I grew up reading the Anne of Green Gables series. I read the first one when I was about eight, and then read them over and over: Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne of Windy Poplars, Anne of Ingleside, Anne’s House of Dreams. (I never really read the others, Rainbow Valley and Rilla of Ingleside, more than once; they didn’t appeal to me as much.) There was something about the humor, the wisdom, the beautiful setting, and the spirited, ambitious girl that was endlessly appealing. Since then, too, I’ve read more of L.M. Montgomery’s work, and loved it. So when I saw that Elaine from Random Jottings had read and recommended a big new biography of Montgomery by Mary Henley Rubio, I decided I’d like to learn more about Anne’s creator.
Lucy Maud Montgomery was born in 1874 and died in 1942. That should give you some sense of the way her world changed: she was born firmly in the 19th century, among all those attitudes and values about women and education and social class and illness and ability, and she died having seen the first World War and the beginning of the second, women’s suffrage, an enormous industrial and social change, new ideas about medicine and psychology… of course, we must all expect change in our lives, but this sort of upheaval would have been disorienting for the whole world.
She was always the brightest girl in her class on Prince Edward Island, frustrated that her male cousins got university educations for the asking, while she was told that women weren’t worth the investment. (The only reason a woman would get a university education was to teach, and then if she were to be married, she’d stop teaching, so obviously it wasn’t shrewd money.) Her tyrannical grandfather kept her unhappy with his sarcasm and his demands. It was evident from the beginning that her temperament was volatile — hot Scottish blood gave her deliciously high highs and desperately low lows — and she feared that if she never married, she’d never have the stability that would protect her from herself. When Ewan Macdonald, a kind young man studying for the ministry, proposed to her, she accepted.
You can see already that in many ways, Montgomery’s story is quite ordinary, or must have been for many brilliant young women at the time. She was the perfect minister’s wife. She ran the many societies and fund-raising organizations, she participated in local literary groups, and she was cheerful and lively. Her hands were never idle — she was an expert at fancy-work and crochet, and she was well-known for her neat house (a necessity in the time before refrigeration and disinfectants, when an untidy house could easily spread disease.) She was an indefatigable correspondent. She read voraciously, sometimes a book a day, books about science and psychology and history and literature and the art of war, anything that could explain her new world to her. She was always curious. She raised two sons and took care of a husband who was increasingly mentally ill (poor man, he was darkly convinced that he was not one of the Elect and had been cursed by God) and increasingly dependent on the bromides and barbiturates being prescribed to him to “help” his depression. Many women of her class must have done the same, or very similar.
But in other ways, she was a shooting star. Along with all this (honestly, far more than I do on a regular basis — I’m a rotten correspondent, for instance) she wrote 21 novels, hundreds of short stories and poems, and an ongoing, shaped, narrative journal. Her work was enormously popular, not only in Canada but internationally. (Anne of Green Gables was translated into Polish and given to Polish soldiers to take to the front during the second World War.) She spoke for huge audiences, always engaging them, making them laugh, asking them to support Canadian authors and suggesting — counter to the ideas of the time — that there actually was such a thing as Canadian literature. During a time when proponents of Modernism dismissed anything provincial, anything domestic, anything with a happy ending, she offered the idea that there is some wisdom and universality to be found in the way individuals think and behave in small towns on Prince Edward Island.
Montgomery’s volatility — her “gift of wings” — did not serve her well toward the end of her life. Ewan’s illness and her son Chester’s terrible behavior (Rubio hints around and around but never comes quite out and says that he was a psychopath) brought her down further and further, and she, too, resorted to bromides and barbiturates to try to “cure” her depression. It is a heart-wrenching ending for a woman who had such capacity for joy, and such energy to work and to help others, all her life.
This is an outstanding biography. I’ve rarely read a 600-page history of a life that was so engaging, so real and vivid, that I didn’t want to put it down, as if it were a novel. I read it in a couple of breathless days. Rubio weaves Montgomery’s works, her life, and the history of her time together seamlessly, so that it’s easy to see the impact and balance of each thing as it comes. She’s also very careful: much of this information comes from Montgomery’s journals, which are not unvarnished truth, but a carefully worked-over, shaped narrative, intended for future generations. How much can we trust? Rubio weighs this source as she weighs others, and comes out trustworthy, herself. If you’ve ever wondered who was behind Anne, behind Emily, behind Valancy and Jane, then this marvelous biography is waiting for you.