Lucy Maud Montgomery : the gift of wings – Mary Henley Rubio

I don’t think I read any of L M Montgomery’s books when I was a child. I remember enjoying the TV adaptation of Anne of Green Gables & I may have read the book afterwards but it was Montgomery’s Journals that were my first real exposure to her work. I borrowed them all through ILL & was amazed at the difference between Maud’s often unhappy life & the sunny atmosphere of her novels. This biography, by one of the editors of the Journals, reinforces that impression. It’s an excellent, if often harrowing, read.

Maud was brought up by her maternal grandparents on Prince Edward Island, the famous setting for her most loved books.Her mother died when Maud was only a small child & her father left the Island & eventually remarried. Maud’s grandmother was a sympathetic but conventional woman; her grandfather was stern & very dismissive of the ambitions & dreams of a mere girl. Maud had to struggle for her education & she used her journals as an escape from her life when it became difficult. Eventually she became a teacher & began writing stories & poetry which she sold to newspapers. Her emotional life was difficult. She was bright, vivacious & talented at recitation & story telling. She was also very conscious of the downside of living in a small community where gossip could be deadly. Her grandfather’s sarcasm at her ambition or her presumption in “putting herself forward” had the ability to dampen Maud’s spirits.

Maud had to contend with intrusive talk about her prospects as she grew older & was still unmarried. Her Journals describe a passionate relationship with a young man, Herman Leard, with whose family she boarded when she worked as a teacher. This secret relationship was vividly described in the Journals but Maud never mentions the fact that Herman was engaged to another girl at the time. How much was true & how much was romantic imagination? One of the most fascinating things about the biography is in exploring the truth of the Journals. Maud rewrote them years after the events were originally described & Rubio explores not only the accounts in the Journals but also what she discovered in the process of editing & publishing the Journals in the 1980s. She was able to interview many people who were mentioned in the Journals & it’s often amazing to see the differences between the way Maud records an incident & how others viewed it.

Nowhere is this disconnect between Maud’s reality & what others remembered than in her account of her marriage. Maud married Reverend Ewan Macdonald when she was in her thirties. Ewan was an Islander, like Maud, & they were secretly engaged for five years before marrying in 1911. Ewan was a good man, kindly & caring to his parishioners. Unfortunately he suffered from depression & the social stigma of any kind of mental illness combined with the medications he took to relieve his symptoms, made his life a misery for much of their marriage. Both Ewan & Maud seem to have been severely over-medicated for much of their lives. Ewan saw doctors who prescribed bromides & sedatives but he was also self-medicating with other over-the-counter medicines while Maud often dosed him with her homemade wine or brandy. The strain of parish work in small communities, “keeping up appearances”, & later problems with their eldest son, Chester, played on Maud’s nerves & led to her taking all kinds of medication. She often seems to be on the verge of a complete nervous collapse. Maud’s Journals portray all this in great detail but she was also able to put on such a good face to neighbours & parishioners that many people who knew the Macdonalds in their parishes in Norval & Toronto were amazed when they read the Journals. Even their maids, who lived with the family, were shocked to discover what Maud had written. They were also shocked by Maud’s caustic opinions about many of the people she knew in her daily life.

I found the description of Maud’s literary career especially interesting. The success of Anne of Green Gables was enormous & laid the foundation for Maud’s career. The financial rewards compensated for Ewan’s lacklustre career & Maud certainly enjoyed her fame. Sometimes the effects were two-edged, as when the success of her books led to such an increase of tourists making the pilgrimage to PEI that Maud could no longer relax when she went home. I also couldn’t help wondering how Ewan felt about his wife’s career & whether the humiliation of being sidelined, both financially & emotionally, may have contributed to his depression. As Rubio writes at the end of the book, we only have Maud’s side of the story so Ewan’s story will never be told. Maud’s lawsuits with an unscrupulous publisher dragged on for years & she felt stifled by the demands of her public for stories with happy endings. Her popularity did her no favours with the literary critics, nearly all of them men. Although Maud worked hard to promote Canadian literature & help young authors, her books were sneered at by male critics who relegated her to the lowly status of an author of children’s books & romances. Even her later books, such as A Tangled Web, which she intended for an adult audience, were invariably shelved with the children’s books in libraries & bookshops.

