Lucy Maud Montgomery & Anne of Green Gables
Who is L.M. Montgomery?
I’ve visited Prince Edward Island, Canada many times throughout my life, the fabled birthplace of Lucy Maud Montgomery and setting for one of the 20th century’s most famous novels - Anne of Green Gables. On one occasion I attended the play based on the novel at the Confederation Centre Theatre in Charlottetown. On another occasion I visited the Anne of Green Gables Museum, which celebrates in period costumes the romantic and long-gone Victorian era of L. M. Montgomery’s imagination. I have also visited the many tourist shops replete with ‘Anne’ memorabilia, from little red-haired, pony-tailed dolls to authentic night shirts and caps that girls wore to bed in the nineteenth century. Lastly, I visited the grave of the author and bought a first-class biography written by Mary Henley Rubio entitled Lucy Maud Montgomery; The Gift of Wings.
I suppose I should be thrilled with national pride that every one hundred years or so a fellow Canadian bursts onto the literary scene, but I prefer to give accolades for accomplishment, not origin. Before I give you a critique of Anne of Green Gables, I must first introduce you to the author, Lucy Maud Montgomery, one of Canada’s pre-eminent writers of all time. I should briefly sketch her life before she wrote her famous novel, delve into the novel itself, and then chronicle the perverse tragedy that was Maud’s life after fame struck.
Maud, as she liked to be called, was born in Clifton, P.E.I., (now New London) on November 30, 1874. When Maud was 21 months old her mother died of tuberculosis. Her father stuck around for a few years and then dropped her into the care of her maternal grandparents, the MacNeills residing in Cavendish, P.E.I. He left for greener pastures out West, settling in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Maud was carefully governed by her grandparents Alexander and Lucy. By Maud’s account, Alexander seems to have been a moody and capricious soul at times. Lucy was stern but a guiding force for the good. The province of P.E.I. was a cultural backwater, suffering under the strictures of an all-seeing Presbyterian Church. Women were not encouraged in any sphere of life other than marriage, child-bearing and housekeeping, and woe betide the female who purposely flaunted those conventions. “What will people say” was the watchword that kept women in line, since gossip consisted of a thorough discussion of the moral weakness of any woman who became adventurous, either in her career or her personal life. Women of Maud’s time and place were controlled by guilt or shame.
Rather bright, Maud excelled in school, so much so that it gave her an intellectual conceit. She wanted a college education but her grandfather thought the expense would be wasted, since it was the duty of married women to end their careers in order to bear children and keep house. To give you an idea how Prince Edward Island could be culturally stifling, they introduced alcohol prohibition twenty years before other provinces, and kept it in force twenty years longer - from 1901 until 1948. In another example of the reactionary forces at work in this close-knit, cloistered society, the province banned motorcars from the roads in 1908. Add to all that a repressive religious morality governing every aspect of your waking day and you have the confines of Maud’s world as a child.
Maud, studied at Prince of Wales College, Charlottetown, becoming a teacher. With her meager salary of 45 dollars per term she saved enough to pay for one year of college in Halifax. Earlier, at the age of fifteen, she had written and published her first article. She would go on to write hundreds more articles and was actively earning more from her writing than her school teaching. In those days, the province had one room school houses everywhere there were enough children to teach.
Maud was the intellectual superior to the men of her milieu; she rebuffed several suitors whom she considered unworthy. She kept diaries from the age of fourteen, probably too sophisticated in bearing to converse with the locals. That she was precocious would probably contribute in no small measure to her undoing. It would isolate Maud from contemporaries and give her a superior attitude, warranted perhaps but bestowing her with an anti-social edge. She sneered up her sleeve at most suitors, one her former teacher.
Maud boarded with the Leards while teaching in Bedeque, the custom for an out of town school teacher, having a dalliance with a certain Herman Leard. Apparently, he was a good kisser. She claims in her carefully sculpted journals, to have engaged in petting but went no further, which is probably the case for many the guilt driven young woman of the Victorian era. To do more, she’d be a fallen woman, a failure. Sex was evil, to be feared, a temptation from the devil. Herman died two years later of the flu, but she’d forever keep a candle burning for the sexual feelings he stirred in her. By her own admission she never loved another with the same intensity.
