truly — unlike any other academic conferences in the world in the welcome and generosity experienced by all who attend.  They are open to the public – please consider this your invitation to come next June 21-24th for what I can promise you will be a stimulating and enjoyable time.  The theme next year is “L.M. Montgomery and Reading” and is being co-chaired by Dr. Emily Woster (named for Montgomery’s Emily character) from the University of Minnesota at Duluth and Dr. Laura Robinson, Dean of the School of Arts and Social Science on the Grenfell campus of Memorial University of Newfoundland.   Please check our web site: for news and updates.  We are open for proposals for papers until August 15th.

The LMMI depends on grants and donations and while it has created some works for sale, it is much more focused on education and culture than on production, and strives to make information accessible and generative.  We think of it as a magnet and as a radiant source. 

The LMMI is acknowledged among scholars as a chief factor in the creation of the multi-disciplinary field of Montgomery Studies.  Isn’t it satisfying when our small Island helps to lead the way?  Other provinces may have more money and more grant support for what they do, but they cannot have what we have: the Island itself that Montgomery loved and some passionate people determined to honour Montgomery in her spiritual and literal home.

We study Montgomery’s journals; letters; published and manuscript articles, stories, poems, and novels; scrapbooks; and photographs; the places and times in which she lived or which she experienced or imagined.  We attract scholars in medicine, feminism, eco-cultural criticism, anthropology, literature, writing, rhetoric, psychology, media studies, women’s studies, war studies, law, geography, and communication, to name but a few.

Believe it or not the UPEI/ LMMI owns the world’s largest public collection of first and foreign language-editions of Montgomery’s novels thanks to private donors and the heirs of L.M. Montgomery.  The LMMI has run English Second-language schools for Japanese women, partnered with provincial and federal governments in making “smart community projects,” supported real-time and virtual exhibitions, created an award-winning CD-ROM, been an official part of Canada’s gift to Japan in 2005 in celebration of Japan’s world expo, and inspired the publication of dozens of essays and book chapters and a shelf of books.

Yesterday at the Marco Polo Virtual Reality experience launching, we celebrated the recent publication of five books that feature Montgomery or are by her.

Today the LMMI is about research and also about outreach and community-building.  We see it as part of our work to anchor and to enhance the Montgomery sites and productions on the Island.  We have joined the efforts of Central Coastal tourism and we have urged the province to feature Montgomery in the new provincial cultural policy. 

On the campus, the LMMI is thrilled to partner with a new program in the Faculty of Arts – a program in Applied Communication, Leadership, and Culture – that aims to arm Arts students with digital skills for the disciplinary passions they want to pursue, and offers training in a growing field called digital humanities.  The president created a new faculty position with this title: Chair in L.M. Montgomery Studies and Communication, Leadership, and Culture.  We were very pleased to welcome Dr. Kate Scarth to campus on July 1st of this year – and I am sure you will be hearing from her.

Which brings us back to the Marco Polo project launched yesterday.

Marc Braithwaite — a UPEI administrator for twelve years during my time on the campus, and now the Director of the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design in Fredericton — and I talked about ways to make some of Montgomery’s wonderfully described scenes come alive in new ways especially for this 150th anniversary year.  It turned out that the Head of the NBCCD’s Digital Media Studio, Alan Edwards, is not only a Montgomery fan but is also a lover of PEI and the Marco Polo, having spent summer vacations on PEI and having worked on the New Brunswick Opera production of The Marco Polo and having enjoyed extensive research on the ship and the place where she grounded.

Commissioned by the LMMI to create a Virtual Reality experience, Alan Edwards used his research and photography, connections with the Marco Polo Suite composer Jim Stewart, and Montgomery’s essay “The Wreck of the Marco Polo” to create a five-minute “you-are-there” experience of the gale, wreck, and aftermath.  He adapted Montgomery’s text as the script and then auditioned young women to be the sixteen-year-old voice of Montgomery herself recalling what she experienced that summer in 1883.  In just five minutes of her words and digital images and sounds, we recapture to relive the experience she had as a talented, eagerly attentive budding story teller.

Montgomery makes her time come alive.  She was in Cavendish, as a child of 8, when on July 25th, 1883, the New Brunswick-created vessel, the Marco Polo, acknowledged to have been the Fastest Ship in the World when she was built in 1851, was intentionally grounded and then sank just 300 yards off the coast of Cavendish.  Above the sound of the gale and the waves, people heard the crash of the cut masts and rigging for miles around.  As a star of the Black Ball line of ships, the 184 feet-long Marco Polo carried thousands of passengers over the years to and from England and the gold fields of Australia.  A luxury ship in its heyday, with the speed of a clipper and the carrying capacity of a large barque, the Marco Polo was world famous.    The birth, exploits, and death of the Marco Polo have been celebrated in music, opera, story, poetry, and painting.  And Montgomery contributed to the ship’s history and continuing popularity. 

