Jane Urquhart’s biography of Lucy Maud Montgomery opens with the Anne of Green Gables author on her deathbed—her body failing, her mind wracked by grief, rage, and a “crushing disappointment.” From the start, this is a poetic work: we are guided through the emotional terrain of Montgomery’s “dark side,” her frustrations and disappointments.
“I don’t write non-fiction,” says Urquhart. The celebrated Canadian author began the task with some misgivings: “I didn’t know whether I was going to be able to manage with facts alone—and rein in my own imagination.” But she has succeeded. And it is fitting that these two noted female novelists have been paired together—especially given what Urquhart describes as her “multi-generational” connection with Montgomery. Urquhart credits Anne with having “opened [her mother] up to a world of books and literature.” Later, the book enlivened her own literary passions.
Urquhart often reads her copy of Anne of Green Gables, a first edition that was passed down by her grandmother and made its way through all the women in her family. “What I think about Montgomery,” she explains, “is that she was responsible for giving us a kind of permission . . . And that permission had to do with being a creative young woman who wanted to achieve something in the world of the imagination.”
When in her later life, Lucy Maud Montgomery developed asthma, she would describe the feeling of suffocation that accompanied the cough, the sense that she would never again catch her breath, her fear that she would end up “a wheezing nuisance.” What caused these spells was never clear, not to her, and not to the future readers of her diaries. Knowing what we now know, however, about the connection between asthma—a condition that acts as a perfect metaphor for suppressed emotions—and the state of mind of its victims, it is almost surprising that the disease did not develop sooner in Maud’s life. Suppression, it would seem, became part of her daily life very early on, and even after she became a world-famous author she was never free for long from a feeling of entrapment and suffocation.
During the eight-year period Maud was required to take care of her grandmother, references to depression begin to appear in the diaries, often coupled with descriptions of miserable weather that confined her to her quarters. She is snowbound. She is storm-stayed. The much-longed-for mail can’t get through to the kitchen post office. No one can get in and she can’t get out. The rooms of the house are dimmed by the drifts crawling up the windows and blocking out the light. Her thrifty Presbyterian grandmother will allow only so much coal oil for the lamps and scant fuel for the fire. It is cold and dark and there is no conversation beyond that needed to run a household. In January 1907, Montgomery writes:
I wonder if, sometime in the future, I shall ever again find Sunday evenings pleasant. For the past six years they have, for the most part—in winter at least—epitomized for me all that was dreary and lusterless in my existence.
In February, she adds:
We have had “a dreadful cold spell”—five days away below zero. The house has got so cold that it is really not fit to live in, as grandmother will not have a fire anywhere but in the kitchen . . . This is the most utterly, lonely winter I have ever put in . . . Day after day drags by, cold, lifeless, monotonous.
A remarkable kind of revisionist history was unfolding in Maud’s imagination and on the page, if not on the pages of her journals: a history, or more accurately a fiction, that would turn out to be both the result of and in direct opposition to the circumstances of her own childhood. The work she was doing while tending to her grandmother’s needs during the old woman’s last illness, and during her long engagement to Ewan Macdonald, would not only make her famous, but would serve as a template for many more fictions to come. The idea of an elderly couple applying to an orphan asylum for a hired boy and receiving a girl by mistake had come to her as a narrative she might use as a story for a “certain Sunday school paper,” but the character of the girl in question had captivated her creator to such an extent that she “cast ‘moral’ and ‘Sunday school’ ideals to the winds,” and Anne became “a real human girl.”
As Irene Gammel has brought to our attention in her absorbing book Looking for Anne: How Lucy Maud Montgomery Dreamed Up a Literary Classic, a widely divergent and plentiful selection of ingredients went into this work of alchemy: fantasy, childhood experiences, romanticism, anger, humour, sentimentality and loss were all mixed into the brew. Added to this were Montgomery’s own enthusiasm for and engagement with her subject.
“Nothing I have ever written gave me so much pleasure to write,” she told her journal. “Many of my own childhood experiences and dreams were worked up into its chapters.” The phrase “worked up into its chapters” tells us that during the winter when she worked on Anne a miraculous transformation from recalled experience to work of art had taken place, and, as Montgomery says, the narrative became dependent not just on a setting or an accumulation of incidents, but also on the character of the fictional Anne herself.
“She is the book,” Montgomery declared.
Still, as she also confided, a great deal of the child that Lucy Maud Montgomery once was went into the development of this character as well: her rebelliousness in the face of insensitive, judgmental adults, for example, or even something as simple as a general sense of abandonment and isolation combined with a nagging desire to please (and therefore to be loved), which is constantly in the background as the narrative progresses. The reader sees Anne becoming affectionate with the adults who have offended and hurt her, and sees, as well, the same adults softening under the spell of her eccentric charm. Under the curbing influence of societal pressures, her extreme imagination becomes more private and withdrawn and, as a result, perhaps more powerful. Maud herself wanted desperately to be accepted by the very conservative family and society into which she was born, and therefore kept her romantic, imaginative side a secret from her elder relatives and sometimes even from herself.
It is interesting to speculate what might have happened on the page if Montgomery had gone into those dark spaces with her eyes wide open. Would her fiction have been more brutally honest, her characters more psychologically driven? She claimed in her journal not to admire the realist writing of Canadian Morley Callaghan, preferring to avoid all that she considered “ugly” in the realm of human relationships. And yet she read George Eliot with pleasure, a writer whose psychological analysis of character is strikingly direct. And she read and appreciated Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, a book in which the Romantic and Gothic become authentically disturbing, and therefore more powerful, when placed alongside the collision of character, class and geography.
I have a friend with whom I have often talked about Montgomery’s life and work. She is a writer of fiction who, like Montgomery, was brought up as a Presbyterian in a Canadian rural setting. Often we get together for very long lunches, during which we talk about almost everything, except politics. We like to think of ourselves as intellectuals of a sort, but we are given nevertheless to a great deal of speculation concerning the mysteries of human nature. A lot of the time we talk about what it is like to be a woman writer living not in the thick of the book world, but on the ragged edges of that world: close enough to participate if we want to but far enough away for complete withdrawal if we prefer that. We talk about that choice, because for us it is a choice, but we have also discussed what it must have been like for our forebears in this country, women who for any number of reasons—social, economic, religious, familial—would not have had much choice at all. So far, we have not been able to decide whether Montgomery falls into the latter category, whether she was one without choice, but we lean toward the notion that she does. For all we know, however, Montgomery—even had she felt free to do whatever she wanted—might very well have chosen her role as a dutiful caretaker of an aged grandmother, followed by a life in which the obligations of a minister’s wife were accepted without question.
My friend and I have recited those obligations aloud to each other. Bake sales, we have said. Visits with the elderly and infirm. Teas with the wives of church elders. Rummage sales. Christmas bazaars. Funerals. Weddings. Listening to husband’s sermons. Listening to husband’s rants. Care and feeding of visiting ministers. Teaching Sunday school. Wearing the appropriate clothing, hats, footwear, hairstyle, facial expression. And likely, we eventually concluded, publishing the appropriate fiction.
From Extraordinary Canadians: L.M. Montgomery by Jane Urquhart. Copyright © Jane Urquhart, 2009. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Group (Canada).