Maud’s grandfather in Cavendish, thirty miles distant, passed away suddenly, bringing an end to her teaching in Bedeque, as well as her sex education tutoring with Herman. She returned to the family home and helped care for her grandmother, running the local post-office. She claimed later that to wed Herman would be to marry below her social status, and it’s here that we see her sense of superiority has evolved into full-blown snobbery. It’s very likely potential suitors saw and felt the same thing. It made her a lonely woman, and gave her very few good choices. It can be difficult for women if men place them on a pedestal, worse if they step up there themselves. Whether she was dumped by Herman or visa versa is a matter of some conjecture, since Maud carefully crafted her journals to reflect only what she wanted the world to see of her. Maud’s view notwithstanding, Herman Leard’s family was well-to-do and he was engaged at the time to someone else. Perhaps Maud used this rationale as an excuse for being rejected by someone to whom she was strongly sexually attracted. To confess that she had been a sexual plaything of a virile, handsome suitor would be to admit giving in to animalistic tendencies, an uncivilized admission given the social climate, fraught with self-recrimination and guilt, and potential for harmful gossip. It’s also around this time that Maud admits to experiencing her first short bout with depression.
Circa 1903, Maud meets Ewan MacDonald, an attractive, single, out-of-town Presbyterian preacher. The eligible women, and maybe ineligible ones, are all aflutter for this serious minister, who appears to be the strong, silent type. He’s silent for a reason, which we’ll divulge later. After two years of covert flirtation he moves to Cavendish and proposes to Maud. She accepts but wishes to keep it secret until her grandmother passes away. As long as Maud takes care of Lucy, her grandmother, she (Lucy) won’t get booted from the family home, which Alexander (the grandfather) had willed to the eldest son. I guess wives weren’t to be remembered in wills! This is yet another cultural curiosity that distances us from these people and their times. In any case Maud keeps the engagement under wraps.
On an emotional high after finding a suitable match for marriage, winning a near-run battle against the sentence of spinsterhood, Maud pours out Anne of Green Gables from her fertile brain onto paper. Her submission to publish is refused five times so she puts the manuscript away for a few years. She dusts it off in 1907 and sends it to a Boston publisher, L.C. Page, who accepts it. Published in 1908, her novel becomes an instant best seller. Many reprints, translations, and editions later, it’s estimated that 50 million people have bought copies of her book. Maud becomes famous and people flock to the Island to see the fictional land of Green Gables, spawning an entirely new industry in tourism for the province. Now, I suppose, would be a good time to delve into the literary work called Anne of Green Gables.
Anne of Green Gables
L.M. Montgomery's Home, P.E.I
Anne of Green Gables, Published 1908
Marilla and Mathew Cuthbert, elderly brother and sister, decide to adopt an orphan from Nova Scotia to help with farm work. They have specified a boy but Mathew finds only a girl has been left at the train station. Henceforth begins the incessant chatter of the eleven-year-old waif we are to know as Anne of Green Gables. She considers herself unloved and ugly because of her red hair, freckles and skinny frame.
The Cuthberts decide to keep her despite the fact that she can’t help out on the farm as intended, and Anne, by dint of her overwrought imaginings making their live-streaming way to her mouth, makes heaps of trouble for herself, but since she is a good-hearted soul, wends her way into people’s hearts. The story chronicles her adolescent years and transition from befreckled, red-haired, hapless chatterbox into a young, much-loved, desirable woman.
For those who have not read it, I will limit the description at that, for fear of giving away too much. Maud’s writing style is not to my liking however, belonging to an era with which I’m unsympathetic. In my experience, religiously guided people make as many mistakes in judgment as secular, which we’ll see when we examine Maud’s life after fame strikes. Maud draws on her own experiences to paint this tableau, but many of the events that drive the plot seem contrived. People get sick at the right time, or are simply away without explanation for the plot to unfold as it does. That contrivance becomes annoying after the author goes to the well one too many times. The author has created an unusual person in Anne, whose mouth seems to be running non-stop with unedited and tenuously connected thoughts. Most of this book is what Anne thinks and blurts out, uninterrupted or governed by social convention.
Can one say, then, that Anne is a manipulator? Does she say outlandish things to people to gauge their reaction, to get a rise, or simply to shock sensibilities? Why this literary character became popular in the era might be explained by the social conventions of the day. Children were to be seen and not heard. The Church and the fear of being the subject of insidious gossip governed young girls’ behavior, clothing choices, hairstyles, daily routines, work habits, choice of friends, purchases, speech, and even their thoughts. Maud throws off the chains of religious and social confinement through the ungoverned mental musings of a misfit young girl. Perhaps a stroke of genius, perhaps her own struggle in adolescence.
If I were an editor of her work I would ask her to rewrite a few things. One would be that she almost never uses metaphors or similes, except for a very funny one in the early pages. After that, her descriptions are dryer than a buzzard’s gullet in Death Valley. Her characterizations of men are such that you would swear she never met one. Mathew Cuthbert starts almost every sentence with “Well now,” followed by a moronic phrase or two such as “I dunno” or “I don’t reckon”. This editor would have requested her male characters be more alive, more three dimensional.