Mary Henley Rubio’s biography is the product of many years research & the thoroughness of that research is evident on every page. When I was reading the Journals, especially the final one, I can remember having to put the book down several times & read something light because Maud’s final years were just so grim. I felt the same way when reading this biography. The contrast between the sunny skies of her novels & the storms & dramas of her life is so great that it was useful to be able to look at it from the outside with the perspective of a biographer rather than to be inside the maelstrom with Maud as it often felt when reading the Journals. Reading the biography has also made me want to read more of the fiction. Last year, I read Jane of Lantern Hill & Rilla of Ingleside when they were reprinted by Virago & I have the Emily books & A Tangled Web on the tbr shelves.

Jane of Lantern Hill – L M Montgomery

Jane Victoria Stuart lives with her mother, Robin, in her grandmother’s house at 60 Gay Street, Toronto. Gay Street doesn’t live up to its name, & Jane (as she prefers to be called) is unhappy living with her formidable grandmother, Mrs Kennedy, who insists on calling her Victoria. Grandmother is a controlling, sarcastic woman, who can wither Jane’s spirits with a glance or a comment. Jane had been born on Prince Edward Island after her mother ran away with her father, Andrew Stuart. Mrs Kennedy had not approved of the marriage &, when Jane was three years old, invited her daughter & granddaughter home to Toronto for a visit. Robin had become disillusioned with her marriage. She was much younger than Andrew & Jane’s arrival had increased the tension. Robin was very young & dominated by her mother. Andrew’s sister, Irene, also did her utmost to separate the couple as she had wanted Andrew to marry a friend of hers.

Once Robin & Jane were back with Mrs Kennedy, she was convinced to stay. She wrote to Andrew saying she wouldn’t be going back & the next six years were spent in an empty round of social visits for Robin & misery for Jane as Grandmother disapproves of everything she says & does. Robin is even made to feel guilty of her love for Jane & they have to whisper together like thieves in the night. Jane’s only friend is orphaned Jody, who works in the kitchen of the boarding house next door. Jane spends her nights looking at the moon outside her window & making up stories about adventures there.

Jane has always imagined that her father is dead because his name is never spoken & Grandmother forbids Jane to ask her mother about him. So, when a letter comes from Andrew, asking that Jane spend the summer with him on Prince Edward Island, the shock is immense. Jane hates her father as she has only heard bad things about him & assumes that he didn’t want her so is very reluctant to go. However, a family conference decides that, if she doesn’t go, Andrew is within his rights to demand custody & so, she sets off reluctantly on the long journey to the Island.

Once Jane arrives, her life changes. She loves her father almost at first sight. She adores the Island & soon blossoms into a confident, capable girl who loves keeping house for her father & makes lots of friends. She soon adopts two cats & even tames a lion & finds herself on the front page of the Charlottetown papers two days running. The spirit that had been crushed by Grandmother & Gay Street, is liberated by the immediate sympathy between Jane & her father. There is a lot of Stuart in Jane which is possibly what her grandmother most disliked in her. The only fly in the ointment is Aunt Irene, who is as destructive to Jane’s spirits as Grandmother but covers her snide comments in patronising condescension.

Jane of Lantern Hill is a lovely fairy tale of a story. If, as Thomas at My Porch says, Nevil Shute is D E Stevenson for boys (& engineers), then L M Montgomery is D E Stevenson for little girls. I loved all the domestic details of Jane’s life on the Island (especially her experiments in cooking) & my heart just bled for her during the soul destroying months she spends in Toronto just counting the days until she can return to her father & the Island. As in all Montgomery’s writing about Prince Edward Island, her love & nostalgia for the place come through so strongly. The beautiful summers, even though there are storms & rain, are always contrasted with the miserable grey of Gay Street. It’s a greyness of the spirit as well as the climate & I think every reader will be crossing their fingers for a happy ending to Jane’s story.

I was sent a copy of Jane of Lantern Hill for review by Virago.

Rilla of Ingleside – L M Montgomery

I’ve only read the first book in the Green Gables series, Anne of Green Gables, & that was many years ago. I loved Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Journals, which I borrowed on Inter Library Loan as they were published over many years. Montgomery’s life was a far cry from the happy family life of Anne Shirley, the Cuthberts & Gilbert Blythe, who she eventually marries. I think her writing must have helped her to survive her difficult circumstances with a husband afflicted with mental illness & her sons so very unsatisfactory. Virago are reprinting some of Montgomery’s books & I was pleased to be offered Rilla of Ingleside & Jane of Lantern Hill for review. I was especially interested in Rilla of Ingleside because it deals with WWI & it was a very enjoyable as well as heartrending read.

