Doing it by the book

EVERYONE loves a good story but some stories pull at the heart strings more than others. Some stories resonant so strongly that readers will travel thousands of miles to walk in the author’s footsteps. Caroline Gladstone explores this phenomenon.

S ome characters and stories linger on in the hearts of their readers, so much so that they will visit the settings of their adored fictional characters and in some cases even get married there. And if those stories have also been told on the big screen, then expect a huge following.

And so I discover in Prince Edward Island when after eating my share of lobster and poking around the capital Charlottetown, I hit the Anne trail. If you need to ask “Anne who?”, then you haven’t read Anne of Green Gables and fallen for the eternally positive albeit feisty red-headed heroine, Anne Shirley.

Author Lucy Maud Montgomery set her nine books around Cavendish on the north shore of the island (the smallest of Canada’s 10 provinces), an area of time-warped bucolic beauty which is as gorgeous as the descriptions on the page. On a spring day I encounter rolling green hills, fields of dandelions and little coves where brightly-coloured fishing boats bob up and down.

My first stop on the ‘trail’ is Green Gables itself — a beautifully-restored 19th century farmhouse, which was Montgomery’s inspiration for the timeless story of a young 11-year-old orphan who is sent to live with brother-and-sister, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, in such a house. Surrounding Green Gables today are the legendary Haunted Wood and Lovers’ Lane where Anne and her fictional friends played in the first decade of the 20th century.

From Cavendish I head to the Anne of Green Gables Museum, where Montgomery was married in 1911 and which was built by her uncle, John Campbell, in 1872 and still owned by his family today. I buy a couple of books and luckily a descendant, Pam Campbell, is on hand to sign them. I could have bought a dozen different red-mopped Anne dolls, along with hats, scarves, jams, preserves, raspberry cordial and a swag of other memorabilia. However, I happily mooch around the 40-hectare property and its Lake of Shining Waters (another book in the series) to see the spot where devotees, particularly Japanese couples, get married. Anne of Green Gables has been translated into 36 languages and spawned movies, TV series and a long-running musical, and quite remarkably has been a compulsory text in Japanese schools for decades.

Across the other side of the world another little orphan heroine attracts busloads of tourists to her fictional home in the Swiss Alps. On a late summer’s day our small group gets off the train at Maienfeld and takes the one-kilometre road that winds uphill, through the town’s medieval square and past green fields and vineyards to Heididorf (Heidi town). This shrine to Heidi is in fact the former village of Oberrofels, complete with town hall and post-office, which was renamed some 20 years ago as it resembles the setting of the famous children’s book. Nowadays an old farm house acts as a wonderful museum, which outlines the story of the six-year-old girl who, in this case, was sent by her aunt to live with her grandfather, a recluse, high in the alpine meadows.

Written by Johanna Spyri in 1881, the story has fans spanning several generations, helped along by at least 13 different movies and television series including the 1937 Hollywood version that starred Shirley Temple. Once again the Japanese (and Koreans) love it; a 52-episode animated series released in 1974 made sure those who had not read the book certainly knew the story. And young Asian couples also like to wed in the museum or in the fields beneath the towering mountains.

After buying Heidi stamps in the post-office, we lunch at the Heidialp Oshsenberg restaurant, further up the mountain where a guestbook is full of messages from international travellers, including quite a few Aussies, who have made the pilgrimage to this lovely part of the world.

While these children’s stories have struck a deep chord with millions (and created a thriving tourist industry), there are many adult literary trails to follow. Travellers have converged on Stratford-Upon-Avon for centuries to follow the Bard (I once stayed in the Ophelia Suite at the Shakespeare Hotel), while author festivals abound.

The beautiful city of Bath holds a Jane Austen Festival every September, where thousands dressed in Regency clothes parade through the streets and attend balls and other genteel gatherings; Australia even has its own Austen festival — held in Canberra at Easter.

And it’s even fun to stumble across a literary town by accident. While visiting friends in Broadstairs, Kent, I learn that Charles Dickens was a regular visitor and wrote David Copperfield during his seaside sojourn. And at almost every turn I come across a landmark — the Bleak House B&B, the Old Curiosity Shop tearooms and the Charles Dickens pub, plus there’s a week-long festival in his honour every June.