Read an Excerpt
In November 1907, Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote to a friend that biography is a “screaming farce.” She added that the best biographies give only two-dimensional portraits, but every person has a half dozen “different sides.” In 2008, one hundred years after the publication of Anne of Green Gables, we know much more about the many sides of “Maud,” as she liked to be called. And in fact many now feel that Maud’s greatest literary creation was her own tortured selfportrait, now published in her private journals more than fifty years after her death. But the truth may be even more complicated than that.
Maud’s life feels at times like a smoke-and-mirrors game. By 1920, when her name was famous all over the English-speaking world, Maud began preparing material for those who would later interpret her life. She compiled scrapbooks, account books, review-clipping books, and a multitude of other memorabilia. Although she was (in her son’s words) a “packrat” by nature, this material was also intended as a cache of information for those who would later become her biographers. She carefully recopied her journals, starting in 1919, making an edited, permanent copy. She saw her journals as her greatest gift to future biographers: they presented her life as she wanted it remembered.
When Elizabeth Waterston and I began editing the L. M. Montgomery journals in the 1980s, we took them at face value. Later we came to question elements in these fascinating lifedocuments. They did not hold the truth, we felt, so much as a truth. These journals, frank in so many ways, and so rich as social history, began to seem to us a cache of concealments, displacements, contradictions, and omissions. Initially, they seemed such a boon, but eventually they became another layer to excavate through. This biography will track some of my own processes, as well as my conclusions. In the nearly three decades that she has been the object of my parttime research I have never grown bored with Maud. She is truly a biographer’s dream subject: you never feel that you have found the master key that fully unlocks all the rooms in her house.
In 1908, Lucy Maud Montgomery burst onto the literary scene with her first novel, Anne of Green Gables. At age thirtythree, she had already published scores of short stories and poems, but this bestselling novel achieved instant acclaim, with seven impressions printed in its first year alone. It churned up so much attention that her home province, Prince Edward Island, soon had a flood of visitors, all wanting to see the landscapes she painted so vividly. Her publisher demanded sequels, and she obliged, eventually making her beloved Island a site for tourists from all over the world. Her books appeared to be “simple little tales” (to echo her own modest phrasing in a journal entry dated October 15, 1908), but that was misleading: the last quarter century of scholarly research has shown that her writing has been, in fact, a very powerful agent of social change.
Anne of Green Gables was not written as a novel for children. It was aimed at a general audience of adults and children, men and women, sophisticates and simple readers, as were many of her other books. It appealed to famous statesmen as much as to ordinary people. In 1908, the celebrated author Mark Twain wrote Maud to praise “Anne” as “the dearest and most moving and delightful child since the immortal Alice.” In 1910, Earl Grey, one of Canada’s most beloved Governors General and an esteemed writer himself, travelled to Prince Edward Island just to meet her. In 1923, she was the first Canadian woman to be elected as a member of the British Royal Society of Arts.
By 1925, translations into other languages were expanding her readership in Sweden, Holland, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Australia, and France. Two prime ministers of Great Britain expressed admiration for her books: Stanley Baldwin made a point of meeting her during his 1927 tour of Canada; his successor, Ramsay MacDonald, is reported to have said that he read all of her books that he could find – not just once, but several times.
At home in Ontario, where she moved in 1911 following her marriage to Presbyterian minister Ewan Macdonald, Maud was in constant demand as a storyteller and speaker. She was also active in organizations associated with the Canadian cultural scene, particularly the Canadian Authors Association. In 1928, a rapturous audience of two thousand gave her a standing ovation at the annual Canadian Book Week in Toronto, Ontario. In 1935, she was elected to the Literary and Artistic Institute of France for her contributions to literature. In the same year, she was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in Canada. In 1937, the Montreal Family Herald and Star reported from a survey that she and Charles Dickens were the “most read” authors in Canada. Also in 1937, the Prince Edward Island National Park was established to preserve the landscapes her books had made so famous. Her status as an international celebrity seemed secure.