Maud makes much of the greenery, flora, hills and sky of Prince Edward Island, giving us rapturous word-pictures of rolling hills, snowy apple blossoms, etc. Not that she used these specific phrases, but hills do not roll. If they do, you’ve emptied your hip flask a little too quickly. Nor do they undulate except during earthquakes. It is to cliché that she resorts; laughing brooks, babbling winds, and all manner of hackneyed phrases. When were clichés identified and discouraged? Sometime after her works, I hazard. Before then, people received accolades for ‘It was a dark and stormy night’, denoting a significant change in our reading tastes over the years; perhaps an invalid criticism given the many years since its publication.
As a school teacher, Maud should have recognized a certain faux-pas in the English language - the use of double prepositions where one will do, for example - out of, off of, outside of; her work is unforgivably peppered with them, unacceptable in the narratives of a teacher of the language.
Maud displays terribly snobbish, discriminatory language, as in discussing French boys as mere farm laborers, or “London street Arabs” being unfit to do farm work, equally dismissive of Italians or German Jews, if unconsciously so. Her insensitivity is inexplicable while trying to awaken us to the discriminatory practices toward young women!
But it all works for the masses unfamiliar with such technicalities. Maud’s work effectively created nostalgia for a bygone era, as witnessed by the onslaught of tourists rushing to find the illusive vision of P.E.I. created in her dreams. Much of Maud’s personality and experience effuses through her work and she would go on to write many sequels, prequels and other ‘Anne’ type characters in about twenty other novels. After World War One, the Church lost its influence, and society slowly moved away from predominantly religious guidance. The stories reflected a search for nostalgic times, which were the product of L.M. Montgomery’s imagination, and there those times would remain.
Through Anne, Maud changed the standard to which young women were held, allowing them to view themselves as individuals to be loved and appreciated for more than housekeeping robots with child-bearing duties. It’s a most subtle rebellion, to which even Maud herself was unaware, flowing from her own subconscious desires to be free-willing and self-directed. Anne of Green Gables was popular then, for this reason, that it was a mournful cry for women’s rights, liberation and self-determination examined unconsciously through the eyes of an adolescent girl. It’s subliminal to the author as well, since she never achieved that goal for herself, which brings us to the saddest part of this story.
Maud, circa 1935.
The Tragic Life That Was Maud’s
The gods wished to destroy Maud and they did. It’s very telling that Maud chose the good Reverend for a husband based on his social standing rather than her feelings of love or even sympathy with his piety. After her marriage to the Reverend Ewan MacDonald and move to rural Ontario, he begins experiencing bouts of some unknown mental illness brought about by periods of stress and self-doubt, characterized by much religicosis. Maud lived a life of propriety, believing that people would respect her for her choice in a minister as her life-mate, but I doubt if she was as pious as Ewan. An intellectual, she must have felt embarrassment at the irony of having her mentally ill husband delivering sermons meant as the guidance of conduct for others. In a disheveled manner, he rambled about the house spouting inane mumblings and on Sundays calmly delivered his sermons from the pulpit. A cynical wag (me, for instance) might say potay-to, potah-to.
She gave birth to three sons, one of whom died in infancy. Her firstborn, Chester, would grow up to be her undoing. Her second surviving son, Stuart, became a doctor of some repute, and she could have taken much pride in his accomplishments, but she chose to focus her emotional energy on the son that needed more parental guidance.
Chester had a personality disorder that would send a Victorian of the patrician class into fits of misery. At early puberty, to his parents’ dismay, he developed an intense fascination in his sexual organs, let’s say, and felt that others should share that keen interest. His brother slept in a tent all summer in the backyard rather than share a bedroom. Later on, as if this were not embarrassing enough for Maud who’d become a pillar of the literary community and an esteemed member of her husband’s church, Chester developed another, much more antisocial peccadillo. Chester’s perversion consisted of introducing certain parts of his anatomy to women and young girls before the rest of him had been properly introduced, and then give hands-on, working demonstrations. There, that should explain it thoroughly while keeping it inexplicit. Chester was also suspected of stealing from the maids, his classmates and his mother. Such wayward hands were guided by impulse rather than the good Reverend’s ministrations.
Maud, one must remember, was raised in a buttoned-down Victorian era, is a church organizer of much popularity, and a world renowned author and giant literary figure. She had much to fear from her son’s peculiar proclivities. Soon Chester is accused of giving working demos of body parts to children of the housemaids who live with the family. Maud, although knowing of Chester’s antisocial self-gratification, accuses the maids of lying, trying to destroy her. There is a steady stream of replacement maids, more so when they have young daughters to protect.
