“I have learned that a mad girl grows up. A mad girl who learns to name her fury can become someone new: a righteously angry woman. I promise you, my dear sheltered sibling, they are not the same thing.”
Dorothy Ellen Palmer was awarded a $1000 prize for her novel-in-progress My Gables Were Never Green, a darker, more realistic backstory for Canada’s most famous adoptee, as told by Anne’s birthmother, an abused woman wrongly incarcerated in Charlottetown’s infamous Falconwood Asylum. Read the winning excerpt below. (And find her essay on “emerging” as an author in her 50s here.)
“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think.
It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”
– Lucy Maude Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
In a cell below the ground about six feet by seven feet they found one young woman entirely naked, hiding herself on the floor beneath some broken dirty straw. The stench was unbearable. There were pools of urine on the floor, evidently the accumulation of several days, as there were gallons of it.
– Report of the Grand Jury on the Prince Edward Island Lunatic Asylum
The Charlottetown Examiner, July 6, 1874
Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.
June 5, 1876
My Dear Sister,
The girl must never be told the truth. Swear to this, or read no further.
I promise you on the grave of our lovely mother, I am not exaggerating, nor raving mad.
Despite all our years apart, I know those are the judgements you will reach for. I see you so clearly as you open this letter. You read it tensed and rigid as the exacting press-back chair in which you sit. I see Mother’s green gingham curtains checking the kitchen window as you poke that one errant strand of what-must-now-be iron grey hair back into your perfectly locked bun. I assure you as clearly as I see you, Marilla, my wits are equally checked and tucked in order.
I hear you muttering, “What girl?”
Here is my answer: The girl you will meet tomorrow.
In the urgency of securing your belief, I’ll begin with what you will demand to hear before you deign to take me seriously. I hereby confess that you were right all along. There was a time, back when two sisters shared grandmother’s squeaky brass bed wherein you now so virtuously sleep alone, when girlhood fancies flew into delusion. You were right–‒I was mad.
Beyond being furious at life, I was also insane.
There, I have said it. You can feel vindicated and victorious. Perhaps even risk a smile. In the need to also win your cooperation, I’ll go further and speak of what we Cuthberts must not. Given that you believe I caused our dear mother’s death, despite how forcefully I opposed your decision as cruel and unnecessary then, I also now accept it. When you signed my incarceration papers, you felt you had no choice. It has taken twelve years, but where I once saw jealousy, vengeance and retaliation, today I see desperation. I can agree to seeing my banishment as an act of anguish. Your only choice to save me from powerful men, a prison sentence, and myself.
I likewise do not blame Brother for letting your mind rule his. He always does.
While I have made my peace with hearing nothing from you since you turned your back on me that day, I admit my disappointment when you did not inquire after my welfare two years ago. It was such a public scandal. Your Examiner arrives in the Green Gables mailbox as regular as today’s new June bugs under my feet. I know you read every word.
I’m certain you read the brave reporter who exposed Falconwood Asylum as: “the one community in America in which lunatics are treated in a manner unworthy of the civilization and Christianity of the age.” When a Grand Jury ruled my home, “a foul and shameful disgrace,” when our keeper and superintendent were dismissed and charged with abuse, when Falconwood was publicly condemned by Queen Victoria herself, I would think it both sane and Christian for you to at least inquire after the health of the little sister you so coldly abandoned there.
You did not.
I must say it once: I have suffered in all the ways a woman can. And never should.
But rest your conscience easy, Sister. I survive in body and soul.
In current truth, I am not entirely unhappy here. I have learned that a mad girl grows up. A mad girl who learns to name her fury can become someone new: a righteously angry woman. I promise you, my dear sheltered sibling, they are not the same thing.
Today, it is my anger that keeps me sane.
And love. In even the most impossible of places, love finds love.
I beg you to see these honest admissions, my newly-minted mature perspective, as proof of my current good health, both spiritual and physical. Then, I implore you, Sister, please believe what I tell you next. Because my plan is now in motion and you must play your part.
It must succeed, or death will follow.
It begins here: the boy you requested from the Hopetown orphanage will never arrive.
Instead, you will be sent a little redheaded girl.
Please play your part. You must act surprised. You must put it about Avonlea that you intend to send the girl back. But for her safety and mine, for the love of God and the hope of goodness in this world, I beg you, you must not abandon this precious child.
