Like many books which have become prized possessions of mine–often read until the covers are worn and spines split–I did not discover LM Montgomery’s literary gems until I was almost into my majority. It wasn’t that I was reading Harlequin novels or trashy teen novels (although I will admit to, to this day, still being fascinated by Walter Farley’s the Black Stallion books, as well as the Asterisk and Elfquest comics).
Very much the opposite, as a matter of fact; my parents had decided that American and Canadian literature was not helping to better my written English, and so my nose was often buried in Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies (all of them, although I drew the line at reading his histories), as well as British novels like Wuthering Heights, and Pride and Prejudice. After a fashion, I did learn to love reading what my junior high classmates would have considered to be highfalutin literature. In fact, I felt privileged to be able to understand such erudite lore (not realizing that in the space of a few short years, I would be exposed to international literature from the likes of Kafka, Achebe, Goldsmith, and Swift. But I digress).
Instead, it was the first in a series of the titled books (that was ironically given to my twin brother) that tipped me off to the wonderful story of “a red-haired orphan girl whom nobody wanted”; and then the second in the series (given to me as a birthday gift) which further built on that initial interest. Kevin Sullivan’s TV novelization in 1985 was the catalyst that whetted my appetite for the remaining six books in the Anne octology.
Anne was a character that I could relate to; she had fears of rejection, of standing out (in a bad way), of not being as good as others, of making mistakes, of not belonging to anyone or any place. Although the Anne of Green Gables books did not start with Anne’s birth, it does chronicle in rich detail Anne’s life from orphan to A student to teacher to aspiring (and ultimately, successful) writer to bride of a young doctor to a mother of seven, punctuated along the way with comedic and tragic circumstance, and stands as the first coming-of-age story that I read and understood.
But to fully understand the enduring appeal of Anne Shirley, a character beloved in so many countries for more than 100 years after the publication of these novels, I felt that it was important to also learn about Lucy Maud Montgomery, the child, the woman, and what shaped her to become, with 20 novels, 500 short stores and poems and an autobiography to her credit, the pre-eminent Canadian female writer and poet of her time.
There’s a lot to admire about a woman who was born in a time when a university education and a career as a novelist were considered fripperies. And her status was apparently frowned upon by the establishment, with rejection after rejection of her submissions to the publishers of the day–to the point where she shelved Anne of Green Gables in a cupboard to forget about it. She resumed her efforts a year later and finally found a sympathetic ear and an audience that gradually grew to span the globe. The fact that she is Canadian (stalwartly so), as are her heroines, adds to my respect for her. Her novels are eminently readable even by young readers, the characters well defined, and plots carefully crafted with a unique wit, style and respect for the English language.
I believe that writers pour the best and worst of themselves into their characters. The lonely circumstances of Ms. Montgomery’s childhood and being raised by strict grandparents had a strong hand in shaping her prolific and creative storytelling abilities. We can draw strong parallels between Anne and LM. One was an orphan and the other a near-orphan (Montgomery’s mother died when she was not even 2 years old, and her grief-stricken father gave the task of her upbringing to his in-laws). Both became teachers but evinced a stronger desire to write instead, writing being a great source of solace and escapism. Both were given to great flights of imagination and broke with precedents of the day with their choice of careers. Both were pursued by a number of suitors before settling down to start a family. Both lost a child to stillbirth. Both were exacting in their opinion of their life’s work, which they never felt was good enough.
But ultimately character and creator diverge. Anne had, despite the stillbirth of her first child baby daughter Joyce and then the death of her soldier son Walter in the Great War, a (more or less) “happily ever after” life with Gilbert (unless one cares to read about The Blythes are Quoted or watch the 2008 movie Anne of Green Gables: A New Beginning). Ironic then that her creator, one so talented with the pen and paper, one who entertained so many young minds, suffered from depression, accepted with great resignation the practicality of marriage over its romanticized ideal thanks to the reality of many soured relationships, had a husband who gradually lost his mental and physical faculties in his later years, lost a child in stillbirth, and was forced to litigate against her publisher for many years in expensive, stressful and time-consuming lawsuits. Hardly seems like poetic justice, doesn’t it?
Ms. Montgomery holds a special place in Canadian history, with her places of residence in both PEI and Ontario designated as National Historic Sites of Canada, her works studied at the L.M. Montgomery Institute, and herself invested as an OBE and the first female in Canada to be named a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in England. During the summer of 2001, I was fortunate enough to visit PEI and Nova Scotia and see many places dedicated to her memory and her contributions. So with honours like these and many more, it’s easy to focus on the positive and gloss over the negative. For me, for many years, I saw only the genius and not the pain behind the genius. But now I understand how and why Ms. Montgomery found a way to make her gift a blessing for others, and I am thankful for the legacy she has left behind.
- New Anne of Green Gables film announced (cbc.ca)
- Lucy Maud Montgomery Wiki profile (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucy_Maud_Montgomery)