When she was a teen-ager in Cavendish, Montgomery wrote up her recollections for a national essay competition in the Montreal Witness; a year later, in 1891 when she was still sixteen, her essay “The Wreck of the Marco Polo” became her second official publication.

It has taken hundreds and hundreds of hours of work to re-create digitally the ship, the water and storm, the Cavendish coast and crowd, and the drama of the ship’s death.  Everything in the tight five minutes had to be synchronized with Montgomery’s word images.  The wreck of the Marco Polo played a significant role in the young writer’s understanding of drama and story- craft, for she spent the rest of that summer of 1883 listening to her grandfather and the ship’s captain swapping yarns in the Macneill kitchen, which was also the community post office.  The publication of her essay boosted her confidence to send out and keep sending out pieces to various journals and presses.  You can hear the mature voice of the writer she would become even in this early, important essay. 

She has a way of making images and time immediate and intimate.

We are comfortable, at the LMMI, adapting new media in our study and presentation of Montgomery’s works partly because Montgomery herself was so intrigued by new technologies and used them to enhance her own work.  From the 1890s she took photographs using glass plates, which she developed in her own dark room; she took a brand-new hand-held Kodak film camera with her to Scotland and England on her honeymoon in 1911; she was a great movie enthusiast and even took her own home movies in the 1930s; she enjoyed a phonograph and a radio; she imagined people in the future seeing as well as hearing each other over the miles when they talked. I’m sure she would have used a computer for her writing, just as she knew to invest in a typewriter even in her early days.  Montgomery was herself visually gifted and had a photographic memory for scenes as well as heightened multi-sensory responses to what she saw and recollected.

Last year at the international Montgomery conference, thanks to our donor Dr. Donna Jane Campbell, the LMMI launched a new digital archive called KindredSpaces, that makes accessible hundreds of the original period magazines in which Montgomery published short stories and poems.  The digital covers and tables of contents – in addition to the illustrations for her own pieces – make history come alive in new ways again.  I cannot wait to see what the students in the Applied Communication, Leadership, and Culture courses do with the digital archives of the Ryrie-Campbell Montgomery Collection at UPEI! You can find the KindredSpaces archive by going on the LMMI web site: I mentioned earlier

Recently,  Dr. Kate Scarth had students retrieve a Montgomery poem from KindredSpaces that describes sunset on the very shore where the Marco Polo went down.  Within an hour, she taught them how to create a digital sound scape for the poem.  Think what a sound scape can do for an understanding of poetic tone, colour, rhythm, and form. 

Imagine the many ways creative people can use creative digital materials to re-capture time and to connect meaningfully with others!  (If you missed the launch yesterday, by the way, you can go today, until 5 p.m. to put on the goggles and witness the “wreck of the Marco Polo.”)

This connecting, re-imagining, media diversity and inclusion: all of this work takes us back to Montgomery’s own popular writing and images.  She captures Canada in a way that makes it seem it could be a safe, responsive, beautiful home for the human spirit.  She created times and places that other people want to experience repeatedly.  Studying her work, and joining her curiosity, is a way of celebrating Canada and the human will to create and to connect.

I hope you will join with and support the L.M. Montgomery Institute and thus also support one of Prince of Wales College’s greatest ambassadors for education and imagination.

– Betsy

Marco Polo and Multiple Launches

On July 27th, in honour of Alumni Weekend (for Prince of Wales College, St. Dunstan’s University, and the University of Prince Edward Island), the LMMI commissioned a Virtual Reality experience adapting as a script the sixteen-year-old L.M. Montgomery’s prize-winning essay “The Wreck of the Marco Polo.”  Alan Edwards, of the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design, created the amazing five-minute experience, and I had the privilege of introducing the funding angel, the NBCCD Director, Alan Edwards himself, and the ship, the Marco Polo.

Five hundred and thirty-one people put on the goggles and marvelled!

Here is what I said.

It is my privilege to point out some people directly responsible for this Marco Polo Virtual Reality experience and to explain something of how this project came about and why it is important for celebrating L.M. Montgomery and Canada.

Marylou Hughes is our funding angel for this project and for many to come.  (Marylou, would you mind putting up your hand for one embarrassing moment?)  In 1981 Marylou became the first mature student accepted into the Faculty of Science at UPEI.  She earned a first-class BSc. in 1985, worked at Diagnostic Chemicals for a year, and then earned a Masters in Science from Dalhousie on a full-tuition scholarship. Eventually she started her own successful business, Island Audiology.  She is passionate about music and reading and cycling and community service – to UPEI and numerous professional boards. For six years she negotiated with PEI Health Services so that the Island government would cover the cost of hearing tests for all its citizens – and since 2013 this has been so.  Marylou’s six-figure donation to the LMMI will help us to realize many educational and celebratory projects.  Thank you, Marylou.

