Reading Round-Up: June 2019

June was a good month for Canadiana this year, with a full 60% Canadian authorship-rate on my list. Not that I planned it that way — these things tend to happen on their own as I get onto reading jags — but it seems appropriate given that I’m writing this round-up post on Canada Day. (Happy Canada Day.) Here’s the breakdown:

  1. Further Chronicles of Avonlea (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  2. Against the Odds (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  3. A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee Williams)
  4. Frost & Fire (Roger Zelazny)
  5. I Work at a Public Library (Gina Sheridan)
  6. Boy (Roald Dahl)
  7. The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls (Anissa Gray)
  8. The Story Girl (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  9. The Blythes are Quoted (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  10. Vinyl Cafe Turns the Page (Stuart McLean)
  11. Time Now for the Vinyl Cafe Story Exchange (ed. Stuart McLean)
  12. Spirit of Place: Lucy Maud Montgomery and Prince Edward Island (Francis W. P. Bolga, Wayne Barrett, and Anne MacKay)
  13. The Vinyl Cafe Notebooks (Stuart Mclean)
  14. The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Brian Selznick)
  15. The Value of Simple: A Practical Guide to Taking the Complexity Out of Investing (John Robertson)

Lucy Maud Montgomery

… gets her own section this month, with four books by her and one about her. The latter was not, unfortunately, especially interesting. Spirit of Place is a photo book of PEI scenes interspersed with random quotations from LMM’s diaries or letters. I liked most of the pictures — Prince Edward Island certainly lives up to its picturesque reputation — but the quotations seemed chosen at random, the photos didn’t have any discernible order to them, and the whole project seemed rather haphazard. It’s too bad.

The Story Girl is the only novel among the pack, centering around a group of cousins and friends who live in a rural PEI enclave and have adventures etc. The “Story Girl” is really named Sara Stanley, and she has a reputation as a gifted storyteller with an unearthly and charming voice, powerful beyond what her youth would suggest. There is a lot of overblown description of the Story Girl, passages like these:

The Story Girl was barefooted and barearmed, having rolled the sleeves of her pink gingham up to her shoulders. Around her waist was twisted a girdle of the blood-red roses that bloomed in Aunt Olivia’s garden; on her sleek curls she wore a chaplet of them; and her hands were full of them. She paused under the outmost tree, in a golden-green gloom, and laughed at us over a big branch. Her wild, subtle, nameless charm clothed her as with a garment. We always remembered the picture she made there; and in later days when we read Tennyson’s poems at a college desk, we knew exactly how an oread, peering through the green leaves on some haunted knoll of many fountained Ida, must look. (Chapter 18)

The Story Girl leaned that brown head of hers against the fir trunk behind her, and looked up at the apple-green sky through the dark boughs above us. She wore, I remember, a dress of warm crimson, and she had wound around her head a string of waxberries, that looked like a fillet of pearls. Her cheeks were still flushed with the excitement of the evening. In the dim light she was beautiful, with a wild, mystic loveliness, a compelling charm that would not be denied. (Chapter 27)

But when the Story Girl wreathed her nut brown tresses with crimson leaves it seemed, as Peter said, that they grew on her–as if the gold and flame of her spirit had broken out in a coronal, as much a part of her as the pale halo seems a part of the Madonna it encircles. (Chapter 28)

Those were just chosen by paging through at random. There is a lot more of that kind of thing, all terribly saccharine. The Story Girl has a sequel, The Golden Road, but I’m not sure that I’ll bother reading it. I’ve had rather enough of Sara Stanley for a while.

When I checked Further Chronicles of Avonlea out, the librarian laughed at the melodramatic pose on its cover, quipping that it doesn’t really seem very Montgomery-ish. And probably that’s true if you’ve only read Anne of Green Gables, because LMM’s writing on the whole is much darker and more dramatic than her current reputation admits. Anne, after all, was not considered a children’s book when it was first published, and LMM chafed through her life against her growing reputation as someone who wrote for children, not adults. (For further reading see Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings by Mary Henley Rubio.)

Further Chronicles of Avonlea, Against the Odds, an1d The Blythes are Quoted are short story collections, none of which shy away from the dramatic: their narratives deal with poverty, revenge, adultery, illegitimacy, and murder, along with gentler aspects. The Blythes are Quoted is especially interesting in this regard. It is a departure in form from many of her other works, consisting of short stories interspersed by a framing device of poetry by Anne and Walter Blythe, as well as the Blythe family’s spoken and unspoken ruminations on their contents. It is also the last book that Montgomery wrote, delivered to her publisher by an unknown person on the very day she died of suicide via barbiturate overdose. Is The Blythes are Quoted, if not exactly a suicide note, at least a kind of final statement? In some ways it reads as one, as her characters wrestle with the lead-up and aftermath of World War One, particularly (in the latter half of the book) as the dawn of the Second World War called into question all the sacrifices of the First. This was a preoccupation of LMM herself, as well as of her husband, the Rev. Ewen Macdonald, who became convinced late in life that he was predestined to hell for encouraging young men to sign up to fight in WWI. (Seriously: read the Rubio biography.) It’s a dark read, in many ways — but it’s dark in the ways that Montgomery has been all along, if we’ve had the eyes to see it.

