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!

A response to “What’s a Body to Do?”

This post is in response to a guest post by Deanna Briody over at SpiritualFriendship.org, entitled “What’s a Body to Do? The Place of Beauty and the Body in Non-Sexual Loves“.  Briody opens by recounting her experience of “noticing [herself] noticing women” and trying to find a way to understand that experience outside of the paradigm of sexual identity/orientation, which didn’t seem to apply. She writes,

I assumed for a year or two that this meant I was bisexual, but I admit the word never sat well with me. It tasted wrong in my mouth, not because I didn’t believe it was an authentic description of certain people’s experience, but because it felt inaccurate when applied to myself. I wasn’t sexually attracted to women. I was physically drawn to them. I didn’t want to sleep with them, but I did want to know them. There was no category for that.

This resonates with me. I also notice women; sometimes when I’m surrounded by women I feel like I can bask in their beauty as in sunshine. But I’ve never felt sexually attracted to another woman. In today’s culture of ever-more-nuanced definitions some might say that I’m a heterosexual bi-romantic. But that doesn’t fit the bill either. The attraction I can feel towards other women doesn’t feel romantic to me; I don’t want to date them, I don’t want to hold hands, I don’t feel any jealousy of their partners or have any desire to supplant them. And yet, there’s something there, something for which, as Briody points out, we don’t seem to have a category.

She concludes her piece by looking at beauty and the desire for beauty as a sort of signpost for us, pointing us back to the original, unfallen beauty of God’s creation, and ahead towards the redemption of all things:

I’m coming to think it is right and good to notice that someone is beautiful (whether female or male, both body and soul), and to be drawn to them because of their beauty. It is, I think, a sort of entranceway into the truth, for though our ancient rebellion has drastically marred the bright visage of humanity, it is not altogether destroyed. Human beings still are beautiful. We retain the faded memory of our created glory, imprinted in skin and soul alike. When I notice a person’s beauty, therefore, I’m recalling, in the very act of noticing, the most ancient truth about her or him. I’m acknowledging the rightness of God’s first declaration over humankind. I’m echoing his original “very good” over creation; desiring as a creature to join in communion with what remains of the “very good” around me, as I should; and coming alongside the saints and angels and all the earth, in longing for the full and final restoration of that first “very good.”

This is a helpful understanding. I would suggest, however, that there are other things that our attraction to beauty does in the context of non-sexual love. I believe that the things that attract us are clues for us as we think about the type of people we desire to be. In a non-sexual, non-romantic context, our longing to possess the beloved object — to somehow possess their beauty — is about wishing to possess their beautiful qualities for ourselves. A good example of this is in the common phenomenon of a young girl developing an “emotional crush” on a classmate, or perhaps more commonly, an older girl or woman.

The first crush on an older woman that I remember was on my third-grade teacher, Mademoiselle M, a young Québequoise who had given up figure skating for teaching after a bad accident on the ice. I don’t remember a lot about her now, except that she was beautiful and kind, and that I simply adored her. My friends knew not to look for me at recess on days that Mademoiselle M had yard duty, because I would be stuck to her side, too preoccupied with my lovely teacher to play. Another was Elissa, a woman who taught Broadway dance classes at the music camp my family went to for a few years when I was a pre-teen. Elissa was warm and funny and confident, and somehow managed to convince a room full of gawky adolescents that it was actually okay to engage our hips while dancing. I’m not sure if I also followed her around — I probably did — but I remember devoutly wishing that she and my single uncle would fall in love and get married, so that she could be in my family forever. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t happen.)

What was the common thread here? I was definitely drawn to both of these women in part because of their physical beauty — both of them possess the dark brown curls I have longed for ever since I can remember — but that isn’t the whole reason. Along with their physical graces, I believe I was responding to the beauty of their characters: to kindness, to humour, to confidence, to wisdom, to grace. The things that attracted me revealed something about me as well as about them: they pointed to qualities I desired for myself. When I saw and loved them, it was in part for their own sakes, but also because I too wanted to be kind, funny, confident, wise, and graceful.

Noticing the beauty of another invites us to introspection. What is it about that person that draws our attention? What do our attractions reveal about our personal goals and desires? What we love — what we value in another person — shows us what, and who, we desire to be.

