1183 Why I love Lucy Maud

ESSAY: Why I love Lucy Maud
by Carol Volkart

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Lucy Maud Montgomery, aged 9. Photo courtesy L.M. Montgomery Institute

When I first met Lucy Maud Montgomery in her journals a few months ago, she was a sparkling flirt of 14 tumbling off sleds in winter snowbanks, losing her hat and laughing, laughing, laughing. When I said goodbye to her recently, she was an anguished woman of 67, full of drugs, with a depressive husband and a heartless son who may have harassed her into the grave. The last entry in the journals she kept from 1889 to 1942 described her last years as “hell, hell, hell. My mind has gone, everything I have lived for has gone – the world has gone mad. I shall be driven to end my life. Oh God, forgive me. Nobody dreams what my awful position is.”

Like many people the world over, I have known L.M. Montgomery as primarily the author of Anne of Green Gables, a book I adored as a child. I loved its lyrical descriptions of nature in an idyllic island setting, and its seemingly real characters with their foibles and wit and bravery. I suspect it was Anne that first gave me the idea of writing myself; the notion that the ordinary people and places around me held their own interest and potential for drama. Anne, first published in 1908, still holds its charm for youngsters and draws hordes of tourists to Prince Edward Island, but as an adult, I cooled. Dipping into it briefly a few years ago, I grimaced over the purple passages about nature and never got further.

Carol Volkart. Photo by John Denniston
First edition of Anne of Green Gables (Boston, 1908)

That may have been why I let Montgomery’s five volumes of journals, published between 1985 and 2004, gather dust on our bookshelves until last summer, when Covid isolation opened up more time for reading. Curiously, my partner John, who had never read any of Montgomery’s fiction, was intrigued by the journals. He began buying them for me as gifts as soon as they were published, and went on to buying them for “us,” gobbling them up himself whenever a new one came out.

Now I know why. The journals are far more fascinating than Anne or any of its sequels. They’re a classic tale of a love-starved child overcoming tremendous odds to achieve great success, then toppling to a sad end. Beyond that, they’re a unique look – through the sharp eyes and articulate pen of a rural Canadian woman – at a rapidly changing society, from the late 1800s through the First World War, the Depression and into the Second World War. We learn what it was like to wear puffed sleeves so big that women had to be stuffed into their coats, to travel for hours in a horse-drawn buggy through rain and snowstorms, to wait obsessively for news from the trenches of the war, to watch a best friend die of the 1918 Spanish flu, to first encounter motorized vehicles, wireless, the telephone and even catch the first glimpse of an airplane. But what keeps us hooked are the small details of the daily life of a remarkable woman: Here’s the internationally famous author cleaning out the stables when her husband isn’t up to the job, grinding her way through boring church teas in her role as a minister’s wife, dealing with nosey neighbours, misbehaving sons and covering up for her husband’s dramatic mental breakdowns. As we accompany her step by intimate step, we’re also drawn by a sense of foreboding; clues abound that the path ahead is dark. As in a horror movie, we want, at some points, to yell: “Don’t go down to the cellar, Maud!” For those of us who like to dig into the whys and wherefores of human lives – possibly to better understand our own – Montgomery’s is a feast.

Canadian Bookman, January 1909. Courtesy Ryerson University

To me, the most intriguing aspect of Montgomery’s life is why it went so wrong. Could it have been due to her own unusual mind, so hyper-sensitive and imaginative that she sometimes teetered between reality and another world? A childhood in which she felt snubbed and unsupported by the grandparents who raised her and the relatives who surrounded her? Or perhaps it was because of her extreme concern, inculcated by her grandmother, about the opinions of others. “What will people think?” was the mantra of her childhood world. But maybe the attitudes of the larger society were more to blame. A brilliant student with a photographic memory, Montgomery thirsted for higher education at a time when learning was considered unnecessary if not actually harmful to women (pills were advertised to overcome the bad physical effects on young women of going to school.) Nor were women supposed to have any interests beyond caring for a husband and children. No wonder Montgomery, whose passionate ambition to be a writer had flared since childhood, called herself “a cat who walked alone.”

