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The Craft and Courage of L.M. Montgomery, Pt 3

Here in Part Three, I’d like to take a look at how Montgomery accomplished her magic in very practical ways, and how the rather quotidian components of people, place, and work ethic all added up to some of the most beloved fiction of the twentieth century.

Montgomery’s People

Maud’s characters, even her “supporting” ones, are astonishingly well-drawn, but she consistently protested the idea that she copied any of them from real life. She was constantly plagued by people claiming to have identified the flesh and blood “originals” of her people. At her own insistence, however, the only character in all her books that she lifted straight from life was the “half-witted, gypsy-like” Peg Bowen in The Story Girl (which, incidentally, was Maud’s favorite of all her novels).

In the autobiographical The Alpine Path she wrote, “Any artist knows that to paint exactly from life is to give a false impression of the subject. Study from life he must…. ‘making use of the real to perfect the ideal.’ But the ideal—his ideal—must be behind and beyond it all.”

Maud was an indefatigable journaler, and from the time she was 14 she kept a detailed account of the world she lived in and the people who occupied it. For all her protestations over “originals,” it really is quite fun to read through her journals (which she personally recopied late in life to be published after her death) and pick out some of the “real” people and incidents she made use of to perfect her “ideal” fictional creations. For instance, there was the roguishly handsome boy in her class named Nate Lockhardt with whom she was always vying for top place in their school examinations—perhaps an unconscious model for Anne and Gilbert’s famous rivalry? And there was another chum, Austin Laird, who wouldn’t speak to Maud for months after she composed a comic poem about his red hair!

Anne’s “window friend,” Katie Maurice, was Montgomery’s own childhood companion, whom she “discovered” in the glass door of the bookcase in her grandparents’ sitting room.

Katie Maurice was a little girl like myself, and I loved her dearly. I would stand before that door and prattle to Katie for hours, giving and receiving confidences. In especial, I liked to do this at twilight, when the fire had been lit and the room and its reflections were a glamour of light and shadow. L.M. Montgomery, The Alpine Path

Gog and Magog, the famed china dogs which Anne received as a wedding present from Aunt Jamesina, had their originals in a pair of Staffordshire spaniels that graced the mantelpiece of Maud’s Grandfather Montgomery’s house in Park Corner. When she was a little girl, her father used to assure her that every night at the stroke of midnight they came to life, jumped off of the mantle, and frolicked on the hearth rug. Maud’s prized possession from her wedding tour of the British Isles was a pair of such dogs which she bought in York, after, in her own words, “pursuing them all over England and Scotland!”

The famed Blue Chest of Rachel Ward, upon which the Story Girl perched to spin her tales in the old King kitchen was real, as well, residing in Maud’s Aunt Annie Campbell’s house at Park Corner, while the tale of the Judgement Sunday came straight out of Maud’s childhood experience of revivalist-induced terror. And it’s doubtless delightful to hear that Anne’s misadventure with the anodyne liniment cake actually happened! When Montgomery was teaching school in Bideford, P.E.I., she boarded at the Methodist parsonage. According to Maud,

…Its charming mistress flavoured a layer cake with anodyne liniment one day. Never shall I forget the taste of that cake and the fun we had over it, for the mistake was not discovered until tea-time. A strange minister was there to tea that night. He ate every crumb of his piece of cake. What he thought of it we never discovered. Possibly he imagined it was simply some new-fangled flavouring. The Alpine Path

I think it’s interesting that when Montgomery submitted Pat of Silver Bush to her publisher, she said that of all her characters, the fiercely sentimental, passionately domestic Pat Gardiner was most like her. Some of her biographers have taken issue with that, saying, if anything, Maud’s love of domesticity is best reflected in Jane Stuart’s more practical expression of it, and that her personal drive is most accurately and inarguably depicted in the New Moon books.

But all of Montgomery’s heroines are autobiographical to a certain extent. And while the New Moon books follow the track of Maud’s own youth more closely than the others, (Emily’s journal truly reads like Maud’s own), it’s quite easy to see the family resemblance in her other characters.