By the time of her death in 1942, she had published over twenty books, and more than five hundred short stories and five hundred poems, all while raising a family, living a busy life as the wife of a country minister, and completing ten volumes of secret journals. Her books were read all over the English-speaking world, and were translated into many more languages. No other Canadian writer had reached such a pinnacle of success on so many fronts: she was truly an international celebrity.
But a reversal of her literary reputation had been slowly occurring. For the first decade after Anne of Green Gables was published, critics praised Maud’s books. However, as Modernism set in, with its grim focus on the breakdown of social norms, critics dimmed their view of her cheerful books, with their witty treatment of human behaviour and their celebration of the imagination and nature. Instead, the professional critics started faulting her novels for their splashes of purple prose and their “sentimentalism,” ignoring the darker soundings that haunted her stories before the reader got to the “happy endings.”
In the mid-1920s, the growing cadre of men who panned her books included influential newsmen, university professors, and writers in Canada, and they all knew each other. In 1926, one of Canada’s powerful newspaper critics led the attack, labelling her books the nadir of Canadian fiction. A much respected professor of literature termed her books “naïve” with an “innocence” that suggested “ignorance of life.” A grudging evaluation was made by another male novelist, who wrote: “ . . . not that those books may not have their readers who profit from them: I have found that out. But how a woman who judges so accurately can stand writing that stuff . . .” In the face of such attacks, even the critics who had previously lauded her writing started being careful to temper their praise.
Nevertheless, all these men were impressed (and annoyed) by her sales success. While some allowed that her large readership might speak to some undefined cultural need, others felt that her popularity merely proved her “lowbrow” quality. These detractors spoke with such a powerful voice in Canada between the mid-1920s and her death in 1942 that her work fell into disfavour. Librarians heeded what the influential critics said, and some libraries even shunned her books. In 1967, the don of Canadian librarians, Sheila Egoff, wrote a groundbreaking study of Canadian children’s literature that gave definition to the field. She repeated the view of the earlier critics, and attacked Maud for “sentimental dishonesty.” By the 1970s the general wisdom was that Montgomery was a sentimental writer who appealed to the uncultured and masses of undiscriminating women and children, and still in the 1980s, expressing an admiration for Maud’s books was rather risky. She was relegated strictly to the category of “children’s writer,” and was judged by her weakest books, not by her best.
My thinking for this biography began in summer 1974. At that time, I was a young academic attending an international children’s literature conference in Toronto, which brought together librarians, academics, and writers from North America and the United Kingdom. I was surprised to hear several Canadians there refer to Maud’s writing in terms that depicted it as a national embarrassment. That, I learned, was the legacy of the critics of the previous fifty years: their view was entrenched.
This puzzled me. I had come from the United States and a background in American literature. I taught Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn at the University of Guelph. In my view, Anne of Green Gables held up very well in comparison. The main difference was that Huck, a boy, could challenge conventions, but Anne, a girl, had to conform to them. Otherwise, there were many interesting similarities between the two books. Each author had a wonderfully comic way with satire, and each book – though telling a simple, episodic story – had a great deal of depth.
I soon discovered that one of my senior colleagues, Elizabeth Waterston, believed that Maud was undervalued, too. In 1967 – Canada’s centennial year and the year Sheila Egoff’s book was published – Elizabeth had written the first substantial scholarly article taking Maud’s books seriously. Soon after, she had been quietly advised by a distinguished university colleague not to waste any more time writing about Maud if she wished to advance up the academic ladder. He meant the advice in a kindly way, fearing that her critical talents would be squandered on an unworthy subject – at least in the eyes of the English Department’s Promotion and Tenure Committee.
