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The Craft and Courage of L.M. Montgomery, Pt 1

Combing through an old notebook of ideas one day, Lucy Maud Montgomery came across this entry which she had copied from a newspaper clipping:

“Elderly couple apply to orphan asylum for a boy. By mistake a girl is sent them.”

And from this “mistake” came one of the most dearly loved heroines in the English language.

Anne of Green Gables has no formal plot; it’s mostly comprised of Anne prattling away to Marilla about her scrapes and daydreams and impressions of their neighbors in the village of Avonlea. But there’s such a magic about Anne and her world that for well over a hundred years, readers have fallen into the pages of that book and never wanted to leave. Montgomery herself said that Anne was so alive it was as if she had actually danced into the room with her as she was writing.

Anne was rejected by five publishers—after which Montgomery put the manuscript away in a hatbox, and with it, all hope of ever seeing her winsome, red-headed chum in print. And there it lay for a number of years, until, cleaning out a closet one winter day, Maud came across the fated hatbox and its nearly forgotten manuscript. She leafed through it once more, confiding later in her journal that, perhaps, it wasn’t “so very bad.” In a last daring effort, she sent Anne out one more time. And the rest is history.

Maud wanted to be a writer from a young age; she said that her first literary attempts were writing biographies of her cats. Lanier Ivester

To date, Anne of Green Gables has sold more than 50 million copies and has been translated into 20 languages. And Anne Shirley has become, in Mark Twain’s words, “the dearest and most moving and delightful child since the immortal Alice.”

I’ve spent a lot of time attempting to name the particular kinship that exists between the lovers of L. M. Montgomery’s books. We’re an impassioned lot, marked by a loyalty that transcends nationality, time in history, and even gender. Montgomery herself liked to remind people that her readership was not limited to women and young girls—even though her novels have been classified as “domestic romances,” there are quite a few notable men in history who have not been ashamed to confess themselves among her fans—from Tibetan monks to prime ministers of England. And at the outset of WWI, Montgomery received a touching letter from a young Englishman, informing her that he was taking Anne of Green Gables to the front with him as a reminder of all the goodness and sanity in the world he was fighting for.

We delight in Jane Austen’s witty heroines; we admire the impassioned and independent creations of the Bronte sisters; we quake a little before the titanic humanity of George Eliot’s characters. But when we talk about Anne, and her literary sisters Emily, Pat, Valancy, Jane and the others, we’re not just talking about “people in a book,” but personal friends.  I find this camaraderie so fascinating, particularly in light of the fact that important friendships were a major theme in Montgomery’s books. Who can hear the words “kindred spirit” without thinking of Anne Shirley and Diana Barry, and their immortal vow “over running water”?

But I think that Montgomery described her own fan base in Anne’s House of Dreams with Miss Cornelia’s evocative descriptor of a true friend. She identifies a kindred spirit as one who is “of the race that knows Joseph.” A dreamer of dreams. According to Montgomery, those of Joseph’s race “share our taste in loves and jokes,” and are recognized as “‘kindred souls’ as soon as we meet them.”

I think that’s at the heart of L. M. Montgomery’s appeal: in the midst of a hard-nosed, heartbroken old world, idealists recognize our own kind, both in her books and in the lovers of them. A friend once described the writings of Montgomery as a warm fire around which dreamers couldn’t help but gather. It’s true; I can’t tell you how many significant friendships in my life have originated in a “what—you, too?” moment of connection over Montgomery’s novels.

Elizabeth Rollins Epperly summed up this sense of connection in her introduction to The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass, a scholarly treatment of Montgomery’s heroines, when she says, “L. M. Montgomery’s writing changes peoples’ lives.”

I couldn’t agree more. I absolutely would not be the woman I am today were it not for the influence of Montgomery’s books in my youth. I’ve read them and re-read them as an adult until some of them are actually falling apart, and, I’m telling you, they have not lost an ounce of their magic.

I’ll never be able to read Pat of Silver Bush again for the first time; I’ll never have that agony of unknowing over who Emily Starr would marry; I can’t ever feel quite as sorry for Jane Stuart’s early unhappiness, because I know that Lantern Hill is waiting for her by the sea on Prince Edward Island. But every single time I revisit these books I find something elemental rekindled deep within, some primeval spring unclogged, some “first, fine careless rapture” regained.

Psychologists have all kinds of wonderful tricks for helping people snap out of unhealthy thought patterns or identity crises. But the very swiftest, surest way for me to remember who I am, to remember my fairy birthright as writer, romantic, and lover of beauty, is to look up a favorite passage in an L. M. Montgomery book, or to dip into one of her short stories. I need her to remind me that a snowy tea cloth and a jug of wildflowers matter; that it’s always better to poke fun at human nature than to judge it; that ideals are just as real as experience. And the more I’ve learned about Lucy Maud’s personal life and some of the fearsome challenges she faced in bringing these books into existence, the more I love and look up to her.

But who was she?

For a bit of background, Lucy Maud Montgomery was born in New London, Prince Edward Island (PEI), on November 30, 1874. Her mother died when she was less than two years old, and with the exception of one year with her father in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, her entire youth was spent in Cavendish, PEI, now known and beloved to the world as Avonlea. Maud, as she liked to be called, was raised by her maternal grandparents, but she was surrounded by a colorful cast of aunts and uncles and cousins who all fed into her story with their quirks and distinctions.

Prince Edward Island was, and is, a storytelling culture, and Maud’s grandfather was one of the very best. He prided himself on his ability to tell a spell-binding tale—everything from local history to fairy stories from Scotland, the “old country.” Lucy Maud grew up listening to her grandfather captivate anyone within earshot; it’s likely she developed much of her sense of storytelling, the timing of suspense and resolution, the essential romance of everyday life, from watching Alexander Macneill in action. He elevated an anecdote into an art form, and young Maud was paying close attention.

Maud wanted to be a writer from a young age; she said that her first literary attempts were writing biographies of her cats. She also wrote poetry and short stories, and when she was fifteen, she had her first work published in the Charlottetown newspaper. Her career had begun.

Lucy Maud’s youth was a marked combination of liveliness and loneliness. Her Cavendish schooldays were the happiest of her life, and she constantly drew from them in her fiction. But while her life was comfortable, it wasn’t easy: essentially orphaned, she knew that she was going to have to make her own way in the world, and that education was an absolute—albeit expensive—necessity. She fought her way through teacher’s college, as well as a year of English Literature at Dalhousie University. She taught school for a few years after that, until her grandfather’s death, when she returned to Cavendish to help her grandmother manage both the old homestead and the post office they ran out of the kitchen.

Yet for all that, she continued to write. So much so that by 1901 she was able to say that she was “making a livable income” by her pen. In 1906 she was secretly engaged to the Presbyterian minister, Ewan MacDonald—secretly because she had promised her grandmother she would stay with her as long as she lived. And when Lucy Macneill died in 1911, Maud married Ewan and left the Island, never to return except on visits.

She mourned what she called her “exile” from Prince Edward Island, but she continued to write about it for the rest of her life. In all, she wrote 22 novels, including the recently published The Blythes are Quoted; 530 short stories, 500 poems, and 30 essays. In 1935 was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. By the time of her death in 1942, she was a household name, not just in Canada, but all over the world.

So, how did she do it?

To be continued…


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