Like Pat, Maud’s greatest strengths were also her greatest weaknesses. I think that more than any of her other books, Pat of Silver Bush and Mistress Pat were a defiant clutch at stability in a world that seemed falling to pieces, and a lament for a world that had vanished in the deluge of WWI. Maud’s world had lost its innocence—at least, the world she had always known and loved. But in her books, and the people who populate them, that world and its values will endure—and ultimately prevail.

Montgomery’s Places

For all their vividness, one cannot easily separate Maud’s characters from their setting. Not that they aren’t strong enough to stand apart from it, any more than Maud herself in her years of exile from the island after her marriage in 1911. But the land, the place from which they spring is such a vital, shaping force that they wouldn’t be themselves without it.

Throughout her books you find this unfailing resonance of identity with a place on earth—not just a generalized place, like New England, or the American South—but a specific place. Prince Edward Island was as much her Muse as the fairy lamp of story that was always flickering in her imagination. Maud’s descriptions of it read like sheer poetry in places (and she wrote lots of poems about it!). It’s beautiful to see her journal voice develop in praise of her Island, and extremely touching to consider how writing about it kept her there, even when she was hundreds of miles away.

In an act of almost staggering largesse, L. M. Montgomery gave her beloved P.E.I. to the entire world. The smallest province in Canada, it has become not only a tourist magnet (which, all things considered, has probably saved it more than anything), but an ideal version of home—of beauty and belonging—in the hearts of her readers.

Those who have never set foot on Prince Edward’s shore know just how the red sandhills look under the friendly smile of a summer afternoon, or how the headlands fade into the misty distances like the coastlines of fairylands forlorn. We all know what a spruce grove smells like, the magic of a young birch in the moonlight, the cool freshness of a fern-haunted hollow.

L. M. Montgomery makes us homesick for a place we’ve never been.

When I was in my early twenties, my parents took our family to Prince Edward Island. I remember the night before we embarked on the last leg of our journey: I was sitting out on the balcony of our hotel in Bar Harbor, watching the ferries come and go from Halifax and shivering with the anticipation of how close we were.

But it wasn’t just anticipation—for all my excitement, there was a cold little corner of fear in my heart: what if the real Prince Edward Island wasn’t all I’d hoped it would be? Worse still—what if it replaced the ideal P.E.I. my own imagination had created in the reading of all these beloved books? Prince Edward Island represented the consummate dreams of my youth and so many of my hopes for the future. I’d built my entire vision of a “sense of place” upon the version of it that Lucy Maud Montgomery had given me in her books. I almost didn’t want to go.

But we went—and let me tell you what happened.

My generally thrift Daddy had booked us a room at the lovely Dalvay-by-the-Sea—the hotel used as the White Sands in the “Anne” movies and the Road to Avonlea series—and my sister and I were in the seventh-heaven. No sooner had we checked in, than Liz and I tore across the lawn, crossed the street, and scrambled over the grassy dunes as we’d seen Anne and Diana do a hundred times. We looked around us at the red sandshore, the blue St. Lawrence gulf creamed with little white caps of foam, the green-crested dunes.

And then we laughed—laughed out loud, clutching hands for sheer joy. (And then I think we even cried a little bit).

It was all there—Lucy Maud had not played us false. Only love could have given us a place that vividly and that accurately. But there was a deeper magic at work than even I suspected, for all my joy. We had a wonderful time: saw the Green Gables house and Lover’s Lane and the Lake of Shining Waters. My personal favorite was Park Corner, Maud’s cousins’ rambling place and the original “Silver Bush.” I felt like I came closest to Maud herself there, where she had been so happy as a girl, and where she had been married in the little front parlor.

It was a wonderful trip—a dream come true, and I wouldn’t give anything for it. But the real gift was waiting for me when I got back home.