Everyone else:

End of essay. Here are the other books I tackled in June, in no particular order:

Zelazny’s Frost & Fire is a collection of sci-fi short stories that I enjoyed very much. I have read other Zelazny before — most notably his sprawling ten-volume Chronicles of Amber series — but not, I think, any short stories. These were clever and strange and very entertaining. Man, I should totally reread the Amber books.

If I Work in a Public Library sounds like the title of a blog, that’s because it is. This is a short, amusing blog-to-book publication that takes about six minutes to read.

We were at the library last week at The Invention of Huge Cabret grabbed my attention — I remember my roommate telling me about how obsessed all of her young piano students were with the movie version when it came out in 2011. It’s a very thick book, but most of it is pictures. I think I would have liked the movie better.

A Streetcar Named Desire is one of those cultural touchstones that you probably know some lines from (STELLLLLLLLLLAAAAAAAA) without necessarily knowing that this is where they’re from. Well, now I’ve read it, and now I know. I’m pretty sure I own at least one or two other plays by Tennessee Williams — definitely A Doll’s House, anyway — and perhaps I will read them soon.

The Value of Simple is a guide for Canadian investors, looking at how to set up index-fund investing (and why you would want to, of course). There is a big friendly “don’t panic” at the beginning, à la Douglas Adams, and the entire thing was easy to read and to understand. And look, now we know some stocks. Wheeeeeeee. (NB: Robertson maintains an errata page where he posts updated information as some options have changed since the book’s publication.)

Over the past few years I have enjoyed diving into memoir as a genre, and Roald Dahl’s account of his boyhood did not disappoint. In many respects his childhood was not an easy one; it was interesting, however, to see the genesis of many of the repeated themes that come out in his novels.

And last, but certainly not least, we come to the late, great Stuart McLean. Last month I read a Vinyl Cafe story collection, which gave me a hankering for more. Each of these is a little different: Vinyl Cafe Turns the Page is a collection of Dave and Morley stories, Time Now for the Vinyl Cafe Story Exchange is an anthology of short (true) stories sent in to the Vinyl Cafe radio show by listeners, and The Vinyl Cafe Notebooks is a collection of thematically-grouped personal essays. All of these were wonderful, and I was happy to round out my mental McLean catalogue.

Post-publication edit: I forgot about The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray, which first caught my eye in the library simply because it has a beautiful cover. It’s a tightly-woven family drama that reminds me somewhat of Anne Tyler’s novels — except instead of everyone being white Marylanders they are black Michiganites. Michigonians. Michiganis. They live in Michigan. Lots of reckoning with the past and future, emotional revelations, and etc. It was very good, in a fraught sort of way.

Reading Round-Up: May 2019

Here’s what I read in May:

  1. I’ve Got Your Number (Sophie Kinsella)
  2. Early Riser (Jasper Fforde)
  3. Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People (Michael Frost)
  4. The End of Education (Neil Postman)
  5. Trust Exercise (Susan Choi)
  6. The Wealthy Barber Returns (Dave Chilton)
  7. Christmas at the Vinyl Cafe (Stuart McLean)
  8. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (Gregory Maguire)
  9. Kilmeny of the Orchard (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  10. The Year of Magical Thinking (Joan Didion)
  11. After Many Days (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  12. I Owe You One (Sophie Kinsella)
  13. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (John M. Gottman and Nan Silver)

The book that has most stuck with me is probably Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise. It is set at a competitive arts high school in the 1980s, following a class of drama students as they form and lose romances, friendships, and alliances under the supervision of their brilliant and demanding drama teacher, Mr. Kingsley. The brilliance of Trust Exercise is in the way it works to reshape our understanding of the truth or falsity of its depicted events. The narrative is divided into three sections. there is a major shift (in perspective, in understanding) about halfway through the novel that asks us to re-evaluate what came before, and yet another in the short third section that in turn reframes the contents of both the first and second sections. I coudn’t stop thinking about it after I finished. I’m still thinking about it.

The other novel that especially stood out to me from May’s reading is Jasper Fforde’s Early Riser. Jasper Fforde writes weird, fascinating novels set in alternate-universe earths. Early Riser is set on an earth — in Wales, to be precise — where humans hibernate through the winter, humanity is facing a global cooling crisis, and under-population is a constant threat. Also there are viral dreams that may or may not be becoming real. And zombies. It’s all completely bonkers and you should read it.

