Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote 22 novels, 530 short stories, 500 poems, and 30 essays. And 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 begin with, I believe L. M. Montgomery was an Ideal-Shaper. She possessed a unique ability to call forth unformed, unarticulated longings in the hearts of her readers and embody them in lively, independent, endearingly flawed characters. There are a lot of ideals represented in her books, but three of the most important, I think, are romantic ideals, ambitious ideals, and domestic ideals. Many of her characters embody all three, but for time’s sake, I’ll just touch on one for each:
Anne Shirley, of course, epitomizes the romantic idealist: she doesn’t just wander around with rose-colored glasses, believing the world to be other than it is. That’s just garden-variety insanity. But Anne is different: when Gilbert Blythe accuses her (admiringly) of moonstruck madness, he’s really on to something. Like all the best idealists and visionaries in history, Anne brings her unique way of seeing the world into the world. Her world is better, more beautiful, more fragile, perhaps, but infinitely more vivid than it would have been without her in it. She incarnates her imagination by opening the eyes of those around her to just how wonder-full this tired old earth really is.
Montgomery shows us that when we bring the beauty of our ideals to the place where we are—that’s where the magic happens. Lanier Ivester
With Wordsworthian fervor, Anne engages passionately with the beauty of nature. But, unlike the titans of the Romantic movement, it is not far-flung landscapes or towering grandeurs that kindle her heart, so much as the commonplace splendours of ordinary days. Throughout the series, Anne consistently lifts the corner of accumulated familiarity to point out all the gleams and glories of Eden flashing beneath–a gift as precious as it is rare.
“Look do you see that poem?” she said suddenly, pointing. “Where?” Jane and Diana stared, as if expecting to see Runic rhymes on the birch trees. “There . . . down in the brook . . . that old green, mossy log with the water flowing over it in those smooth ripples that look as if they’d been combed, and that single shaft of sunshine falling right athwart it, far down into the pool. Oh, it’s the most beautiful poem I ever saw.” “I should rather call it a picture,” said Jane. “A poem is lines and verses.” “Oh dear me, no.” Anne shook her head with its fluffy wild cherry coronal positively. “The lines and verses are only the outward garments of the poem and are no more really it than your ruffles and flounces are you, Jane. The real poem is the soul within them . . . and that beautiful bit is the soul of an unwritten poem. It is not every day one sees a soul . . . even of a poem.” “The Golden Picnic,” Anne of Avonlea
When it comes to ambitious ideals, the aspiring author Emily Byrd Starr shows us what tenacity looks like, a value just as honorable today as it was in Emily’s late-nineteenth century world. In her, we have a very good picture of Maud’s own work ethic, which was absolutely relentless. But, unlike Anne, Emily possess a vulnerability that allows us to see her struggles in a unique light. For all her starry looks and fierce determination, Emily has plenty of demons to do battle with. She has to learn who listen to, and she has to learn which voices to ignore—sometimes even her own.
She learns to wear her rejection slips like a badge of honor. And in the end, she finds that just believing in herself is not enough: sometimes we have to let those who know and love us best do the believing.
In the final chapter of Emily of New Moon, the aspiring young authoress agrees to share some of her writings with her gruff but deeply sympathetic schoolteacher, Mr. Carpenter. After carefully selecting what she considers to be her very best, Emily presents him with a bundle of poems and stories after school one day, waiting upon his verdict like a prisoner at a “momentous bar.” Her confidence in him is so great that, at thirteen years old, she feels her future career is hanging in the balance. And his belief in her is so unflinching that he lights into her work with a tirade of savage criticism, occasionally muttering a grudging, albeit penetrating afterthought of approval.
His final assessment is soul-numbing:
“Ten good lines out of four hundred, Emily–comparatively good, that is–and all the rest balderdash–balderdash, Emily.” “I–suppose so,” said Emily fainty. Her eyes brimmed with tears–her lips quivered…She felt exactly like a candle that somebody had blown out.” “What are you crying for?” demanded Mr. Carpenter. Emily blinked away the tears and tried to laugh. “I–I’m sorry–you think it’s no good–” she said. Mr. Carpenter gave the desk a mighty thump. “No good! Didn’t I tell you there were ten good lines?” “Do you mean that–after all–” The candle was being relighted again. “Of course I mean. If at thirteen you can write ten good lines, at twenty you’ll write ten times ten–if the gods are kind. I think there’s something trying to speak through you–but you’ll have to make yourself a fit instrument for it.”