I remember Liz and I took a walk that first evening back, ambling along our own version of Lover’s Lane—a winding, wooded road in the midst of my parents’ neighborhood that was a little oasis for us. People seldom drove there, and that’s where we had our best talks, strolling for hours at a time beneath enormous silver-barked beeches and ivy-hung oaks, or wearing a path down the western slope to the mossy banks of a merry brown creek that was always chuckling over its own secrets. In early spring, that hillside was covered in a star-fall of white bloodroot, and by the end of summer it was thick with ferns and scarlet beauty berries.

Now, while it may be true that “distance lends enchantment,” what I found that summer night was rather the opposite: on coming home from a place that had enchanted me all my life, my place seemed more beautiful than ever. I looked around at my oaks and pines, felt that sweet Southern breeze on my face, saw the molten gold of a summer sunset kindling among the trees to the west—and for the first time I fully realized what Lucy Maud Montgomery had given me.

No one can give a place to the world without first having given themselves to it. No one can write or paint or sing of Fairyland without a firm foothold on a bit of Earth. It doesn’t have to be a rural Canadian landscape or a Cornish coastline or a Provincial countryside.

It just has to be yours.

Even the most fanciful landscape must have a toehold in the real. Lucy Maud opened my eyes to the fact that I happened to be born in my favorite place on earth, and that love’s vision is the most accurate of all. In this transient age, it’s easy to long for something out of reach, over the brow of the next hill or around the next bend in the road. I’m not saying that no one should wander from their place, creatively or otherwise. But we need to be sure we have a place to wander from—and to come back to.

Prince Edward Island was the place where L. M. Montgomery’s imagination met contentment. And this place—from the wooded hills of Georgia to her marsh-skirted coast—was mine.

Montgomery’s Work Ethic

The “Emily” books give us a really good picture of Maud’s work ethic. Like Emily, Maud regularly “wrote herself out” in her aforementioned journals. And in those journals we learn just how hard Montgomery had to work before the days in which Anne Shirley was a household name. She ground out hundreds of stories and verses, most of them tailored to the tastes of a particular editor or publication; she complained to her journal of having to tuck morals into them “like a pill in a spoonful of jam.” It’s for this reason that a lot of her early stories lack the concision of her novels; they were somewhat formulaic since, until Anne, she was writing what editors would buy.

Even so, by her own account, nine out of ten manuscripts came back.

In her journals she pulls back the façade of glamor that persists in attaching itself to the writing life. As a very young woman, she earned money for college by teaching school, boarding across the Island from Cavendish in what she called a “very cold farmhouse.” Since she was too tired to write at the end of a long day, she rose all the earlier in the mornings:

I got up at six o’clock and dressed by lamplight. The fires would not yet be on, of course, and the house would be very cold. But I would put on a heavy coat, sit on my feet to keep them from freezing, and with fingers so cramped I could scarcely hold the pen, I would write my ‘stunt” for the day.The Alpine Path

But Maud loved her work. And her work was ultimately driven by love.

Here’s what she had to say on the writing and publication of Anne of Green Gables:

“The book may or may not succeed. I wrote it for love, not money, but very often such books are the most successful, just as everything in the world that is born of true love has life in it, as nothing constructed for mercenary ends can ever have.” The Journals of L. M. Montgomery, Vol. 1

At the beginning of Emily’s Quest, Emily’s beloved teacher and mentor, Mr. Carpenter is on his deathbed. He summons Emily to give her one final dose of advice, and to make Emily promise that—for all her ambition and tenacity—she will never write to please anyone but Emily Starr.

“That’s right,” said Mr. Carpenter with a sigh of relief…“No use trying to please everybody. No use trying to please critics. Live under your own hat. Don’t be led away by those howls about realism. Remember—pinewoods are just as real as pigsties, and a darn sight pleasanter to be in.”

Reading Montgomery’s books, one sees that the real power of her work ethic lies not in her determination to succeed at all costs, but that she believed the things she was writing about where absolutely valid, absolutely essential, and absolutely true. Such a brave soul in the face of a topsy-turvy world.

To be continued…



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