You must keep her, and please, keep her kindly.
For she is your niece. She is my child. And we are both in mortal danger.
Go ahead, Marilla. Please feel free to roll your eyes heavenward here. I hear your martyred sigh of, “just more selfish, self-aggrandizing, spoiled-little-sister melodrama.” No one can curtail your reflexive predilections for condemnation and alliteration, dear Sister. I cannot convince you here and will not waste words trying. You will be convinced by tomorrow’s train. Tomorrow at tea, another little redheaded girl will sit in my chair at the Green Gables table.
She is my heart. Marilla, please open yours to my darling Anne.
Your admittedly sometimes strange but (hopefully) no-longer estranged little sister,
June 10, 1876
Dear Astounded Marilla,
Isn’t she the very spitting image of me? For the first time in your otherwise perfectly-enunciated life, were you not struck speechless? Equally, as everyone has told me all my life, I am so like our mother as to be her younger self. While you embody our dour father, tall, thick, stodgy, slow, and plain, (I know this does not distress you as you have said it countless times yourself), Mother, my child, and I are as alike, thin, and spritely, as a three-forked lightning bolt.
This is why you must hide all family photographs immediately.
True to form, Anne has a quicksilver mind. As you will soon witness, her illuminations are instantly enlightened by a thunderous imagination and deluging vocabulary. I’m certain you have long ago hidden away every likeness of me, and now – it pains me to insist it, but I must -you must especially hide away all those of mother. Should Anne ever glimpse our grouped Green Gables faces, her questions would rain down like Moses redepositing the Red Sea.
She will pierce your best prevarications.
How do I know? Like mother, like daughter.
To see the truth of her birth and mine, one needs do no more than open their eyes.
Accordingly, Sister, with my eyes wide open I will thank you for this: I delight to hear from my Avonlea sources that you will be keeping my child. I cannot tell you how I feared spotting a lovely head of red curls on the return train to Charlottetown.
You must hear me when I say that would be returning her to certain harm.
Knowing you are not yet convinced of this danger, I still thank you for not risking it. For all our sakes, I will make every scintilla of my story explicitly clear, but must first insist that you tell no one. Beyond decency and decorum – although I know those boring, pedestrian twins have always been stellar motivations for you – it is also a matter of murder.
Murder committed and murder that must at all costs be prevented.
The fewer who know the better.
The fewer who know, the safer those of us that do.
I do wonder what you told our dear Brother? Did he take one look at my girl and know?
Since his once-matching-mine red hair has long absconded from his head, at least she will not look at him and know. Ergo, best tell Matthew nothing. On whatever else we disagree, we know our brother’s heart beats with true human decency. I am loath to shatter his belief in it. For that reason and for his safety, I advise against telling him, but I also know that, as always, you cannot be directed. You will march to nothing but the marshalling of your own mind.
To give you the explanation that will convince you, I must go back to the very beginning.
I know my storytelling tries your patience, but you must appreciate the full historical weight and import of the backstory. To hold your attention, let me jump to the one part of a narrative you do respect – the moral of the story. In this I am diamond-cutter clear: you safeguard my Anne from a vile, violent man and from the full fist of the Canadian government.
In the person of Sir John A. Macdonald, I assure you that evil is one and the same.
I must rest now. My job in the Falconwood laundry makes me bone tired, renders my brain softer than crumble soap. I trust this news of my gainful occupation is welcome? Working for room and board, I am no longer an inmate. I am an Asylum Employee. Since last year’s addition of the new women’s wing, I am the proud occupant of a small room of my own.
But I must ration my stolen candles. My letters must needs be short.
I shall take nothing from the fact that you have not written me back. Nothing at all.
Your patient, hopeful, supplicating sister still,
July 1, 1876
Dear Silent Sister,
Herein please find the beginnings of my promised tale, commenced to you most fittingly on July 1st. It is Canada’s birthday, but not one I celebrate. The pomp and puffery revolts me. A marching band. Bunting blocking windows. Speeches. Folks parading around town in Sunday best. All praising “the glorious men who gave birth to Canada.” I have it on excellent authority and intimate experience that most men give birth to nothing but their own self-importance.
