February 19, 2014

L.M. Montgomery - a First Love in Literature

In my early years as a dedicated reader of novels, when it came to authors, I tended toward serial monogomy. Noel Streatfield, the author of Ballet Shoes, The Painted Garden, White Boots, and several others was my first real love as a reader, but when the time came for me to move on from her delightful books for children I was at a bit of a loss.

Every time I would talk about needing something to read my family would suggest Anne of Green Gables. "You'll love it," my sisters insisted, and because they insisted I resisted. I finally gave in when I was fifteen - my sisters had all moved out by then - and tentatively began the book that would change my life. I was not prepared to enjoy it, but by the first chapter I was hooked and would remain an Anne fan for life. And not just an Anne fan, but a fan of the writing of her creator Lucy Maud Montgomery. I would spend the next several years scouring second hand book stores for copies of her many books, building up my collection which I read over and over until Jane Austen became my new obsession in my mid-twenties. I credit L.M. Montgomery for helping me greatly through my teen years, for giving me another world to inhabit in my imagination, adding much light to the very real world I lived in every day.

I did not identify with the character of Anne as much as with the general tone, humour and background wisdom of the books themselves. Anne, with her red-haired temper, her heedless ways and her enormous scholarly discipline was not a mirror image of myself, but I did admire her goodness, her loyalty and her literary gifts. I was encouraged by her strength of character and desired to emulate at least some of what she represented. The first few times I read the books I read them for the plot alone. L.M. Montgomery is known for her descriptive passages of the land she loved so well, but I will admit I skipped over many of them to find out what happened next to the people in the books. A good book has that quality, even when you read it for the second or third time and know what ultimately happens, you still want to have the satisfaction of finding out, again, exactly how it happens. By the time I was in my early twenties I still read the books once a year, but by then I was revelling in the descriptions which painted such a beautiful picture of the land, sea and sky of Prince Edward Island and other Maritime provinces. The Blue Castle is set in Muskoka, Ontario and I still read it every few years for its pictures painted so masterfully in words by the author who had moved to Ontario after her marriage.

My mother often said that she liked Montgomery's Emily books even better than the sunny Anne ones. She felt the Emily books were deeper and more reflective of the author's own life as a burgeoning writer. I read the three Emily books immediately after I had read the eight Anne novels, and I could see what my mother meant. I imagined that a lot of authors identified with them, especially those who had known they were writers from a young age. The road to authorship is not easy for the character of Emily; the literary colours in the novels are in various shades of light and darkness, intimating the depth of emotion lived in real life by Montgomery. The happy ending is there, but it is hard won.

When I get into something, I really get into it, so when L.M. Montgomery's journals were published I read them. Her selected journals filled five large volumes and I expected them to reflect the light and happy endings of her novels. What I discovered was that Montgomery's life was a complex blend of light and dark, of longing for the freedom of an intuitive and highly spiritual artist while 'keeping up appearances' in Canadian WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) society of the early part of the twentieth century. I read them during a particularly hard time in my own young life, which perhaps was not fair to either myself or to Montgomery whom I admired so much. Her journals sent me spiralling downwards into a blue funk. I was disappointed in her for some of her choices in life and in love (as disappointed as I was in myself at that time for some of my own choices), and I had a hard time reconciling the author of my favourite books with the author of journals which suggested so much personal disappointment and emotional trauma.

I think, after giving it another twenty-odd years, I might read the journals again. I will probably read them with a more open mind and with much more compassion and empathy this time. In 2008 Montgomery's family came out with an admission that Lucy Maud suffered from depression and had, in the end, taken her own life. Her family revealed the truth in hopes that it would help to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness in our society. And while that news about her death made me sad beyond words, I have a bookshelf full of proof that inside Lucy Maud Montgomery's often troubled heart and mind was also a mystical land of humour, insight, love, and joy of the greatest kind which she shared with her readers through her writing, a refuge for her and for all of those who feel deeply and attempt to live sensitively on this earth.

A mature L.M. Montgomery

For those of you who read the end of my previous post I have an update: My dad was able to go home from the hospital yesterday. Such good news for him and for all my family! Many thanks for your kind wishes and prayers.


  1. Ah, Anne! She really did impact my youth more than I can quantify. Strangely, I've never worked my way through L.M.'s entire catalogue. You'd think I would, but I feel like it's a complex mixture of not wanting to leave Anne, and always knowing that there's more out there. I have read some other of her books, and usually quite enjoyed them. I have a history of Anne that I read and enjoyed, that gives a lot of context to the stories.

    And while I loved all the Anne books, I was surprised to realize that my favourite next to the first one is Rilla of Ingleside. It's such a realistic portrayal of Canadian home life during the first world war, and all heart-breaking and heart-warming all together. It somehow really hit the mark with me.

    I'm glad your dad headed home. Here's wishing a swift and easy recovery for him!

  2. I did not know you were an Anne fan, too! Rilla of Ingleside is a special book. I agree. I read it again last year and remembered that it is recognized by academics as one of the only sources of Canadian writing about what life was like for women working and waiting at home during the First World War. The teacher that lives with them is so agitated and disturbed by the war and one can't help but think she is L.M. writing herself into the story.
    Thanks for the added wishes, Val. xo

  3. yay i am glad that dad came home...
    its got to be interesting to see the journals of a writer we appreciate...the inner most thoughts and the reality of their lives beyond the fictions that they create...more so than a biographer which still captures a slant...

    1. Agreed. I have never really thought of biographies as being anything but a 'truer' brand of fiction.

  4. I didn't read Anne as a child, but read it to my daughters when they were in elementary school. I've read so many books to them that I'm not sure if "Anne" was the one where the vocabulary was beyond your everyday prose here and there.

    My middle daughter went on to read another of Montgomery's books.

    I can't say that I'm a serial monogamist; definitely not as a child. The closest I've been to it was the American Girl Series. I've read most of them to my girls. (They were readers, but it was our nightly bonding time, so I read.)

    I've tried, but after 2 or 3 books, I want something else. I guess that's why authors rarely go beyond a trilogy and go to new characters. Hats off to you for your loyalty to an author whose work is worthy.

    1. I suppose the Anne books did have a somewhat advanced vocab. considering how girls speak today ;)
      I am no longer a serial monogomist with authors. Not at all. I actually rarely read two by the same author in a row now. I guess I'm getting more variety now, too!


I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!