By 1974, Elizabeth had moved on, and had become Chair of the Department of English at the University of Guelph. In 1975, a group of us in the department decided to start the journal CCL: Canadian Children’s Literature. (We had already started a course in “Children’s Literature,” a new academic field then.) Maud became the focus of our third issue, with Elizabeth’s 1967 piece reprinted as the lead article. We were scrabbling for material in a new field, and I set about writing a comparison of Huckleberry Finn and Anne. Writing this article intensified my interest in Maud. I didn’t like the sequels as much as I liked Anne of Green Gables, but there was something magnetic about her writing.
This ultimately led to a long journey into literary archaeology. In the late 1970s I met Maud’s son, Dr. E. Stuart Macdonald (who, as our friendship developed, I came to call “Stuart”), after sending him a complimentary copy of our special issue. By this time, I had formed an image of the personality I believed to be behind Maud’s books: she had a wonderful sense of humour and she looked at humankind with a bemused, tolerant smile. I thought she must have been the ideal mother, and said so early in my first meeting with her son. That illadvised remark clearly hit a nerve, and I will never forget Dr. Macdonald’s slow, appraising look, first at me and then into me and finally through me. A succinct (and more measured) version of his response to me is found in a letter he once wrote to a Swedish woman:
. . . although in her writings, [my mother] . . . gave the impression of broad tolerance of human weaknesses, she did not condone any such elasticity in herself or her family. . . . She was extremely sensitive, although an excellent dissembler, and though she experienced great peaks, she also fell to great depths emotionally, which does not make for tranquillity. This rigidity and sensitivity, prevented any easy camaraderie in the family, but she was capable of inspiring deep affection in us all.
By the end of the interview, I was rather intimidated by Maud’s son, a busy and respected medical doctor who knew how to speak his mind forcefully when journalists and academics intruded on his time. But my curiosity about his mother’s personality was piqued to the extreme. Where did those funny, happy novels come from?
Dr. Macdonald died suddenly of an aneurysm in 1982, and Elizabeth Waterston and I began the long process of editing Maud’s journals together. Maud had willed them to Dr. Macdonald with the instruction that he should publish them eventually. I expected them to answer my evolving fascination with Maud’s hold on people – including me. A friend working on a Ph.D. told me her theory: “I reread Montgomery to wash the academic sludge out of my mind.” Other’s comments confirmed that reading Maud’s books seemed to make people feel happy, refreshed, and part of a special community. I mused over the possibility of measuring happiness through people’s neural responses while reading different writers, and I fancied the fun in matching Maud against a Faulkner or a Joyce.
As Elizabeth and I went through the journals together, editing them, we puzzled over the astonishing disjunction between the bright, happy novels and the dark, often painful life. How could one personality produce such different documents simultaneously – writing cheerful novels in the morning and tortured journals in the evening, so to speak? Maud was quite aware of her own bifurcated life. As a minister’s wife with a very judgmental nature, she developed a carefully controlled public persona and revealed little of her inner thoughts. Her journals were clearly a safety valve for a highly volatile woman. What was this complex woman really like?
Once, when a journalist came to interview her, she wrote that she was keeping her inner life private and hidden: “Well, I’ll give him the bare facts he wants. He will not know any more about the real me or my real life for it all. . . . The only key to that is found in this old journal.” But as Elizabeth and I worked closely with the journals, those “tell-all” documents, we discovered they did not reveal everything.
Dr. Macdonald had asked me to write a biography of his mother based on her journals shortly before he died. I argued that the proper order was to publish the journals first, and then write a biography, after more research. Elizabeth and I wrote a short biography called Writing a Life: L. M. Montgomery in 1995, and it is now available on the Internet (www.lmmrc.ca). Dr. Macdonald told me that if I did write his mother’s biography, he wanted it to be as truthful as possible for several reasons: first, because she herself hated prettied-up biographies that made no attempt to get behind the real truths in lives; second, because her achievements would be more remarkable if people knew the conditions under which she wrote; and finally, because there would be things people could learn from her life that might prevent them from making the same mistakes. His mother had left him written instructions that he was to publish all of her journals intact, eventually, but there is much in this biography that is not in her journals and that he himself did not know.