Throughout the series, Emily does just that, defying rejection, grief, loneliness, and even an utter abyss of self-doubt, to pursue her Alpine Path of ambition. Considering such ardor, Mr. Carpenter’s early assessment rings with a note of prophecy:
“If it’s in you to climb you must. There are those who must lift their eyes to the hills. They can’t breathe properly in the valleys.”
In considering domestic ideals, it’s difficult to wade too far into any sort of academic discussion of the Victorian woman without running up against the question of the “Angel in the House”—the supposedly universal standard of domestic order and female subservience. While it’s most certainly and unfortunately true that women of the past were far more limited in their options than the women of today, and often subjected to unfair expectations of perfection and decorum, I think that our generation has been done a disservice in the over-simplified narrative that’s been constructed around this issue: namely, that the making of a home is somehow degrading, and that the option of a home-centered life is not really an option in an ‘enlightened’ age.
In the post-Victorian Jane of Lantern Hill, however, Montgomery turns that tale on its head with such deftness we hardly realize she’s doing it. Maud’s second-to-last novel reads more like a conventional fairy tale than any of her other books—only the setting is not an enchanted castle, but a weather-beaten old cottage on the north shore of Prince Edward Island. I find this form particularly poignant in light of the fact that Montgomery started it in 1936, on the cusp what she called her “terrible year.” From a serious decline in her husband’s health, to grave concerns over one of her sons, to a probable nervous breakdown, 1937 was a year of devastating loss and disappointment in her personal life, culminating—almost unbearably for the sensitive Maud—in the death of her beloved cat, Lucky (to whom Jane of Lantern Hill was dedicated). Knowing this, the redemptive optimism of this book is just breathtaking.
But that’s not even what I love best about it: I love the fact that Jane finds her freedom in doing what comes naturally to her, as opposed to what has been imposed upon her by society. And what comes naturally to her just happens to be a domesticity that is nothing short of poetic. I get a lump in my throat thinking about her stealing into the bookstore to buy a copy of Cookery for Beginners in order to teach herself to cook for her newly discovered father; it seems as fraught with destiny as Harry Potter’s first foray into Daigon Alley.
Lantern Hill is full of quotidian magic: of cats with opinions, and saucepans with names, and furniture with distinct personalities. It is, at its heart, a love letter to the home, and to all the healing and sanity that issues therefrom. I think that Montgomery was making a very defiant statement with this book about what really mattered in the world when the world seemed to be going to hell in a handbasket. With a clutch of private burdens weighing on her heart, and under the looming disillusionment of World War II, Maud had a hard time writing the ending of this modern fairy tale—almost an impossible time. But she fought her way through to the end. And thank goodness for us she did.
Imagination Meets Contentment
L. M. Montgomery was an enchantress: her words cast a spell, opening our eyes to the beauty all around us. But one of the most exciting things to me about her fiction is that she shows us what magic can happen when imagination meets contentment. Montgomery’s heroines are all on quest—but unlike the traditional nature of a quest, involving arduous physical travel to a faraway geographical location, Montgomery’s characters stay put for the most part. They are stretched, refined, sometimes tormented by their longings. But in the end, they find their treasure right where they are. Montgomery shows us that when we bring the beauty of our ideals to the place where we are—that’s where the magic happens.
This doesn’t mean that her characters don’t have to overcome tremendous odds—usually inner ones—but they are never victims. They are never angsty. They maintain a sense of responsibility for their own destiny, but never at the expense of where they come from and who they belong to.
There are two connotations of the word “ideal”—there is the sense of something being as it was intended to be, a sense of rightness, fitness, or original intent. Then there is the sense (and often negative, at that) of something “existing only in the imagination,” something desirable but unlikely. I think that Montgomery’s genius existed in the fact that she combined the two: she showed us how to tether the idealism of youth—the way we instinctively know things ought to be—to the experience of maturity. To bring imagination and contentment into deep fellowship.
That was the well that she drew from, and this, I believe, is what made her fiction so irresistible—and so believable. Ideals are the crown jewels of her fiction, and the flashing fire at the heart of every one of them is joy.
To be continued…