A few thoughts on Lucy Maud Montgomery

As previously mentioned (here, here, and here) I have been reading through a number of novels by Lucy Maud Montgomery this summer. I started with the eight (!) books in the Anne of Green Gables series, without a doubt her best-known work, and am now in the midst of reading her Emily trilogy (Emily of New MoonEmily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest). My fiction reading has been interrupted, however, by my desire to know more about the author herself — and so I put a pause on the novels in order to track down a library copy of Mary Henley Rubio’s biography, Lucy Maud Montgomery: the Gift of Wings. I am very glad that I did.

Rubio’s biography is illuminating; LMM’s life and character are both very different from that which I would have imagined, given the general tone of her books. While she may have been able to put on Anne Shirley’s cheerful and winsome optimism in her public face, her private journals reveal a woman who struggled with more than her share of difficulties: a childhood that left her deeply wounded, feeling perpetually inadequate; a perhaps ill-advised marriage to a man who regarded her success with something in between indifference and jealousy; a philandering, reprobate son; her own lifelong struggle with anxiety and depression; her husband’s worrying mental illness(es), poorly understood and exacerbated by heavy self-medication with various barbituates and bromides; the death of one of her children at its birth; tangled lawsuits with her unscrupulous first publisher; and the disheartening effect of seeing her books fall precipitously out of critical favour late in her life, as Modernism changed the shape of literature. She died suddenly of an overdose of the prescription medications to which she was addicted, in what was almost certainly not an accident.

As both a public figure and a minister’s wife, LMM was extremely constrained in her ability to express her darker feelings or admit to her family’s difficulties. Her journals became her companions and confidants — yet even they are somewhat disingenuous. LMM was conscious that her journals would one day be published after her death. Their entries were all written retrospectively, from jot-notes, and so do not accurately reflect her thoughts and feelings at the time; instead, they have been reshaped months or even years later, and are influenced by LMM’s desire to provide her life with a narrative structure, as well as her hindsight-enabled changes of view and overall tendency to conceal rather than reveal. Furthermore, because the journals were her only safe repository for negative thoughts and feelings, they skew heavily in that direction; friends and relations who read them after their publication were astonished to find how ill those entries lined up with their own memories of Montgomery as a vivacious, kind woman with an unfailing sense of humour. LMM was, it seems, an incredibly complex character; it is hard to know with her what is the true image of the many she projected.

This is not the stuff a biographer’s dreams are made of, but Rubio deftly handles the tangled web Montgomery left her.  She is a Montgomery scholar, and her own research is augmented by interviews in the 1970s and 80s with those who knew LMM and her family, as well as the help and encouragement of Dr. E. Stuart Macdonald, LMM’s younger son (not the reprobate one). Although certain events in Montgomery’s life remain shrouded in mystery — and doubtless always will — Rubio has produced an admirable book that is both scholarly and eminently readable. I would recommend Lucy Maud Montgomery: the Gift of Wings to both fans of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s work, and biography aficionados.

Of course, I am also glad to have read it because of Rubio’s comments on the ambiguities in Rilla of Ingleside that I noticed on my recent read-through. Here is what she writes about its creation:

Rilla is a sentimental novel in one sense. Maud tries hard to shore up people’s belief that the war was truly a fight against evil. When Walter’s last letter arrives after his death, it tells them that he has died that others may fulfill their lives in freedom and happiness. It urges them to “keep the faith.” This echo of the war rhetoric is what Maud wants to believe — indeed, what she must believe: that this war was one that would end all wars.

[…] [However] By 1924, she stated that she believed that all events were governed by the Darwinian concept of “blind impersonal Chance,” not by a deity. Her doubts about the role that God and religion played in human affairs were already beginning to show as she wrote the first draft of Rilla of Ingleside in the first eight months of 1920.

She brings ambiguity into the novel through her symbolic use of the “Piper.” This mythic figure had appeared first in Rainbow Valley, leading the boys out of the sylvan glade of childhood towards their future in European battlefields. When the image of the Piper appears again in Rilla, he seems to be the same Scottish bagpiper whose music instills bravery in soldiers, pumping them up with courage, and leading them valiantly into battle. Walter, for instance, has been a gentle, poetic boy who shies from aggression, fearing both war and death, but this admirable Piper gives him resolve, purpose, and courage.

However, as the story progresses, the Piper of Rainbow Valley morphs into a more mysterious figure in Rilla. He resembles the deadly “Pied Piper” of the children’s fairy tale — the Piper who pipes to innocent children, leading them away from their parents into a cavern. When the door closes behind them, they disappear from earth and are never seen again. This latter Piper, from the Underworld, has fooled them with his seductive music.

[…] Why should innocent boys from rural Canada have had to die in European trenches to fight God’s war? She had started to see religion more as a social organization than anything else, and she thought that the real power lay in science and knowledge, not in a literal and omnipotent God sitting on high. Like so many other reflective people of her era, she was conflicted and confused. But she knew that people had to continued to believe the war rhetoric, or they would think that their sacrifices had been in vain. Certainly, evil was real.

The shifting Piper imagery betrays her confusion… (Rubio, Lucy Maud Montgomery: the Gift of Wings, 285-6)

So there we see it: the tension in Rilla of Ingleside arises from the tension between the two versions of Montgomery: the popular author who needed to keep the public’s spirits up after a devastating war, and the private woman assailed by doubts over the justness of the Great War and whether God could, or would, act in history. Small wonder that the novel holds a certain level of ambiguity. Lucy Maud Montgomery was an ambiguous figure herself, and her work echoes its creator’s life and personality in this as well as in more straightforward ways.

One thought on “A few thoughts on Lucy Maud Montgomery

  1. Pingback: Reading round-up: August 2017 | In this Ordinary Time

Comments are closed.