Green and gold and mysteriously bright

What to say about A. S. Byatt’s Possession? Even after half a dozen reads the ending always leaves me breathless and I felt like I couldn’t start this post until I had just sat with it a few days. Possession is one of my desert-island books, an annual November re-read. Every time I come back to it I find something new. Every time I come back to it there is some previously-unseen strand to trace, some fresh insight, and a deepening enjoyment of Byatt’s brilliant writing and intricate plot.

The book is subtitled not “A Novel,” but “A Romance.” The distinction is not that this is a “romance novel” — although there are, it must be admitted, multiple romantic plots — but rather that Byatt is writing in the tradition of Romanticism. The novel carries two epigraphs, the first of which is a quotation from Samuel Hawthorne on this very distinction:

When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a Novel. The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience. The former — while as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart — has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation . . . The point of view in which this tale comes under the Romantic definition lies in the attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us. (Nathaniel Hawthorne, Preface to The House of the Seven Gables)

This last sentence, in fact, offers the interpretive key to what Byatt is doing in Possession. It carries two interlinked plot-lines, one set in the mid 1980s, and the other in the late 1850s. In the 80s, postgraduate Roland Mitchell is toiling away in academia, working on the Victorian-era poet Randolph Henry Ash when he discovers two unknown drafts of a letter to an unnamed woman. These letters are urgent, excited, and Roland determines to track down, if he can, the woman to whom they were addressed to find out whether the final draft was ever sent, and what happened then. His research leads him to the Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte, and in his own timeline, to the beautiful LaMotte scholar, Maud Bailey (herself LaMotte’s great-great-great niece). Together, they follow both literary and physical leads in an effort to solve the various mysteries of the Ash-LaMotte connection. Interwoven with all this is a narrative set in the late 1850s, following Ash and LaMotte themselves and including long excerpts from their poetry. The novel is a pastiche, rather than a straight narrative, and includes poetry, epistolary correspondence, and diary entries, as well as straight narrative.

That’s the bare bones of the plot, and it would be interesting enough on its own, but Byatt really shines in her pitch-perfect historical ventriloquism. Christabel LaMotte sounds like a British Emily Dickinson; Randolph Ash totally believable in the mode of Wordsworth or Coleridge; Christabel’s cousin Sabine a real, breathless young Frenchwoman dying to escape her solitude for a fashionable life of letters. And then there are the contemporary characters: Roland and Maud, Roland’s resentful and perpetually disappointed girlfriend Val, the American contingent of Mortimer Cropper and Leonora Stern, the dry scotch presence of James Blackadder and flustered, frustrated Beatrice Nest — all ring true in their own voices and actions.

Beyond that, Byatt weaves so many thematic threads and parallels between the two stories that I have trouble keeping track of them, and on every re-read I  (seem to) encounter another for the first time. A major theme is that of biography: what it can and can’t account for, the way biographer and subject can seem to possess (or be possessed by) each other, its status as a kind of figurative grave-robbing. There is the power of the written word to conceal or reveal, and its consequent limitations (if it wasn’t written down, did it really happen?). There are questions of faith vs. myth, especially in the 1850s storyline as its characters grapple with the Enlightenment, the aftermath of The Origin of Species, and the like. There are resurrection themes, women-as-spiders, archetypal characters and lives, the strengths and limitations of Freudian readings of texts, academic competition, academia vs. media, and — yes — actual grave robbing (though I will not tell you whose, or by whom). It is such an astonishingly dense text — not just in its length, but in the sheer amount that Byatt is doing. And I say this knowing that there is still much that is obscure to me.

One of these obscurities — for me — is Byatt’s use of colour. She is very deliberate in her descriptions, detailing shape, colour, and line with as much precision as the written word allows, and giving particular attention to what her characters are wearing. I can see that she’s doing something with this, but I am not a visual thinker and the meaning eludes me. But I was drawn, this reading, to notice the repetition of green and gold together; there is green and gold all throughout Ash’s poem In the Garden of Proserpina, both Maude and Christabel are golden-haired and dress in green, and so on. There is something being conveyed about brightness and freshness, but also the mysterious and closed-off. I wish I understood better what her use of colour signifies.

Perhaps it will come to me when I read Possession again next November. I will be reading it next November; I suspect that I will be reading it for the rest of my life.