The Charlottetown Conference that sewed the seed of Canada in September 1864, that forever marks the time and place we attended our dear mother’s death, is now a long eleven years, nine months ago. With each passing Dominion Day, however, an ever-increasing number of otherwise sensible Islanders claim to have met the great and glorious male progenitors who fathered Canada. An impossible percentage now “remember” that, why yes, they did personally attend the ceremonies at Province House, and of course they personally feted at all the parties, picnics, boating trips, and balls that entertained the worthies beyond it.
It is so seductive to claim attendance at history in the making, but despite what you may think of me, I am not easily seduced. For me, Dominion Day embodies the unadulterated hypocrisy of adulterers. It proves a man can be a “Father of Confederation,” when he is the most unfatherly of men, a man lording cruel dominion over all he deems beneath him.
Because you cut straight through the dross, my scissors-straight Sister, I hear your question about another birthday, a laborious three-day event for which I was indisputably in attendance, and for which the nine-months-after-Charlottetown timeline matches exactly.
Am I trying to tell you Sir John A. Macdonald is my darling Anne’s father?
This is the truth as clearly as I can state it: quite possibly. I do not know for certain.
He might be her sire, but through no consent of mine. Whenever I look at my darling’s red curls, I will myself to see my own, and Brother’s, and our dear mother’s, not the reddish hide of The Beast from Ramshorn. I hope with my whole heart that he is not her father.
But I fear it. And so does he.
From the moment Macdonald discovered Anne’s existence, he has been convinced that she is his flesh and his scourge, sent by God to whip him into ruin. Given the recent birth of his own stricken daughter, I should think the Lord was telling him to see a healthy child as a gift. Jesus suffered all little children, even ill and afflicted children, to come to his loving arms, but there is no love in Canada’s father. He publicly converted to Anglicanism to ingratiate himself to English power and wealth, but in his heart, the one true God is still the vengeful Presbyterian Jehovah of ranting Scottish ministers. Spiteful men who relish turning curious women into pillars of salt, who demand the branding of harlots and the burning of witches.
When Macdonald looked at my Anne, he did not see a child of God. He saw only a bastard, a burden, a curse, a personal punishment born to rob him of position, wealth and fame. His fear of ruination surpasses logic. He festers in the two entwined emotions that make grown men act abominably: shame and entitlement. He is ashamed, not of the deed of violence, but only of being exposed. He is infuriated by the very notion that his deeds should have consequences.
Sir John A. Macdonald will do all in his considerable power to keep tarnish from his “beknighted” name. A place in Canadian history is insufficient. As a Scot who secretly fears his conquered Pictish nation inferior, above all, he wants a place in British history, in the Empire. To get it, to keep it, he would snuff out any shameful secret. As you shall see, he has already done so. Without God, without guilt, and with endless guile. Please have patience when I say proof of his guilt begins far from our Island. It begins in 1837, long before Anne was born.
It begins with the tale of another unspeakably-wronged little girl.
Today, my brave friend is grown, and is likewise committed unjustly here at Falconwood.
Lacking our advantages of an Avonlea education and our dear mother’s expert tutelage, she is embarrassed by her poor hand and inexpert spelling. Accordingly, she has asked me if I will please transcribe her story here, just as she tells it, word-for-word. I trust you now with the first chapter enclosed. We will deliver the rest in installments with further letters.
Please hide her testimony well. We may all have need of it.
Speaking of needs, although you have never asked of mine, in the interests of my child’s happiness and safety, dear Sister, I shall continue to write to you whether, or not, you ever reply to me. Unlike some, I am a good mother.
I have stolen two candles tonight and my beloved has brought me another.
I beg you, please judge my dear Polly with the kindness you never showed me.
Your sister who hopes you remember she is still your kin and your blood,
THE SWORN TESTIMONY OF POLLY DRAKE, AS TRANSCRIBED BY MIRANDA CUTHBERT, ON JULY 1ST, IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD, 1876
My story begins with my name. It wasn’t always Polly Drake.
That’s the name I gave myself when I got sent here. The name my Chère Maman gave me was Mary Ann Dempsey. I’m born in 1829. In Loughborough, a jaunt north of Kingston. Before my birth, my father, Robert Dempsey, disappeared, or died. Don’t know which. Never met him. Gone is gone. Maman got work as housekeep for his one friend, William Brass. He bade all call him Billy. Be it ever a warning when grown men cling to the names of little boys.