Rilla is the youngest daughter of Anne & Gilbert Blythe. She’s 15 & living a peaceful life in Glen St Mary, a small town on Prince Edward Island. Rilla is a typical teenage girl, wanting to grow up as fast as possible & willing to push against her mother’s authority just a bit. Rilla is about to attend her first grown-up dance, at a lighthouse on Four Winds Point. Rilla hopes that Kenneth Ford will be there. He is & they dance together & spend an enchanted hour together on the beach. On the night of the party, war is declared between England & Germany, which means that Canada, as part of the Empire, is also at war.

Rilla’s brothers Jem & Walter, join up. Jem, with much enthusiasm, as soon as war is declared; Walter reluctantly, as he dreads fighting & is afraid that his courage will fail him at a crucial moment. Other young men in the district enlist &, gradually, Glen St Mary becomes a place for women, children & older men. The strain of being left behind, waiting for news, relying on the newspapers for information of the progress of the war, becomes greater as news of the death & wounding of the local boys drifts back from Europe.

Rilla is determined to help the war effort. She starts a chapter of the Junior Red Cross. She adopts a baby when she calls at a house for a donation & finds a young mother dead & a slovenly, drunk old woman left in charge of a baby boy. His father has gone to England to enlist & Rilla is determined not to leave the baby with the old woman or put him in an orphanage so she takes him home with her in a soup tureen, the only possible receptacle. Rilla begins to grow up as she takes responsibility for the little boy who she calls Jims. The same stubborn nature that led her to announce that she would wear the expensive green velvet hat that she bought, despite her mother’s advice, until peace came, also helps her to persevere in raising Jims with the help of a baby care manual & advice from Susan Baker, the family’s cook & housekeeper.

There are many amusing episodes in the story. Rilla has to eat humble pie & apologise to Irene Howard, a disagreeable, spiteful girl, when she desperately needs her to sing at a Red Cross concert. Unfortunately, Rilla was so worked up about her apology that she didn’t realise until she arrived at Irene’s house that she had odd shoes on. Irene spends the whole interview staring at Rilla’s feet & makes her grovel & almost lose her temper & walk out, before she agrees to help. Rilla organises a secret war wedding for Miranda Pryor when her pacifist father refuses permission for her to marry Joe Milgrave before he sails to Europe. Rilla, as bridesmaid, ends up having to hold Jims all through the ceremony when he has a tantrum & won’t stop crying & then Miranda’s overfed dog has a fit & Rilla has to try very hard to keep a straight face. It’s something her mother, Anne, would have done in the old Green Gables days.

There’s also a lot of poignancy in the story as is natural in a story set during the war. Not all the boys who enlist will come home & of those that do return, they will all be touched either physically or mentally by their experiences. Jem’s dog, called Dog Monday, refuses to leave the railway station until he returns & becomes a sad, mournful presence as he refuses all comforts. I admit that I was tearful more than once. Rilla regrets that her youth is passing in such worry & anxiety, not just about her brothers ( another brother, Shirley, becomes a pilot) but also about Kenneth, who left her with a kiss but no firm commitment. Only when the war is over will Rilla & her family be able to look to the future with confidence.

I enjoyed Rilla of Ingleside very much. The style is quite sentimental & I grew very tired of Susan calling Gilbert Dr dear & Anne Mrs Dr dear. It’s written in a very romantic style with noble speeches about patriotism & helping the mother country in fighting the Hun. However, it was published in 1921 & I suppose we’ve grown a little more cynical about such words as patriotism in the century since then. Montgomery writes beautifully of the landscape & the countryside of Prince Edward Island. I also enjoyed Gertrude Oliver, a schoolteacher who boards with the Blythes. She’s older & has had a hard life & is reluctant to believe in her present good fortune. She is engaged to a soldier & is prone to prophetic dreams & grand statements. Rilla, Anne & Gilbert, however, are at the heart of the story & their emotions always rang true.

Anglophilebooks.comThere’s a copy of Rilla of Ingleside, as well as many other books by L M Montgomery, available at Anglophile Books.

Just bought

Here’s the confession I promised the other day. I’ve had a bit of a splurge on books this month & this is the result. Penguin have been publishing their $9.95 Popular Penguins for a few years now. This is the latest idea, 50 crime classics in the distinctive green covers. I think these are only available in Australia. Hopefully I’m wrong but if anyone overseas is interested, you may want to look at the whole list here & maybe consider buying them from Readings, one of our best independent bookshops.