I also made some progress on the resumption of my Lucy Maud Montgomery reading project. Kilmeny of the Orchard had its own post here. After Many Days is a collection of rediscovered short stories, collated and edited by Rea Wilmshurst. There are a few of these collections now, all arranged thematically. The stories in After Many Days all had to do with the resolution of things long put on hold: long-lost lovers finally reuniting, family reconciliations, chances for a long-anticipated revenge, someone returning in the nick of time and un-mortgaging the family farm, and so on and so forth — happy endings all round, of course. I enjoyed them.

Besides After Many Days, I read one other collection of short stories: Christmas at the Vinyl Cafe. The Vinyl Cafe was a long-running CBC radio show, hosted by the late Stuart McLean. It featured music and essays, but the heart of the show was its stories, especially the “Dave and Morley” stories about a middle-aged Toronto couple and their family, friends, and neighbours. I grew up listening to The Vinyl Cafe on Sunday afternoons, and I either own or have read most of the story collections. (It may or may not be possible to listen to some of them on youtube, possibly including my personal favourite, Polly Anderson’s Christmas Party. Shhhh.)

Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister was a fairly enjoyable read, setting the Cinderella story in Haarlem (Netherlands) during the Tulip mania years. The title doesn’t match the tone especially well.

Last, but not least, on the fiction list for May: two novels by Sophie Kinsella. In I’ve Got Your Number, Poppy Wyatt loses her engagement ring — a heirloom! — and her cell phone in a hotel fire-drill mishap; luckily, she finds a cell phone someone left in the trash and can leave its number with the hotel in case her ring turns up. But the cell phone belongs to someone — the ex-assistant of Sam Roxton, high-powered businessman, who wants his company phone back. This one was genuinely funny, and very of-the-moment with a lot of text messages breaking up the narrative. In I Owe You One, “Fixie” Farr saves a stranger’s laptop from water damage at a coffee shop, setting off a chain of I-owe-yous between her and Seb, the laptop’s owner, while she tries to juggle running her family’s shop and the reappearance of Ryan, and old crush, in her life. It was definitely not as strong as I’ve Got Your Number.

I’ve already forgotten what the Five Habits of Highly Missional People are. Um… eating together is one. Honestly, I’m drawing a complete blank. I suppose I could always read it again since it’s a teeny, tiny, seriously short book.

Neil Postman’s The End of Education was a helpful read for me as I think about the kids’ educational choices. If education is a means to an end, Postman asks, then what precisely is that end? And, if we have determined what the end of education is, how does the means of education — here he is chiefly considering the public school system, but the question applies more broadly — serve that end? Or does it serve it at all? And if the means don’t serve the end, what must change?

I tried to read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking some years ago, and couldn’t get past the first few pages; the book begins with the account of her husband’s sudden death, and I don’t know what it was — it was just too sad for me, at least then, and I couldn’t go on. But I went on this time. It’s a sensitively written and beautiful little book, but yes, sad, especially at its end, where it concludes on rather a hopeless note.

My husband and I both read The Wealthy Barber Returns last month, mostly on the recommendation of r/personalfinancecanada. It’s a funny, easy read, and gave us a lot of good discussion points now that we’re finally done with school and paying for school, and thinking about things like investments and retirement and university costs for the children and all that good stuff. It’s a good overview, I think, and we may go back to it in the future.

Finally, the Gottman book. A few years ago I read a profile of John Gottman’s work in The Atlantic that was making the social media rounds: The Secret to Love is Just Kindness. It stuck with me, and The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work is a great introduction to his research — which includes longitudinal studies on thousands of couples over multiple decades — and, I think, very practical and wise. If you’re married this one is probably a must-read.

Phew! I think half the “writing” time for these posts is spent doing things like googling character names I can no longer remember… I need to start making notes as I go.

Kilmeny of the Orchard

What a delight it was to me to realise that when you move to an author’s home country, you can find more of their books — and so here begins a mini-resumption of my Lucy Maud Montgomery reading project (the first six posts of which are linked here). Over the summer of 2017 I read as many of Montgomery’s books as I could easily get my hands on — which ended up being nineteen of them — as well as a biography. Now I have just finished LMM number twenty, Kilmeny of the Orchard.

It is a sweet love story, unusual in the Montgomery canon in that its protagonist is a man rather than a girl or a woman — actually, of the twenty, it is the only one set up this way (although I believe a few of her short stories take a male point of view). Eric Gordon is a fresh university graduate intent on joining his father in the family business — but not before he spends a few weeks on Prince Edward Island, substitute teaching in place of a friend who is taken ill. Wandering down through an abandoned orchard one night, he is suddenly arrested by the sound of beautiful music being played on the violin. The player is the beautiful Kilmeny Gordon — a young woman with a sad family history and a puzzling case of muteness.