Calling themselves, “Brits de Bois,” Brass and my father, Robbie Dempsey, were merchants at large. Traded with Natives north of Kingston. Brass got reputation for being half wild himself. Disappeared into the wilderness weeks at a time. Got other names for bragging about beating on Natives. For rehearsing his fists on his wife. But the good women who visited my Maman could do nothing more than lower their bonnets and frown.
My Maman, Mireille, was short and round, brown and chirpy as a sparrow. Got her French name from nuns. Grew up in an orphanage in Montreal. At fourteen, began cooking at a roadside inn. At fifteen, she met Dempsey. He took her on his travels. Because she spoke French, he could take his trade into lands once claimed by France. Then his sixteen-year-old wife got too pregnant to step quickly. He dropped by Loughborough. Dropped her off. Then took off.
In her every disappointment, my Maman kept kindness, good humour, and a Godly clean home. Loughborough spat on us Catholics, but she earned the respect of the town’s women. That is always proof of goodness. Women came for her listening ear and the good cookery at our kitchen table. She grew an excellent garden. Shared its bounty in harvest and wisewoman tonics.
When Brass went off wilding, Maman and I were happy. Pretended to host the young Queen Victoria herself, when we made my favourite rhubarb scones for tea. I see it now for the feat it was: my Maman was a good mother when she had none. She got left an infant in the night by persons unknown. Her thick black hair, chocolate eyes, and dusky skin, made me wonder if she was Spanish, Italian, or Native. But when I gathered courage to ask, she hushed me down.
“Many in my orphanage got called ‘sang-mêlé,’ or ‘half-breeds.’ Only God knows the truth. Let sleeping dogs snore, ma petite. For the sake of your future prospects, ne dites rien.”
But everyone knew the Lord kept making more half-breeds. Mrs. Brass left Billy when a Native woman walked her bare feet onto their porch claiming her three Brass-blonde wildlings were his. Without a civilizing wife, Brass drank himself near dead each night. Expert at dodging his fists, Maman now also had to escape his dirty hands.
She said, “I’ll be fine, petite. Drink lifts a man’s little beast, but puts it quickly to sleep.”
Brass was a heavy, fleshy, sweaty man. I often had to help her roll him to his bed. In the stink of his foul breath, I made a childhood vow for a teetotaler. A pledge I’ve kept for life.
In 1834, Brass disappeared months running. Got told about town he’d been eaten by wolves. Women whispered he’d been murdered by his wife. Drunk men said he’d been cooked and eaten by the cast-off mother of his brats. Bones were found. He got declared dead. I confess, I did not mourn him. Then, like the Antichrist arisen, Billy Brass returned.
In 1837, I was eight years old. Too young to understand how he looked at me.
If Maman ever saw it, no decent woman could imagine such danger to a child.
On a hot June morning, Brass sent Mother to market. Told her he’d take care of me. Offered me liquor. I refused. He blocked the kitchen door. Grabbed me by the hair. Threw me on the kitchen table. Unbuttoned his pants and hurt me. Again and again.
I did not understand. Was not yet a woman. I feared I’d die from the blood and the sawing pain. When Maman ran in screaming, I knew I’d live, but did not care to do so.
If I tell this flat, unfeeling, it’s because the moment Brass touched me, I froze. I left my body. I never returned to be the Mary Ann I was. She died that day.
Maman’s screams roused a neighbour, Mr. Caswell. Because a godly, white, male witness helped her pull a beast off her child, Brass got charged with rape. It’s a hanging offence.
When he got sober, Billy did what man-boys do. He called Caswell a liar and hired a lawyer: one John A. Macdonald. He looked so young. He was twenty-two. I figured that’s why his red hair grew sideways, still struggling to cover his large, round head.
In court, I sat in the front row holding my mother’s hand. Looking nowhere but at her glove. Counting the tiny stitches mending the inside of her right thumb, I heard two doctors and the midwife, all describe my violation. Did not know what the word meant. Could not ask.
I remember how kindly Macdonald smiled at me. How he apologized for having to put me on the witness stand. As if I was a lady, he took my hand to get there.
Then he asked how many other boys I’d kissed. How many I let touch me.
If I’d enticed my employer. If I was wanton. I did not know what either word meant.
