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November 10, 2008

Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings by Mary Henley Rubio

For some reason, I thought I knew LM Montgomery. The spiritedness of her characters probably gave me that impression– their voices spoke so true, it seemed some part of them had to be their creator. And then there were the myriad ways their stories paralleled her own– the lonely childhoods, the dead mothers and lost fathers, a love of books and a desire to write. I’d visited the Green Gables House in Cavendish PEI (and I’m not sure now if I didn’t know then that Montgomery had never lived there). I once even came across the home in Leaskdale Ontario where she’d lived for many years as the Rev. Mrs. Ewan MacDonald– the house was identified by a historical plaque, and an older man who was walking by told us that he knew her. And all I remember of that conversation now is that he mentioned her bad son, Chester.

It never occurred to me that there would be more, as her books always seemed quite enough. I never thought though, in particular, to consider Montgomery within the literary context of her time. Or the social context either– that she was a woman with no parental support who didn’t marry until her late thirties. That she launched her own career with sheer gusto, knowing early that she would devote her life to writing. Managing to make a name for herself publishing short stories to North American journals before she finally sold her first novel– Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908.

The Gift of Wings shows Montgomery is a complicated woman with a complicated story, made all the more mysterious by the nature of her sources. Her biographer Mary Henley Rubio had been co-editor of the five volumes of her selected journals (published from 1985-2004) which become central to this text. Henley Rubio explaining that these journals were as much a literary creation as any of Montgomery’s novels– she kept notes, and often didn’t write entries until months after the fact; later in her life she would completely rewrite all of them with eventual publication in mind, and so they’re often censored, granted the insight of retrospect, and slanted to tell the story she wants the public to know.

Montgomery’s true nature was as various as her journals, this reflected in her dual lives as world-famous novelist and respectable minister’s wife. Her journals revealing a deeper darkness to her personality that was not detectable in either of these lives– Henley Rubio suggests that today Montgomery would have been diagnosed with a mood disorder.

Lucy Maud Montgomery was born in 1874 in Prince Edward Island to two families proud of their Scottish heritage. After her mother died when she was very young, Maud would be raised by her maternal grandparents. Henley Rubio positing that her upbringing was particularly spun for its hardship when Maud revised her journals, but that she came of age in a wonderfully close community she’d hold dear for the rest of her life, and she was surrounded by a wide extended family.

She did well at school, displaying her writing talent early. She did not have the financial support to pursue her education, however, and was only able to complete teacher training. After which she was unable to venture very far to work, because her grandfather would not allow her to drive to interviews. It was only after his death that her writing career began in full force, as she moved back home to live with her grandmother and was able to write full time.

She married Ewan MacDonald after her grandmother’s death, and then they moved to Ewan’s appointment in Leaskville. Montgomery had long wanted to be married and she was anxious to be a mother. Henley Rubio quotes interviewees noting the MacDonalds as a well-suited couple who were fond of one another, though dissatisfaction in her marriage is evident in Maud’s journals from early on. Part of this was due to Ewan’s bouts of “melancholia”, culminating in full-fledged breakdowns a number of times. Though it is noted that this was not so apparent to outsiders, and so either the family either took great pains to hide these problems, or Maud exaggerated them in her journals, or both.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this biography was the insight it provided into the creation of Montgomery’s fiction. How her romance with Ewan provided the spark and energy of Anne of Green Gables, for example, or how much her work was influenced by cultural changes– Rainbow Valley penned in the midst of WW1, Emily portraying the struggle of a woman to be taken seriously as a writer, aspects of Magic for Marigold written pointedly to challenge gender roles, and the furor over taboo subjects in The Blue Castle.

Also fascinating is Montgomery’s publishing history– how she was taken advantage of by her original publisher and deprived of substantial income, which ended up in lawsuits that lasted well into the 1920s. And her place in Canadian letters– how her success served to promote Canadian literature, and she devoted considerable amounts of her own time for the cause. It was fascinating also to see the range of readers touched by her work, with famous writers and statesmen the world over contacting her and wishing to meet her. However in spite of this, her credibility diminished throughout her life and she was frustrated to find herself increasingly marketed as a children’s author, or a writer of merely sentimental novels.

Henley Rubio has done formidable work with materials on which she is expert, though I might criticize the biography’s over-reliance on Montgomery’s journals. Not that I’ve a more suitable source in mind, of course, but some parts of the book do read much like a retelling of the journals themselves. Moreover the journals are so patchy at times and the holes are often left unfilled– we read of Friday January 29, 1937 from her journals, “On that day happiness departed from my life forever…” Imagine my frustration then as Henley Rubio goes on to recount, “We don’t know what she learned [that day], but it seems to have been about Chester.”

Which was a fair guess, as Montgomery’s son Chester was a nasty piece of work. His misbehaviour would be a blight on her existence from the time he was young until her death– he lied and stole, took advantage of his parents, had two children with a woman he’d barely support, spent years and years failing law school on his mother’s dime. For a woman much concerned with images (she was the minister’s wife, of course), Maud’s oldest son caused considerable heartache.

The later years of Montgomery’s life were a sad decline, in health, happiness, and literary reputation. For many years she was much involved in the Canadian Authors’ Association, but was eventually sidelined from this organization. She remained busy with speaking engagements and responding to her fan mail, but her diminishing reputation was a blow. Her journals portray her husband as sinking deep into his mental ailments, though Henley Rubio speculates much of that might have been caused by over-medication, and Montgomery herself probably experienced something quite similar.

And so her books had always been quite enough, but Henley Rubio has illuminated them and their author even further. Providing Montgomery with a context she sorely lacks in all her singular fame– so s
he had contemporaries, a place in literary society, a family. Underlining the importance of her work within this larger context, which goes far to explain how she has come to occupy the singular place she does.

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