Those women who defied the rules and tried to join the larger world found the odds stacked against them. Lacking status, experience, mentors and support, they were denigrated and easily exploited. Montgomery learned early, for example, that her paycheque was substantially less than a man’s for the same grueling job of teaching in a rural one-room schoolhouse. Later, when it came to publishing her first books, she signed away rights and royalties for a pittance, and subsequently spent years embroiled in legal disputes with her unscrupulous American publisher. But sometimes Montgomery’s problems were due to simple bad luck. Her mother’s early death, for example, led to her lifelong sense of childhood abandonment. The 1918 flu that killed her best friend removed the most important emotional support of her life. The Depression ate a huge hole in her so-called safe investments, and she had to write off the generous loans she’d made to friends and relatives.

Selected Journals Volume I (Oxford University Press)

If any single act could be considered primarily responsible for the sad trajectory of Montgomery’s life, I’d trace it to her 1911 wedding to Ewan Macdonald, who came to Cavendish as the Presbyterian minister in 1905. Why did she marry a rather dull man who was not her intellectual equal, who shared few of her interests, who cared nothing for her writing, and who, it turned out, had depressive issues of his own? I suggest Montgomery was bowing to the conventions of the times, avoiding the dread status of elderly spinster, and trying to maintain the good opinion of others. She was also taking advantage of what seemed to be a stroke of good luck – the arrival of a presentable single man just when she needed a husband and a home of her own. (She knew she’d have to leave her childhood home, where she was caring for her widowed grandmother, when the older woman died.) By 1906, she was engaged to Macdonald, with the agreement that marriage would wait until the grandmother died.

That happened in 1911, but by then, things had changed. Montgomery had published Anne in 1908, and royalties and fame were pouring in. She had money and the freedom to break off her engagement and seek a different life altogether. But that would have been unconventional, engagements were not easily broken in those days, and people would have talked. The old lessons stuck. It was obvious as early as the wedding day itself that it was a mistake. Montgomery’s journals recount that at the wedding dinner after the ceremony, she felt “a sudden horrible inrush of rebellion and despair. I wanted to be free . . . . At that moment, if I could have torn the wedding ring from my finger and so freed myself, I would have done it!”

Selected Journals Volume II (Oxford University Press)

At first, all went well. After a lengthy honeymoon abroad financed by her royalties, Montgomery was delighted to become mistress of her own home in the rural Ontario parish where her husband was minister. She found motherhood a joy, and wrote ecstatically about the arrival of her sons, Chester and Stuart. But things began to fall apart when Macdonald came down with a severe case of depression, and Montgomery learned to her horror that it wasn’t for the first time. From then until the end of his life, Macdonald suffered periodic bouts of depression, some so severe that he couldn’t preach. Mental problems were not an acceptable affliction at the time; what people would think of a minister with the problem was unimaginable. So Montgomery had to cover it up, inventing physical ailments and inviting guest ministers to cover for him when he couldn’t make it into the pulpit. She had her own issues with depression and mental stability, and the strain and pressure of dealing with his, running a household, writing books and doing church work sometimes led to her own breakdowns. At times, both Montgomery and Macdonald took immense quantities of drugs to calm themselves and help them sleep. Little was known about the effects of these drugs, mostly barbiturates, which were new at the time, and freely handed out by doctors. Montgomery’s biographer says it has since been learned that the drugs they were taking in ever-increasing doses would have actually made their problems worse.

Selected Journals Volume III (OUP)

Meanwhile, it doesn’t appear to have been much of a marriage. If we go by the journals, where Macdonald is only mentioned when he is having problems, it seems like the two lived very separate lives. After the first few years, they even vacationed separately, and Montgomery’s mood always took an upswing when her husband left on his. While Montgomery conscientiously fulfilled her duties as a minister’s wife, her literary world – and her earnings – were hers alone. She wrote her books, dealt with her publishers and fans, made public appearances, met princes, prime ministers and governors-general, and received honours, including the Order of the British Empire, without her husband’s involvement in any way. We don’t know how they worked this out between them, but it must have been a lonely life for both.

Montgomery and Macdonald might have had a happier ending if their marriage hadn’t produced their older son Chester. For a couple concerned about what people would think, especially in a small rural community where Macdonald was minister, Chester was a nightmare. While his brother Stuart had a sunny disposition and made friends easily, Chester was always an unpopular loner who lied, stole, chased girls and developed a reputation for indecently exposing himself. While he was bright, he was lazy and failed year after year of the expensive education Montgomery was paying for. He disgraced his parents with an early, rushed marriage and fathered two children before abandoning his family and going on to other women. When he finally graduated from law school, Montgomery paid a law firm a substantial amount so they would take him on. Nothing worked; Chester was always let go and constantly begged his beleaguered mother for money.