Naturally Eric and Kilmeny’s love grows and triumphs in the end — it’s hardly giving anything away to say so! I will leave you to discover how on your own, if you are so inclined. The reader will want to pay attention to the theme of emotional pain and how it transforms one’s character and relationships, for better or for worse. I was particularly struck by this short passage near the end of the novel:

As he crossed the pasture field before the spruce wood he came upon Neil Gordon, building a longer fence. Neil did not look up as Eric passed, but sullenly went on driving poles. Before this Eric had pitied Neil; now he was conscious of feeling sympathy with him. Had Neil suffered as he was suffering? Eric had entered into a new fellowship whereof the passport was pain. (p. 235)

It seems to me that, fundamentally, we have two options when confronted with pain and sorrow: to turn inward upon ourselves in self-pity, as Neil does, or to allow it to turn us outward towards others in compassion, as Eric is here able to do. Kilmeny of the Orchard is, in part, concerned with the question of what we are to do with our pain — and how those choices affect those around us, innocent and guilty alike.

I also learned a little bit more about PEI history, because I had to look up a reference to the “harvest excursion train”. In the earlier half of the twentieth century, trains would take Maritimers west each year to work the grain harvests in the prairie provinces, as well as for other industries like logging and school-teaching. You can read more about the harvest excursion in this CBC piece.

Kilmeny of the Orchard was a lovely read, and quick — despite the high page count on the quotation above, there is not that much to it (my copy had largeish print and extraordinarily wide margins). It was a nice way to pick up my LMM project again. Twenty books down… five more to go!

Valancy, Jane, Marigold, and Pat

My Lucy Maud Montgomery reading project has continued into the fall, and I am close to the end of it, with only one book left to go (out of all the LMM novels & short story collections available to me though my local public library system). One of the most interesting parts of this endeavour, to me, is encountering LMM’s lesser-known heroines, and seeing how they compare and contrast with her most famous protagonist, Anne Shirley (later Blythe). I briefly touched on Emily Starr and her trilogy in my reading round-up post for August; here are four more I have encountered this month.

Valancy Stirling, of The Blue Castle, has shot straight to the top of my list of favourite Montgomery heroines, and the book she comes from may also be my favourite so far. We first meet Valancy as a single 29-year-old (a hopeless old maid, to be sure) who lives with her overbearing mother and horrible elderly cousin. Valancy is completely browbeaten, not just by those two women, but by the entirety of her large and close-knit clan. When she receives news that she has less than a year to live due to a heart condition, however, Valancy decides to start living life on her terms. She begins to say exactly what she’s thinking to her family, and leaves the family home (!) to go into service (!!) as companion to an old schoolmate of hers, a Fallen Woman (!!!) who lives with her perpetually drunk father (!!!!) and is dying of consumption. As her family schemes to get her back home, believing her to have quite literally taken leave of her senses, Valancy finds herself and, of course, love — as is surely required to cap off the book in a satisfying manner.

The Blue Castle is a romantic comedy of the finest degree, and I would compare it favourably with novels by Jane Austen. Since it is a romantic comedy I don’t think I’m giving much away by revealing that Valancy does not die at the end of her year — but the reason for that, and its consequences, I will leave for you to find out on your own. This is also the only Montgomery novel that takes place entirely off Prince Edward Island. It’s set the Muskoka region of Ontario, and Valancy’s hometown is a lightly-disguised Bala. That gave it a little extra something for me, since I have never seen the famous red roads of PEI, but do know a little something about this part of Ontario, where my childhood summer camp is located. If for no other reason, I’m glad to have taken on this reading project because it brought me The Blue Castle.

Jane Victoria Stuart, called Victoria by her family but Jane by her self, is the young protagonist of Jane of Lantern Hill, a novel set half in Toronto and half on the Island. Young Jane lives with her mother in a shabby-genteel neighbourhood in Toronto,  both equally under the thumb of her extremely strict and overbearing grandmother. Jane is domestically inclined, but is not allowed to do anything in the house by her grandmother; although she is being educated at an expensive girls’ school, her only friend is Jody, the orphaned servant who lives and works in the boarding house next door. Naturally, her grandmother disapproves of this friendship as well as of most other things that would bring Jane joy.

Jane’s world is turned upside-down when her father, whom she thought was dead, sends a letter to her mother asking her to send him Jane for a summer on PEI. Her parents, as it turns out, were only separated; Jane is summarily packed off to meet this unknown father. She lands in a world completely unlike that which she inhabited in Toronto, and is delighted to be trusted to keep house for her father — cooking, cleaning, and arranging to her heart’s delight — and to make friends without anyone being concerned whether her connections are “low”. It is a sweet story, and it was a pleasure to watch Jane blossom through her summers in PEI and learn to stand up to her grandmother. And of course, there is the requisite happy ending. All in all this was a satisfying read, and if Jane is occasionally a bit unbelievable in her domestic giftedness and enthusiasm, she makes up for it in other ways.

