Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Inspiring Trip to Bala, Ontario in 1922
In 1922, Canadian writer Lucy Maud Montgomery and her family vacationed two weeks in the small town of Bala in Muskoka, Ontario. She took the proof of her novel Emily of New Moon to edit. But this trip would inspire The Blue Castle, one of her only two books for adults and her only novel set entirely outside of her beloved Prince Edward Island.
Read on to learn more about the books and the trip — and to view postcards of the time and other rare items from Digital Archive Ontario as well as other archives.
Lucy Maud Montgomery and The Blue Castle
Known for creating the beloved heroine Anne of Green Gables in 1908, Lucy Maud Montgomery is one of Canada’s most cherished early authors. She published 21 novels, as well as 530 short stories and 500 poems.
The Blue Castle, Montgomery’s 15th book, was published in September of 1926. Its 45 chapters were not titled and the original edition did not have a dust jacket. Publisher McClelland and Stuart may not have been optimistic enough about the adult book to invest in its presentation.
The story is about Valancy Stirling, an “old maid” who decides to escape her dreary existence by leaving her oppressive family. In due course, she marries Barney Snaith, a man believed to be a scoundrel and a criminal. The story is set in a fictional community called Deerwood. But many clues in the book appear to be inspired by Bala, Ontario and the Muskoka region — as well as real elements in Montgomery’s life.
In the summer of 1922, Lucy Maud Montgomery, her husband, Ewen (Ewan) Macdonald and their two sons, Chester and Stuart spent two weeks vacationing in Bala, Ontario, a town 127 miles north of Toronto on the shore of Lake Muskoka.
The popular tourist area of Muskoka lies east of Georgian Bay and includes Lakes Joseph, Rosseau and Muskoka. A rare, 1900s book of photos of the area is available on Digital Archive Ontario.
The Macdonalds stayed at Roselawn cottage in Bala. They had their meals served across the road. Montgomery wrote of the trip in her journals.
Here's a journal entry from Sunday, July 30, 1922 (from The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery, Volume III, 1921-1929):
"Roselawn" Bala, Muskoka
We motored up here—85 miles—last Monday morning. Roselawn is a boarding house on the Muskosh river kept by a Miss Toms…..
We only room here. We get our meals up the street at a certain Mrs. Pykes who is a lady cumbered with much serving.
The situation here is very lovely. The lawn runs down to the river where the bank is fringed by trees. It is beautiful at all times but especially at night when the river silvers under the moon, the lights of the cottages twinkle out in the woods along the opposite bank, bonfires blaze with all the old allure of the camp fire, and music and laughter drift across from the innumerable canoes and launches across the river.
Bala is a dear spot—somehow I love it. It has the flavor of home—perhaps because of its pines which are plentiful hereabout.
What a lovely name is Muskoka! Music-charm-wonder-it suggests them all. Shakespeare nodded when he suggested that there was nothing in a name. There’s a tremendous lot in it.
The Muskosh River is now known as Moon River flowing from Bala Bay to Georgian Bay. There is a Musquash River starting about five miles west of Bala at Moon Chute.
Details from The Blue Castle
Cissy Gay and tuberculosis
The character Cissy Gay is a few years younger than Valancy. She becomes an outcast from Deerwood upon returning to their small community, unwed and pregnant after working as a waitress in a Muskoka hotel. Valancy seizes the opportunity to break away by going to nurse Cissy after she contracts tuberculosis.
During Muskoka’s golden age of Grand Hotels (approximately 1870-1940) there were over a hundred individual and overflow resorts off of Muskoka’s principal lakes.
In 1897, the Muskoka Cottage Sanatorium for consumptives (tuberculosis) opened in Gravenhurst, Muskoka. It was the third tuberculosis sanitarium in the world. The “Main” administration building was a graceful two story wooden structure, which became a landmark for those travelling by water.
While living at Roaring Able's (father of Cissy) Valancy attends services in a Free Methodist Church “up back” because she likes the minister. Mr. Towers is a sincere older man who lives in Port Lawrence (Gravenhurst) but makes his way to Deerwood for services by way of a Disappearing Propeller Boat. After Valancy begins telling her relatives exactly what she thinks of them all, the only explanation for her behaviour that her Uncle Benjamin can come up with is that “She’s gone clean Dippy.”
The mention of this boat and the euphemism for mental illness is one way Lucy Maud Montgomery anchors The Blue Castle story to the Muskoka area. The Disappearing Propeller Boat popularly known as the Dispro or Dippy was first made in 1916 in Port Carling, which is about 11 miles northeast of Bala. This unique craft had a device that allowed the propeller and shaft to retract while the engine was still running. It offered protection from rocks just below the surface.
At the turn of the 20th century, Muskoka was known as Canada’s Literary Summer Capital. Chautauqua weeks featured famous authors of the day such as Bliss Carman, reading from their works and discussing ways to bolster Canadian authors. (You can view a digitized pamphlet from approximately 1951 looking back at the history of the literary activities in the area — related to Wigwassan Lodge.)
In Chapter 32 of The Blue Castle, the characters Barney and Valancy spend a cold January evening reading. "A plate of apples, an open fire, and 'a jolly goode booke whereon to looke' are a fair substitute for heaven," vowed Barney. "Anyone can have the streets of gold. Let's have another whack at Carman." Bliss Carman (1861-1929) is a Canadian poet and essayist.
Barney's car and cat
Barney Snaith’s car in the book is a rackety old Grey Slosson called “Lady Jane.” The car that took the Macdonalds to Bala in 1922 was a 1921 touring car, a Gray Dort built in Chatham, Ontario. Maud’s nickname for the car was “Lady Jane” who was Queen of England for nine days.
Like Valancy, Barney has an appreciation of nature and makes many animal friends. He has two cats: Banjo and Good Luck. Lucy Maud Montgomery loved cats and one named Good Luck was a favourite. The Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books at Toronto Public Library holds a postcard advertising some of Montgomery’s books. The front is signed by Montgomery and features Good Luck.
The character Roaring Able is looked down upon by most folk in Deerwood because of his swearing, sometimes drunken behaviour and friendship with Barney Snaith. Valancy likes him because he is so jolly. Lucy Maud Montgomery used characters with the name “Able” before: a short story entitled "Each His Own Tongue" which you can read in Chronicles of Avonlea (also available online) and "Abel and his great adventure" in Canadian Magazine, Vol 48, November 1916 to April 1917, pages 353 (also available online).
Special Collections holds a clipping from a letter Montgomery wrote to Newton MacTavish, editor of the Canadian Magazine, on September 26, 1917. It indicates how she prefers the name “Old Able” to his suggestion. It reads: "Yes, I prefer 'Old Able' to the other title you suggested. Yours truly L.M. Macdonald"
Museum in Bala
Jack Hutton and Linda Jackson-Hutton operate a museum devoted to Lucy Maud Montgomery in Bala.
They have also written Lucy Maud Montgomery and Bala: A Love Story of the North Woods. The book contains many more clues about connections between the Muskoka region and The Blue Castle such as, who was the model for Barney Snaith and where is his island, where did the name Valancy come from and what event may have led to the scene where she gets her foot caught in the train track.
- Lucy Maud Montgomery and Bala: A Love Story of the North Woods
- The Greatest Little Motor Boat Afloat: The Legendary Disappearing Propeller Boat
- Muskoka's Grand Hotels
- The Muskoka Assembly of the Canadian Chautauqua Institution: Points of View and Personalities