Selected Journals Volume IV (OUP)

Nobody knows to what extent this persistent harassment and heartbreak over her son affected her own mental health and drug intake, but Montgomery was so upset in the last three years of her life that she stopped writing in her beloved journals. When she finally died alone, with what appeared to be a suicide note nearby, there were suspicions that Chester took advantage of his access to the family home to destroy his mother’s record of those last few years. (She usually made notes of her doings that would later become the basis of her journal entries. Given what had happened in those years, they would likely have painted Chester in a bad light.) Chester’s downward career continued after Montgomery’s death. Fortunately, she did not live to see a newspaper photograph of her handcuffed son being taken off to jail in an embezzlement scandal.

Montgomery’s life may have been tragic, but it’s also inspiring, as the readers of her journals know. Her son Stuart, who became a prominent Toronto obstetrician, made that point when he asked Mary Henley Rubio to do a biography of his mother. He wanted it to be as truthful as possible, he told Rubio, partly “because her achievements would be more remarkable if people knew the conditions under which she wrote,” and partly “because there would be things people could learn from her life that might prevent them from making the same mistakes.”

Selected Journals Volume V (OUP)

While Rubio’s subsequent research found that Montgomery shaped and pruned her journals to create her own narrative of her life, nobody who reads either the journals or the biography, The Gift of Wings, can come away unimpressed. For despite her wild imagination and her extreme highs and lows, Montgomery had learned pride, discipline and control from her grandmother, and they served her well. Her husband could be in the throes of deep melancholia in the bedroom, and she would be putting in her two hours of fiction-writing in the morning, supervising and helping the maid with the household work, keeping her sons on track, and chairing women’s church groups in the evening. She read voraciously, by some reports a book a day, and is the only person I’ve ever heard of who has read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire three times. Rubio notes that she published more than 20 books, more than 500 short stories and 500 poems “all while raising a family, living a busy life as the wife of a country minister, and completing 10 volumes of secret journals (the edited versions were pared to five).” She was also a sought-after public speaker, a major figure in the Canadian Authors Association, a strong advocate for Canadian literature (not just hers), and a kind mentor to young would-be writers. Stuart Macdonald told Rubio that while he might have saved five or six babies that no one else could have, his contribution to the “sum of human happiness” was small compared to his mother’s enormous one through her life and her novels.

Signed photo of Lucy Maud Montgomery, 1935. Photo courtesy AbeBooks

While Montgomery was sometimes imperious, and admitted to enjoying being “lionized,” she comes across in her journals as someone you would very much enjoy having a coffee with. She loved to laugh and gossip (a joy denied when she was a minister’s wife), and no matter how famous she grew, she loved best her old friends, family connections and returning to her beloved island to revisit the places she had immortalized. She was generous financially, loaning money to needy friends and family even though she knew there was small chance of being repaid. Former maids and parishioners interviewed by Rubio recalled her fondly; her sharp comments were mostly reserved for her journals. But Rubio was brought up short when she suggested to Stuart at their first meeting that with her tolerance and sense of humour, Montgomery must have been the ideal mother. “I will never forget Dr. Macdonald’s slow, appraising look, first at me and then into me and finally through me.” His mother may have given the impression of a broad tolerance of human weaknesses in her writing, he later wrote, but “she did not condone any such elasticity in herself or her family.” Her rigidity combined with her high sensitivity and emotional peaks and lows “did not make for tranquility” or easy camaraderie in the family, he said, “but she was capable of inspiring deep affection in us all.”

When I turned the last page of Montgomery’s five journals, I felt bereft, as if I had just lost an intimate, living, breathing companion. Through all those years of entries – exalted, depressed, generous, petty – she was always intelligent, often funny and never boring. I wanted to know what she’d say next.

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Carol Volkart

Carol Volkart is a retired Vancouver Sun editor, reporter and 2020 Graduate Liberal Studies (GLS) graduate from Simon Fraser University who has always found a home in books. Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Green Gables was one of her earliest. Editor’s note:  Carol Volkart has previously contributed an essay, Theatre in Vancouver Today: A Paradox, to The Ormsby Review.

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