Marigold Lesley is the young protagonist of Magic for Marigold — very young indeed, as the novel opens when she is just four months old. I just read, when looking the book up online, that it is an expansion of four short stories. This explains some things about the structure: the novel makes large jumps in Marigold’s age between sections, which makes sense if those sections were originally stories in their own right. Marigold lives in a large, multi-generational home with her mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and various aunts, uncles, and domestic help. It’s more episodic than other books with a more overarching narrative, but the episodes (sections? vignettes?) provide a perfect blend of ridiculous (see: the family council called in order to name Marigold), touching (see: Marigold and Old Grandmother in the garden on the latter’s last night on earth), and funny (see: a terribly mischievous playmate who — so she says — is really a Russian princess). Magic for Marigold is a charming book.

Incidentally, Magic for Marigold makes me wonder if I have stumbled upon one of the reasons that a lot of these books by Lucy Maud Montgomery are so poorly known compared to the Anne series (besides the fact that Anne of Green Gables was published first and to great acclaim, giving it a natural edge on the competition). Her stories have aged very well, but I don’t think that her titles have all done the same. When I picked this book up from the library I had no idea what it would be about, but judging from the title alone I was expecting something, well, rather dumb. The Pat books (below) suffer from the same sort of thing, especially Mistress Pat. And in fact, even some of the Anne books have titles that don’t really recommend them (Anne’s House of Dreams leaps immediately to mind) — only those probably get an automatic pass since they are part of a very well-known series. There’s nothing in the title Magic for Marigold to make me think “yes, I want to read that” — which is a pity.

Patricia Gardiner, of Pat of Silver Bush and Mistress Pat, is the protagonist I had the hardest time liking — though I should qualify that by saying that I enjoyed her well enough in Pat of Silver Bush. It’s only in Mistress Pat that I began to find her… well, in all honesty, I found her unbearably tedious and by the time I was halfway through I was sorely tempted to just put the book down and walk away. I didn’t; I finished it, but the last hundred pages or so were certainly a bit of a slog. Pat’s whole schtick is that she is very attached to her family home, Silver Bush, and its inhabitants, and that she desperately hates change. She lives with her parents and various siblings, as well as the family’s old Irish housekeeper, Judy Plum, who speaks in a brogue that took some getting used to in terms of reading the accent as written. There are many, many cats.

The trouble is that what is charming in the young girl who graces the pages of Pat of Silver Bush is much less so in the woman of 20, 25, or 30 whose life is chronicled in Mistress Pat. Pat deeply resents even the happiest events in the lives of her family and friends, because she hates the thought of things changing; she rejects multiple suitors and breaks two engagements because she can’t bear the thought of leaving her home; she completely misses the fact that she’s really in love with her childhood friend, Hilary “Jingle” Gordon — misses it for decades — which drove me insane; and her constant raptures over Silver Bush and its environs eventually seem less sweetly sentimental than psychologically unwell. Pat of Silver Bush was an average sort of read; it lacks the sparkle of most of Montgomery’s other offerings, but didn’t grate on me either. Mistress Pat was a tremendous disappointment, and the only one of the new-to-me LMM books I’ve read through the past few months that I wouldn’t care to recommend.

Pat aside, it has been a pleasure encountering these additions in the Lucy Maud Montgomery canon. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Anne Shirley, the perpetual companion of my childhood and young adulthood, but most of these other heroines compare with her very favourably. Many of them deal with similar circumstances — note the theme of overbearing families in several of the books above — but each has her own unique personality and charm. None feels like a rehash of Anne; Lucy Maud Montgomery succeeded very well in making each of her protagonists and new and fresh creation. And some of them, I’m sure, will eventually become my old friends too. Except Pat!

The work for which we are fitted

Last night I finished the last book in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s “Emily” trilogy, Emily’s Quest, and was happily struck by the following passage towards its end, which I copied into my notebook. For context, the protagonist, Emily Starr, is a budding writer who had found herself unable to write after a bad injury and difficult convalescence (and an unwise love affair); this diary entry details her feelings upon finding her way back to her work:

“Get leave to work–
In this world ’tis the best you get at all,
For God in cursing gives us better gifts
than men in benediction.”

So wrote Elizabeth Barrett Browning — and truly. It is hard to understand why work should be called a curse — until one remembers what bitterness forced or uncongenial labour is. But the work for which we are fitted — which we feel we are sent into the world to do — what a blessing it is and what fulness of joy it holds. I felt this to-day as the old fever burned in my finger-tips and my pen once more seemed a friend.

“Leave to work” — one would think any one could obtain so much. But sometimes anguish and heartbreak forbid us the leave. And then we realise what we have lost and know that it is better to be cursed by God than forgotten by Him. If He had punished Adam and Eve by sending them out to idleness, indeed they would have been outcast and accursed. Not all the dreams of Eden ‘whence the four great rivers flow’ could have been as sweet as those I am dreaming tonight, because the power to work has come back to me.