As you can see, Lucky decided to have a look at my new acquisitions as well so here’s another picture showing the titles more clearly. It’s a great list of old & new authors. I’d read about half of the list so these are the ones I chose, all vintage authors which won’t surprise anyone, I’m sure. Julian Symons, C P Snow (I didn’t know he’d written any crime fiction), Michael Gilbert, Dorothy Dunnett & Dornford Yates who was recently recommended on my online book group.

Apart from classic crime, I’ve also bought this little lot. Again, Lucky was right there when I was taking the photo.

So, here’s a close-up of the books. The Matriarch by G B Stern. First published in 1955 but set in Edwardian London. The story of a Jewish family & the domineering Anastasia, the matriarch of the title.  
Mrs Miles’s Diary, edited by S V Partington, the diary of a Surrey housewife during WWII. 
The Morgesons by Elizabeth Stoddard. A forgotten American classic, first published in the 1860s. Agricola & Germany by Tacitus. I’ve been reading about Roman Britain & the Anglo-Saxons lately & feel it’s about time I started reading some of the sources. Tacitus is one of the main sources for Boudicca’s rebellion in AD60.
Rumer Godden by Anne Chisholm. I’m sure I read this biography when it was first published but I want to read it again now that Virago have started reprinting her novels.
Two more novels by Nevil Shute, Most Secret & No Highway (coincidentally just reviewed by Thomas at My Porch). I’ve enjoyed the Shute novels I’ve read & now that Vintage have republished more titles with their lovely covers, I couldn’t resist a couple more. I love Thomas’s description of Shute as “D E Stevenson for boys (or engineers)” in the sense that he’s a great comfort read & you know exactly what’s in store.
The nineteenth century sensation novel by Lyn Pykett. This is an updated edition of Pykett’s 1994 book, The sensation novel from The Woman in White to The Moonstone. I’ve just read Henry Dunbar by M E Braddon so I was pleased to find this as I’m a fan of mid-Victorian sensation.
The Heart of the Family by Elizabeth Goudge. I’m still collecting Goudge rather than reading her. This is the third novel in the Damerosehay Trilogy.
Crown of Thistles : the fatal inheritance of Mary, Queen of Scots by Linda Porter. This is more than a biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, it’s an exploration of the rivalry between the Stewarts & the Tudors from 1485 to 1568. With the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden this year, I’m keen to learn more about Anglo-Scottish relations before Elizabeth & Mary.

I also have quite a few books on pre-order & I’ve been tempted to pre-order even more by the news that Virago are continuing their Angela Thirkell list with three more books to be published next May. I’ve already pre-ordered Pomfret Towers & Christmas at High Rising (uncollected short stories) & now I’m tempted by The Brandons, Summer Half & August Folly as well. I haven’t read the Thirkells I already own but that won’t stop me buying more.
Virago are also reprinting the Emily books by L M Montgomery. I’ve only read Anne of Green Gables but I like the sound of these, Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs & Emily’s Quest.

 Where will it end? My friends in my online bookgroup laughed when I said that I counted my pre-orders instead of sheep when I couldn’t get to sleep at night but it’s a very soothing way to drop off. I don’t think I’ve ever got to the end of the list before falling asleep. Maybe I’ll post a list of all my pre-orders for any insomniacs who need some help?

Footnotes essential

I love footnotes. A volume of letters or a diary just isn’t complete without exhaustive footnotes, preferably right there at the bottom of the page so I can just glance down & check who or what the writer is referring to. Even when I think I know, I still like to check just to be sure. The only problem I had with Pepys’s Diary was that there were no footnotes. There’s a Biographical Index which had information about each person so if I forgot which William was which (this happened quite often), I could go to the Index & check. But, it just wasn’t the same. Two more of my best reads of last year were Christina Rossetti’s Letters edited by A Harrison & the Selected Journals of L M Montgomery edited by Mary Rubio & Elizabeth Waterston. The Journals had the notes at the back but Rossetti’s Letters had the footnotes right there at the end of each letter for instant reference. Some of my favourite books of all have been letters & diaries – Charlotte Bronte’s Letters (that’s one of Charlotte’s letters there), Virginia Woolf’s Diaries, The Mitford sisters’ Letters, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Diaries, Dorothy L Sayers’s Letters (I still have several volumes of these to go), the selected letters of Keats, Vera Brittain, Frances Partridge… I also have some waiting on my tbr shelves that I really want to read this year. Penelope Fitzgerald’s letters, the letters of the Duchess of Devonshire & Paddy Leigh Fermor, Jessica Mitford’s letters & the selected letters & journals of Byron. Will they live up to my standards when it comes to footnotes? I hope so.