Maud considers herself and her family better in social status than others. Privately she makes stinging appraisals in her journals of people she does not approve, using with relish the same lash that she was taught to fear above any other. Her perverted son Chester chooses a wife, Luella, and has two kids by her, leaving her with a sexually transmitted disease, but Maud firmly believes that he has married beneath his social class! The irony must have escaped her.
Also unbearably ironic is her marriage to a preacher. Maud has three children by him but we can ascertain that she does not love him, nor does she ever get to express herself sexually as freely as does her son. She desires it, certainly, as we can see in her idolization of her affair with Herman, the good kisser, but she never allows it to come to life - a truly repressed passion.
Almost from the start of her marriage at 36, there is trouble with Ewan. He has deep depressive episodes that last for months. He is morose and uncommunicative, preferring to brood alone in a darkened room with bandages wrapped around his head. He becomes addicted to barbiturates, bromides and possibly alcohol to self-medicate his illness. He has never read a line of her work, frustratingly for Maud, which brought the household an income far exceeding his own.
To give Maud a completely rounded out life, she discovers her publisher in Boston, L.C. Page, has been cheating her. She sues him for royalties that he should have paid. After a protracted, exhausting nine year court battle she wins a Pyrrhic victory, receiving about $18,000, netting a few thousand above her legal costs. L.C. Page begins sending her nasty letters, unfairly blaming her for the death of his brother due to the lawsuit. It’s during this timeframe, the mid-Twenties and onward, that Maud experiences her own depressive episodes. Through them she also learns the use of barbiturates, by all indications making her symptoms worse.
A lesbian fan with mental issues pursues her relentlessly, encouraged no doubt by Maud’s depiction of the love shared between Anne and Diana in her first novel. Although innocent in its childish expression, it’s easy to see how a woman of same-sex tendencies could be misled. When Anne and Diana part, it’s written as though two torrid lovers part! This fan comes to Maud’s house unannounced, interrupts her busy schedule, and professes her deep love and sexual attraction to Maud with annoying and persistent frequency. Maud, thinking she can correct the fan from what she considers deviant behavior, tries for awhile to humor her, which leads only to frustration and later, fear of an obsessive and determined woman.
In her journals she makes many oblique references to disappointing behavior by her son Chester, all of which she’s too embarrassed to detail. Chester also disappoints his famous mother by being thrown out of the University of Toronto after three years of very low academic achievement. After nine years expensive higher education he finally graduates as a lawyer, but with such low marks, it’s certain that he won’t get work in the field.
Maud, perhaps the most successful Canadian writer of her time, possibly only equaled in fame and sales by Stephen Leacock, begins to experience disfavor from the critics, labeling the Anne books as juvenile. She begins experiencing what she calls, ‘losing her mind by spells’. On April 24th, 1942, at the age of 67, Maud is found dead in her bed, barbiturates on the nightstand, a suicide note that asks us to forgive her. Her son Stuart, a doctor who attended the scene, says she committed suicide and kept the note for most of his adult life before turning it over to the biographer, Mary Henley Rubio.
Maud was buried in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island. At the funeral, her husband interrupts the proceedings repeatedly throughout, saying loudly, “Who is dead? Who is dead?” much to the embarrassment of all attending. Stuart goes on to a distinguished career in obstetrics. Chester distinguishes himself in the criminal world, embezzling from the Ontario government. In 1956, he has the singular honor of discovering another MacDonald in the cells, his son Cameron from his marriage to Luella, the woman Maud believed to be beneath her social class.
In the biography, Lucy Maud Montgomery; The Gift of Wings, Rubio has given us her life’s work. She’s been researching the topic for forty years or more. There were many contributors to this hefty volume, as the acknowledgements show, lasting as long as a chapter. Lest you think we are excessively voyeuristic, Maud wished for her journals chronicling her life to be published after her death, the timing to be determined by her son Stuart.
Maud’s life is a brutal lesson in irony. She was brought up in a religiously strict society, made to worry “what people will say” about the slightest deviant behavior, the fear of hurtful gossip governing her every waking thought, with the power of wagging tongues to destroy lives. Maud thought herself to be above reproach, acutely aware of her hard-won social status, and yet had much happen to humiliate her. She yearned for a passionate lover, her deep desire remaining forever unfulfilled, only giving birth in romantic novels; an escape for both herself and her readers from dreadful reality. From such philosophy tragedies are born, live tortured lives, pass into eternity; wind-worn monuments bearing time-obscured, unread, wistful messages. Perhaps too deep, her meaningful, real-life lesson is unknown, ignored, forgotten; and yet her imaginings live on in splendor. But if you would only read and discover what a curious world we inhabit.
Avonlea, Anne's home. Above cemetery at intersection of 6 & 13.
Ed Schofield is a writer from Nova Scotia, Canada. His e-books can be found at Amazon.com.