Oh God, as long as I live give me “leave to work.” Thus pray I. Leave and courage. (Lucy Maud Montgomery, Emily’s Quest, Ch. XII.ii)

This jumped out at me immediately because I wrote my thesis on work — specifically on Dorothy L. Sayers’s theology of ditto. Although Sayers and Montgomery lived on opposite sides of the Atlantic ocean, they were rough contemporaries in age, and it is intriguing to see them working on a common theme — what was it about the inter-war period that made the question of work so pressing? — for Sayers also was adamant that there is no work on earth so worth doing save that for which we are particularly suited. As she wrote in a letter to a young admirer:

“Success”, by the way, is finding yourself engaged in doing the thing you are best fitted to do. Consequently, of course, you can never really know whether other people are successful or not. But you may come to the moment when you say, “I am now doing the job I was made for”. That is success, though nobody will know about it but yourself. (Dorothy L. Sayers, Letter to Hilary F. Page, 10 August 1944)

For both Montgomery and Sayers, the fundamental mark of being successful in work is finding oneself pursuing the job for which one has been made — that is to say, for which one is particularly suited by temperament, inclination, call, and training. In this scheme, there is no value judgement to be made between persons who are each doing the work for which they are best suited; a stay-at-home-mother may be regarded as equally successful to a neurosurgeon, provided that she works in a way that is faithful to her particular calling. Where they disagree, however, is in a subtle (but important!) matter of theology: was work cursed in the Garden of Eden, or is work itself the curse?

Montgomery, following Elizabeth Barrett Browning I suppose, accepts the premise that work is God’s curse upon mankind — though she finds that this does not leave it wholly unredeemable. But this is a misreading of Genesis. In the Creation->Fall narrative, work is present in the garden before the fall; it is part of God’s plan for an unfallen mankind in paradise. As Sayers points out in her essay Vocation in Work, the “new and ominous thing” that the curse brings in Genesis 3 is the fact that work “was [now] to be conditioned by economic necessity” (Dorothy L. Sayers, Vocation in Work).

Work has now become necessary for survival, not just for our flourishing. It is in this way that work has been cursed — but it is not, Sayers strongly asserts, a curse in and of itself. I believe that her interpretation is the correct one. Work is redeemable; one of the ways we can participate in that redemption on a personal level is by seeking out and then faithfully serving the work which seems to have been made for us alone. And when we find it, then we also will rejoice with Emily/Montgomery and Sayers, for the blessing and fulness of joy that it brings.

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.

Flash / feeling / epiphany / longing

My summer of reading Lucy Maud Montgomery continues; having made it through all eight novels in the Anne of Green Gables series, I am now into Emily of New Moon, which I am fairly certain is a new read for me. Although my mother owned a copy when I was a child — I can picture its cover quite clearly — the contents of the book are wholly unfamiliar to me. I was delighted, though, to come across this description of what Emily calls “the flash,” about halfway through the first chapter:

And then, for one glorious, supreme moment, came “the flash.”

Emily called it that, although she felt that the name didn’t exactly describe it. It couldn’t be described — not even to Father, who always seemed a little puzzled by it. Emily never spoke of it to any one else.

It had always seemed to Emily, ever since she could remember that she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain; she could never draw the curtain aside — but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond — only a glimpse — and heard a note of unearthly music.

This moment came rarely — went swiftly, leaving her breathless with the inexpressible delight of it. She could never recall it — never summon it — never pretend it; but the wonder of it stayed with her for days. It never came twice with the same thing. To-night the dark boughs against that far-off sky had given it. It had come with a high, wild note of wind in the night, with a shadow wave over a ripe field, with a greybird lighting on her window-sill in a storm, with the singing of “Holy, holy, holy” in church, with a glimpse of the kitchen fire when she had come home on a dark autumn night, with the spirit-like blue of ice palms on a twilit pane, with a felicitous new word when she was writing down a “description” of something. And always when the flash came to her Emily felt that life was a wonderful, mysterious thing of persistent beauty. (Emily of New Moon, ch. 1)

This delighted me for two reasons. The first is that it is a lovely passage describing a feeling that is rather difficult to capture in words: that of sudden epiphany. I recognise this feeling, though it feels a bit different for me than it does for Emily, and I have never tried to give it any particular name. But here, LMM seems to have captured its essentials, and that is a wonderful thing to read.

But this also delighted me because it sent my brain scurrying back to a book I read in undergrad in my Canadian Literature course: another classic, Who Has Seen the Wind by W. O. Mitchell. I love it when something I’ve read reminds me of something else I’ve read — whether purposefully or not, it’s so interesting to see authors working out similar themes. Who Has Seen the Wind is a gorgeous little book following the protagonist, Brian, as he grows up in a small prairie town.

Brian is also frequently struck by epiphany — what he simply calls “the feeling.” It comes with a sudden awareness of the grandeur of the prairie; as Brian notices, for the first time, the small perfection of a drop of water on a leaf; with the strange and sad sight of a calf born with two heads. Here’s one example:

Two days later, Brian lay under the hedge on the Sherry side of the house, his puppy in his arms. Sun streamed through the chinks in the Caragana leaves; a light breeze stirred them; Brian could see part of the road in front of the house; he could see two butterflies in lifting falling flight over the lawn patched with shade, briefly together, briefly apart. He lost sight of them by the spirea at the veranda.