When I blushed in ignorance he turned to the jury, “Look at this budding temptress, this dark-complected, young woman. Born of another dark woman. A woman of dubious race, of unknown provenance and uncertain marital status. A woman with no husband, brother, or father, to stand for her. A working woman. A tonic maker. A practicing Papist. Look how alike are mother and daughter. Look how the younger one coyly casts down her eyes. Do any of us see a Christian innocent, or is she just another sultry savage, another dark, wild woman of the woods?”
Macdonald first argued that Brass was too drunk to perform the act of rape. Then added a second defense. If the honorable Mr. Brass had performed said act on a tiny child, then he was clearly insane and could not be held legally responsible. Either way, he was innocent and must be acquitted.
But Brass was not well liked in town. It took the jury all of one hour to convict him.
One juror said Brass was “no better than any red Indian and deserved everything he got.”
He got sentenced to hang. I felt no relief. I knew I might still die.
Not from the poisonous stares of neighbours, but from the broken sadness of Maman’s face. For the verdict did not sit well with the cream of Loughborough. Brass’ father was a rich Loyalist. A soldier to England’s king. Loyalists set themselves a peg above the rest of us rabble. They claimed Brass deserved a pardon. Insisted Billy-Boy had been framed.
When I left the house, they threw rocks at me in the street.
In December, they put a noose around the neck of Billy Brass. I was there.
Maman had finally agreed to let me go. Hoped it would end my nightmares.
I got to watch him hanged twice. When they threw him out the courthouse window the first time, he kindly failed to die, so I got to watch him swing again.
Such is the legend of Billy Brass. To this day, some claim he survived it all. Swear they’ve seen him running, half man, half wolf, wild in the wilderness.
No one wanted to see us anywhere. My mother lost her position. We lost our home.
I fell mute. I spoke only to Maman. Only when we were alone. I hid in my head, in the French of my Maman. Refused to speak the vile English of Brass and Macdonald. In prayer, I begged the Blessed Virgin, not to forsake me again. Once I stopped talking, I got taken for a simpleton. They said Brass had smashed my head into the kitchen table one too many times.
At least pity stopped the rocks.
But no one would hire us. Maman and I left Loughborough. Worked in Kingston until 1845. Then John A. Macdonald appeared on our employer’s doorstep. I was sixteen. He was thirty, married for two years. He said his wife, his Scottish cousin, Isabella, was in poor health. He wanted us to come and keep their house, but I smelled skunk.
“He could have his pick of housekeepers, ma mère. Why does he want us?’
“My petite, this is no time to be counting the teeth of a gift horse,”
“But it makes no sense for him to come looking for us. Why would he do that?”
“We have to take him at his word. He says he has always remembered us both. Says he regrets his part in your… embarrassment. He says he remembered my reputation as a cheerful housekeeper, excellent cook and tonic maker. He hopes I can help his poor wife.”
“He can get every doctor money can buy. What does he really want from us?”
My mother sat me down and took both my hands in hers. It meant she had decided.
“I accept his Christian admission that he wants to amend for his role in… our troubles.” She smiled, “Les voies du Seigneur sont impénétrables.”
But I saw Macdonald plain. He crafted his offer to pierce Maman’s kind heart. He offered her twice the wages of her current position. She could not refuse him because of me. I was spoiled goods. With only old maid prospects, I’d burden Maman for life. So I agreed to go.
What can I say about the Macdonald home that don’t sound as if I brought my own axe to grind there? I can say Mrs. Isabella Macdonald was lovely. Homesick and heartsick, but lovely.
Unlike her husband, she saw servants as human souls. Within the haven of our kitchen, she encouraged us to call her Isabella. Over many a cuppa and scone, she told us of her Scottish girlhood on the Isle of Man. A plain, thin, brown-haired woman, she had the kindest pale blue eyes. They beamed like ice blue stars when she shared her tales: of larks with her sister, of her Shetland pony named Angus-My-Love. How she longed for the sound and smell of the sea!
To cheer her up, Mother cooked Scottish recipes. Miss Isabella loved cock-a-leekie soup, which we much enjoyed. And haggis, which she urged us to taste, but we were never that brave.
Whenever Maman made haggis, Isabella was the only one to eat it. The first time she asked for it to be made as a surprise treat for her husband, The Beast barely kept his temper.
“It must never be seen our table, Isa. It is peasant food, entrails and offal, not fit for decent human consumption. For civilized English people, it is poison.”
I note that phrase particularly, as should all reading this story.
Sworn this day with my mark, as witnessed by Melinda Anne Cuthbert,