Written by Harriet Devine.
She will love deeply – suffer terribly – she will have glorious moments to compensate.
Emily Byrd Starr, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s most autobiographical heroine, remembered these words being murmured over her by the beloved father who died when she was only ten. Emily – who appears in three books, known as the Emily trilogy – has a passion for nature, and a passion for writing, something she is completely unable to stop doing even when punished for it or forbidden to do it. Such was also the case with her creator, and in fact Montgomery included passages from her own journals in the novels, as well as echoing many of the incidents of her own life and career.
Montgomery, who was always known as Maud, was born on Prince Edward Island, which lies off the east coast of Canada. Her mother died before she was two, and she was brought up by her very strict maternal grandparents. Like her heroine Emily, she wrote obsessively from an early age, and when she was sixteen, after a great many rejections, had a poem published in a local newspaper. She continued to write, both poems and stories, but also pursued a career as a teacher and subsequently as a journalist. By 1897 she was having some success with her writing, and more than a hundred stories appeared over the next ten years. In 1908 she finally found a publisher for her first full-length book, Anne of Green Gables. The novel was, and continues to be, a huge success: 50 million copies have been sold since it was first published, including translations into numerous languages. Montgomery followed it with seven more novels about Anne, following her through her teens and into adulthood. She continued to write prolifically, producing another twelve novels featuring various other heroines, more than five hundred short stories, the same number of poems, and several essays. Although none were as successful as the Anne series, Montgomery remains one of Canada’s most celebrated authors, and the L.M. Montgomery Institute, founded in 1993, promotes scholarly work and conferences devoted to her writing.
Sadly, despite the success of her literary work, Montgomery’s personal life was extremely hard. After numerous flirtations and love affairs as a young woman, she married Ewen Macdonald, a Presbyterian minister, in 1911, and moved with him to Ontario, where she gave birth to three sons, one of whom was stillborn. But her husband suffered from severe depression, for which he was sometimes hospitalised, and the drugs he was treated with almost certainly made him worse. And, probably owing to the pressures of caring for him, Montgomery herself suffered from periodic depressive spells, for which she took increasing amounts of medication. Her death, in 1942, was reported as being due to coronary thrombosis, but it is widely believed to have been suicide.
Tragic though this obviously is, it’s clearly not the whole story. Montgomery was remembered by someone who knew her well as
an empathetic person deeply interested in others and sympathetic to them, a witty conversationalist who liked to socialise, tell stories and gossip; a lively woman who liked to attend movies, discuss books and ideas, and take joy in the beauty of the natural world around her.
Indeed, although in respect of the events of her life, Emily is most closely based on Montgomery herself, you only have to read any of her other novels to realise that the bright, spirited, imaginative little girls who appear in them must take their being from their author. Frequently orphans, or at least separated from their natural parents, and brought up in harsh, repressive homes, they invariably share an intense appreciation for the natural world around them, to which they turn when they are in trouble or distress. And nature also seems to have provided Montgomery with intense moments of almost spiritual joy – what Emily calls her ‘flashes’ – in which it seemed to her that
she was very very near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain; she could never draw the curtain aside – but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond – only a glimpse – and heard a note of unearthly music.
So I think it’s safe to assume that the words of Emily’s father, quoted at the beginning, can just as easily be applied to Montgomery herself.
Although Anne of Green Gables and the many subsequent books are now regarded as children’s novels, and have of course been loved by generations of children, they have always appealed to readers of all ages. There have been films, and TV mini-series, even a 1979 anime series in Japan, where Montgomery has a huge following, many of whom travel to Prince Edward Island every year to visit the original of Green Gables. She has appeared on Canadian postage stamps, was the first Canadian woman to be made a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and was awarded an MBE in 1935. We would like her to have had a happier later life, but everyone who has read her novels will be glad of those moments of joy that enabled her to write them.
In her journals, now published and much studied, she included a letter to her not-yet-born great-great-granddaughter, perhaps a good note to finish on:
I lived a hundred years before you did, but my blood runs in your veins and I lived and loved and suffered and enjoyed and struggled and toiled just as you do. I found life good, in spite of everything. May you find it so. I found that courage and kindness are the two essential things…I hope you’ll be merry and witty and brave and wise, and I hope you’ll say to yourself ‘if great-great-grandmother were alive today, I think I’d like her in spite of her faults.
Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and very much regrets that she didn’t discover Lucy Maud Montgomery when she was a child.
You can read our review of A Tangled Web in the Reprints section.