The puppy whimpered slightly in its sleep; it nudged its head further into Brian’s neck. The boy was aware that the yard was not still. Every grass-blade and leaf and flower seemed to be breathing, or perhaps whispering — something to him — something for him. The puppy’s ear was inside out. Within himself, Brian felt a soft explosion of feeling. It was one of completion and of culmination. (Who Has Seen the Wind, ch. 7)

Is that not beautiful? My CanLit class was a bit of a bomb on the whole, but it gave me this book, and for that I am grateful. Brian’s feeling is close kin to Emily’s flash — and together they have sent me scurrying yet again, this time to C. S. Lewis’s sermon/essay “The Weight of Glory” (found in the book of the same name). Here Lewis takes it upon himself to pry apart our experience of epiphany, or as he names it, of longing or desire:

Now, if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object. And this, I think, is just what we find. […]

In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. […]

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Lewis names our epiphanies as moments of longing: our inborn desire for Heaven, which we were made for though we have not yet seen it. When the curtain between this world and the next seems to flutter briefly, and we have “the flash” or “the feeling,” that aching awareness is proof for our conviction that there must be something beyond this world. Epiphany is one of the ways that it calls to us: it is fleeting, that we would desire to possess it; it is piercing, that we would long to completely surrender to it; it will, if we let it, lead us Home.

A few further thoughts on Rilla of Ingleside

I wrote the previous post without having finished the novel — something I never used to do! — and I find that its end has left me with a few further things to mull. One is the fate of Mr. Pryor, the pacifist/traitor/whatever he was who served as one of the main villains of the book (besides, of course, those nasty Germans). When the armistice is announced, it is related that Mr. Pryor suffers a “paralytic stroke” — perhaps not a judgement from God, as Susan Baker implies, but certainly a judgement from his author. He is never to trouble the village of Glen St. Mary again. He has been silenced in the most effective way LMM could have managed short of killing him. Where Mr. Pryor’s pillorying during the Glen prayer meeting may have invited some critical questions about whether pacifism is, in fact, seditious, his final fate makes me think that LMM raises those questions inadvertently.

A perusal of her wiki page shows that LMM was a fervent supporter of the war effort, whose moods rose and fell with every Allied victory or defeat. This proved an immense strain on her marriage as the war dragged on, as her husband’s view on the war shifted profoundly from what it had been in its early days: “The Reverend Macdonald had developed major doubts about the justice of the war as it went along, and had come to feel by encouraging young men to volunteer for the war that he had seriously sinned…” Macdonald, a staunch Calvinist, was convinced that he was damned to Hell for this sin. On the other hand, LMM was a religious dualist, writing in her diary that “I believe in a God who is good, but not omnipotent. I also believe in a principle of Evil, equal to God in power…darkness to His light. I believe an infinite ceaseless struggle goes on between them.” If good and evil are equally powerful, small wonder that she would see any refusal to fight on the side of good as equal to fighting on the side of evil; dualism does not allow for neutrality. Thus the fate of Mr. Pryor is justifiable to his author — for if he was not on the side of good, then only one option is left.

Yet things are still not as simple as they appear. LMM’s own views on the war eventually shifted:

After the First World War, a recurring character in Montgomery’s journal that was to obsess her for the rest of her life was “the Piper”, who at first appeared as a heroic Highlander piper from Scotland, leading men into battle while playing traditional Highland tunes, but who turned out to be the Pied Piper of Hamelin, a trickster taking children away from their parents forever. The figure of “the Piper” reflected Montgomery’s own disillusionment with World War One and her guilt at her ardent support for the war.

Unfortunately I was not able to find a date for this shift; her biographer Mary Rubio, in Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings, simply gives the timeline as “after the war.” I would be very interested to know how it lines up with the writing and publication of Rilla of Ingleside; the presence of the Piper as a figure in the novel suggests to me that her views had already shifted, or started to do so. Which, of course, further complicates the issue of support (or lack thereof) for the war effort within the world of the novel. Does LMM intend for us to be sympathetic towards Mr. Pryor, or not?

I am inclined, now, to think not. One thing to consider is the unusual lack of balance in his characterization, compared to other characters throughout the Anne series. It is very rare to find a character without some redeemable quality, no matter how gruff, curmudgeonly, mean, or misguided they initially appear. And other ideological conflicts between characters — such as the political divide between Island Tories and Grits — are handled with a measure of humour and grace: they may spar with each other, but neither is portrayed as particularly villainous or heroic. Mr. Pryor is the only character I can think of off-hand who is wholly unredeemed, beginning to end.