Myrtle Jenkins-Smith had hinted to Philip Smith and to me that President Alaa was very interested in seeing Montgomery highlighted in some special way in this 150th anniversary year.  Fortunately, I was already in deep discussions with Marc Braithwaite about the wonderful work going on at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design in Fredericton.  Marc was an administrator at UPEI for twelve  years and is now the Director of NBCCD. Marc?  Marc was describing to me some of the work of his Digital Media Studio Head, Alan Edwards.  Alan? Alan, it turned out, not only knows and appreciates Montgomery’s work but grew up spending every summer vacation on PEI and has been actively engaged with creative works concerning the Marco Polo for more than 15 years. His research for the New Brunswick Opera Company’s 2002 production of the Marco Polo, to quote his own words to me “took me to museums around the maritimes, Pictou to see and photograph the Hector being built, to Tall Ship events to learn how these amazing ships work, and finally to Cavendish to photograph the site where she [the Marco Polo] now lies.  One of my favourite images” he said, “was a time lapse of the sun setting over the very spot where she rests, and another of the ocean cliffs in a gale, that I used to composite my 3D model in to look like an old photo taken of the wreck.”  Alan worked with Jim Stewart, the composer of the Marco Polo Suite, and that is why this Virtual Reality experience has permission to use Stewart’s popular music.   The LMMI has been fortunate to have Alan Edwards making a portion of Montgomery’s life and career come alive in a new way for us.

Which brings me to the ship itself and how its story helps us appreciate multiple things Canadian.

The Marco Polo was designed and launched by shipbuilder James Smith in Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1851.  His was a daring design for what would shortly become a cargo and passenger bearing ship, combining the speed of a clipper with the carrying power of a barque.  People today liken this design to putting together a 747 airplane with a Concorde.  Twisted slightly in a nearly disastrous launching, the Marco Polo recovered and went on to cross the Atlantic in little more than 15 days, making it the Fastest Ship in the World.  For years, as a star of the Black Ball line, she carried passengers to and from England and the new gold fields in Australia and was outfitted for luxury, including a copper skin on her hull.  Later, though sailors still saluted her whenever she entered any port in the world, she was held together by chains and survived with water pumps, and was sold, eventually becoming the property of a Norwegian company.  The Marco Polo’s last voyage in 1883 began in Montreal with a huge load of pine planks.  The ship encountered horrible weather – gales and mountain-high waves that nearly swamped her.  On July 25, 1883, the storm was at its peak.

Almost exactly one hundred and thirty-four years ago today, the people of Cavendish saw a 184 foot-long ship, with its tall masts of sails stretched to bursting, hurtling landwards.

Among those who experienced the wreck and the terrifying aftermath was eight-year old Lucy Maud Montgomery. 

The captain of the Marco Polo boarded with Montgomery’s grandparents, the Macneills of Cavendish, and he and his crew stayed in the district for the rest of the summer while they waited for the insurance money to come through.  Imagine the impact on this already ambitious scribbler and story teller in hearing the captain of the ship and her own gifted story-telling grandfather swap yarns in the Macneill kitchen, which was also the community post office.  Listening to their vivid tales, the young Maud Montgomery absorbed daily lessons in drama and story craft.  Imagine how the budding author delighted in the antics of the crew and then in the final sale by auction, in the Macneill orchard, of the surviving cargo and remaining treasures of the famous ship.  Imagine the round parlour table – a table the Macneills still own today – loaded with gold coins to pay the crew – and the little girl, wide-eyed from staring at such exotic wealth.  The everyday world is full of drama, the author observed and remembered.

Urged by her Cavendish school teacher, Montgomery wrote the essay “The Wreck of the Marco Polo” as an entry in a contest sponsored by the weekly journal the Montreal Witness.   A year later, when she was 16, the essay was published, becoming her second official publication.  The essay appeared in print while she was spending the year in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, with her father, which just happens to be part of the background for Melanie Fishbane’s novel Maud  we have already heard about today and many of us have read with pleasure.

Scholars credit Montgomery’s success with the Marco Polo essay with bolstering her confidence to keep sending out works for publication. 

The Marco Polo had 900 paying guests aboard the first time she carried passengers to Australia – and you can imagine the thousands who sailed on her and watched her for decades.  The ship is remembered so well and so widely today as a symbol of brilliant ingenuity and seafaring romance, both of which are suggested in the dramatic re-telling of the wreck by the teen-aged girl recalling her childhood adventure.

The Virtual Reality experience that Alan Edwards has created is inspired by the words of the young writer. Alan has adapted the essay as a script so that the images you experience as-though-you-are-there are reinforced by the image-painting of a writer whose mature work would eventually become, for many people, synonymous with Canada itself.

We are very pleased that New Brunswick gets credit for the birth of the ship, Prince Edward Island for its celebrated demise, and that PEI’s most famous chronicler gets a meaningful part in the glorious ship’s after-life.  We think the inspiration, creation, and now today the viewing of the Virtual Reality experience of Montgomery’s “Wreck of the Marco Polo” is a fitting episode in the celebrations of Canada.

Thank you Alan, Marylou, and Marc, and thanks to the heirs of L.M. Montgomery for their blessing

– Betsy