And yet! Amid all of the novel’s stirring patriotic speeches about fighting on the side of God and good, there are seeds of doubt and discontent that creep in. LMM does not shy away from the horrors of war, neither for those at the front nor for those left at home. The tension lies, perhaps, in the attempt to accurately portray the support for the war as it really happened, while holding a view that, with the benefit of hindsight, has shifted. Whatever the reason, it injects a fascinating note of ambiguity into the narrative.

Explore more: LMM’s WikiPedia page

Pacifism and Treason in Rilla of Ingleside

This summer I have been re-reading my way through Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series. Most of the books I have read more times than I can easily number — especially Anne of the Island, my perpetual favourite — but I think I have only read Rilla of Ingleside once or maybe twice before, and probably not any time in the last twenty years. It is the only book of the series that I don’t own, and so I had to get a copy from the library this time around. Although I remember a small portion of the very end, the rest of the book has been so unremembered that it’s as if I am reading it for the first time.

Unlike the rest of the series, Rilla of Ingleside is thoroughly and explicitly anchored in time, being a chronicle of the Blythe family’s experience of the First World War. It was first published in 1921, and LMM’s account of the war, while fictionalised, reads with the freshness of recent memory. It is a much sadder book than any of the rest — small surprise there — and it’s been a hard read. At the outbreak of the war, the young men of the Glen enlist, confident of a jolly time potting Huns for dear old England, and expecting to be safely back home before the year is out. Reading a century later, I know what’s coming: the corpse-stinking mud of Flanders Fields, the Somme, Gallipolli, Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele and all the rest, and the better part of a generation squandered just to do it all again in twenty-five years’ time. The jolliness fades out of the narrative quickly as the Blythe family and their friends cope with life and deep loss throughout the years of the war. There are moments of sweetness, of course, but certainly not much of the whimsy we expect from an Anne novel.

One thing I am thinking about as I read is the question of what LMM intends us to make of all this. I am especially intrigued with this in connection with Mr. Pryor, a character who seems to act as a foil to the patriotism of the rest of the Glen’s inhabitants. Mr. Pryor — derisively referred to as “Whiskers-on-the-moon” in view of his fringed bald head — is a self-proclaimed pacifist and (therefore) a suspected German sympathizer. He forbids his daughter from marrying her sweetheart if he enlists (she marries him anyway). He is suspected of setting fire to another man’s barn. The village boys throw rocks through his windows. And he is consistently characterized as ignorant and mean-spirited.

About two-thirds of the way through the book, a contingent of young men enlist and the village calls a joint Presbyterian/Methodist prayer meeting for them. An account is given of what happens when the Methodist minister asks Mr. Pryor to lead a prayer:

Some people expected Mr. Pryor to refuse grumpily — and that would have made enough scandal. But Mr. Pryor bounded briskly to his feet, unctuously said, “Let us pray,” and forthwith prayed. In a sonorous voice which penetrated to every corner of the crowded building Mr. Pryor poured forth a flood of fluent words, and was well on in his prayer before his dazed and horrified audience awakened to the fact that they were listening to a pacifist appeal of the rankest sort. Mr. Pryor had at least the courage of his convictions; or perhaps, as people afterwards said, he thought he was safe in a church and that it was an excellent chance to air certain opinions he dared not voice elsewhere, for fear of being mobbed. He prayed that the unholy war might cease — that the deluded armies being driven to slaughter on the western front might have their eyes opened to their iniquity and repent while yet there was time — that these poor young men present in khaki, who had been hounded into a path of murder and militarism, should yet be rescued — (pp. 278-9)

The account ends with Mr. Pryor being grabbed, shaken, thoroughly chastised, and physically removed from the church, to everyone’s great satisfaction. His prayer is called “abominable” and seditious, and he dares not show his face in the village for some time thereafter. As far as the other characters are concerned, this is all perfectly satisfying. The rest of the novel treats Mr. Pryor in much the same manner. But are we to take Mr. Pryor’s treasonous characterization at face value — or, for that matter, the militaristic patriotism of the rest of the Glen’s inhabitants? Despite the way that the book plays out, I can’t help but think that LMM is gently inviting the reader to consider whether Mr. Pryor makes a sensible point. Certainly I do not think it abominable to pray for the end of war! (One can even support the just cause of a war while still praying that its duration would be brief.)

Rilla of Ingleside does not present a glorious vision of war: every household in the Glen is marked by it, one way or another, and tragedy strikes the Blythe home when one of Anne and Gilbert’s sons is killed in action. LMM is perhaps more critical of the war than her characters are (having, of course, the advantage over them of knowing how it all turns out). Her treatment of Mr. Pryor subtly invites the reader to question their own assumptions about pacifism, patriotism, what constitutes treason, and what a former colony does, or doesn’t, owe its parent. Rilla of Ingleside is a much more serious and somber book than any others in the Anne canon, but stands up to them on its own terms. A very satisfying addition to the world of Anne!