The Craft and Courage of L.M. Montgomery, Pt 4

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In this final installment, I want to say a few words about Lucy Maud’s personal challenges as a writer. Even a casual perusal of her journals reveals the fact that Maud was a creature of intense, sometimes crippling moods. I don’t think anyone could be capable of communicating the full scope of human joys and sorrows like she did without being intimately acquainted with both the heights and the depths.

And it’s a dangerous business.

Many an artist has run aground on the shoals of their own passionate natures. Although Anne Shirley was a gentler version of her own extremes, Maud well-knew the both wings of anticipation and the depths of despair. And like Emily Starr, Maud had to come to terms with what she really believed to be the creative force acting in the universe.

At the beginning of Emily of New Moon, young Emily learns from the brusque and rather brutal housekeeper, Ellen Greene, that her father is going to die. Ellen has told Emily that “finding fault with God” is the absolute wickedest thing anyone could ever do. But Emily has no one else to blame, and she just tells God just what she thinks about it.

Unable to keep such a terrible thing to herself, however, she confesses to her father that she doesn’t like God anymore.

Douglas Starr laughed—the laugh Emily liked best.

“Yes you do, honey. You can’t help liking God. He is Love itself, you know. You mustn’t mix him up with Ellen Green’s God, of course.

Emily didn’t know exactly what Father meant. But all at once she found she wasn’t afraid any longer…She felt as if love was all about her and around her, breathed out from some great, invisible, hovering Tenderness. One couldn’t be afraid or bitter where love was—and love was everywhere…   

Emily of New Moon

When the news came out in 2008 that Maud suffered from massive depression, which may have led to, or at least hastened, her death, a lot of people were shocked. I remember coming across online comments expressing disappointment that Lucy Maud wasn’t all she appeared to be from her books, as if her struggles somehow discredited her ideals. Academics made something of a sensation out of it, only too glad, perhaps, to add her to the canon of tortured female geniuses. But people just could not seem to account for the light she brought into the world, in the midst of such personal darkness.

But let me tell you what this news did for me: I was absolutely bowled over with admiration and respect.

Writing for her was not so much an escape, as an antidote. It was not an act of denial, but an act of defiance.

Lanier Ivester

As early as the 1890s her journals start bearing witness to bouts of devastating depression, usually brought on by some event that underscored her vulnerability. The death of one her dearest friends in 1897 nearly crippled her, and at the end of 1910 she suffered what we would call a nervous breakdown as a result of a prolonged and unnamed worry in her life.

Unfortunately for her, and for so many sufferers from what was known as “neaurasthenia” in that day, there were few options beyond bromides and silence. Bromides were a commonly prescribed remedy for depression in the nineteenth century; a practice which persisted into the mid-twentieth century, when researchers began to realize (and doctors began to admit) that many of the patients in psych hospitals were not suffering so much from mental illness, but bromide poisoning. As in all too many cases, the cure was worse than the disease.

Montgomery’s husband, Ewan, a Presbyterian minister consumed morbidly—and heartbreakingly—with the fear that he was not one of the ‘elect,’ had been treated for depression himself as early as 1919. He was later to develop the classic symptoms of bromide poisoning—the tragic upshot of which was that he was prescribed more bromide. It’s very likely that this medication which was supposed to help him destroyed his life. And there is evidence to suggest that bromides had a similarly, though not as outwardly dramatic, impact on Montgomery’s later life, as well.

In a painful passage from her journal, written after her recovery from the 1910 attack, Maud confides:

I have heard hell described as “a world from which hope was excluded.” Then I was in hell for those three weeks. I had NO hope. I could not realize any possible escape from suffering. It seemed to me that I must exist in that anguish forever…     

The Journals of L.M. Montgomery, Volume 1

As I’ve already mentioned, 1937 was a year of almost unbearable sadness for her. Strikingly (for all her habitual “writing out”), it is a year of which she leaves no account in her journal; all we have was written after the fact. Nevertheless, 1937 was the year that Maud struck up a cheerful and encouraging correspondence with the aspiring young writer, Violet May King.

In one of her letters, Maud tells Violet that the ability to see beauty in the world is “a birthright a princess might envy.” In another place, referring to the “happy ending” debate raging in the disenchanted 1930s literary circles, Maud said in defense of her happy endings that “the world must have something to keep it alive.” In writing to Violet, Maud doesn’t deny the fact of her personal struggles, but the undeniable focus of these letters is to keep this young woman from giving up on her literary dreams.

I’m not trying to paint Maud as a faultless paragon. She was a very human, very wounded woman who made beautiful things in the face of often horrifying inner odds. But looking back over Maud’s books, and examining her life, I keep asking myself, “What was her greatest gift? What was her real legacy?”

And what it boils down to—for me, at least—is hope.

Montgomery’s stories give us hope—hope as readers; hope as artists.

Lanier Ivester

Hope that, in the face of war, and mass destruction, and illness and suffering, that the delights and vagaries and foibles of human nature still matter. That second chances actually do happen and that redemption is an active force at work in a broken world.

That the pinewoods are just as real as the pigsties.

That “Douglas Starr’s” God, not “Ellen Green’s” god, is running the universe.

Montgomery’s stories give us hope—hope as readers; hope as artists. And this is absolutely mind-blowing, considering the fact that she struggled so mightily to keep hope alive in herself.

This woman was so brave. She didn’t give herself up to the darkness and refuse to write at all. And she didn’t give into it and write what the darkness was dictating to her. That takes tremendous—I would say, superhuman—courage.

Writing for her was not so much an escape, as an antidote. It was not an act of denial, but an act of defiance. When WWI shattered the world that she knew and loved, she kept writing of that world in order to keep reminding the world of what on earth they were fighting for. Two of her most optimistic books, Anne of the Island and Anne’s House of Dreams, were written while WWI was raging. And in WWII, Polish troops were issued copies of Anne of the Island to take to the front with them.

WWII effectively broke her heart, I think, after all the optimism that WWI really would be the war to end all wars. And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the wars raging in her personal life. But she never stopped incarnating her ideals in irresistibly human heroines. She never stopped articulating Beauty, Truth and Goodness, over and over and over again.

She fought her stories into the world. But she never got so caught up in the battle that she forgot what she was fighting for.

I think this passage from The Story Girl beautifully expresses Lucy Maud’s own heritage:

Well, The Story Girl was right—There is such a place as fairyland—but … only a few, who remain children at heart, can ever find that fair, lost path again; and blessed are they above mortals. They, and only they, can bring us tidings from that dear country where we once sojourned and from which we must evermore be exiles. The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and story-tellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland.

 


In Parts One, Two and Three of this series, I looked at some of the ways Lucy Maud Montgomery continues to enchant her readers over a hundred years after the publication of Anne of Green Gables, and examined a few of the practical means by which she accomplished that enduring magic.

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Lanier Ivester is a “Southern Lady” in the best and most classical sense and a gifted writer in the most articulate and literal sense. She hand-binds books and lives on a farm with peacocks, bees, sheep, and the governor of Ohio’s leg. She loves old books and sells them from her website, LaniersBooks.com, and she’s currently putting the final touches on her first novel, as well as studying literature at Oxford.


4 Comments

  1. Laudable Linkage | Stray Thoughts

    […] The Craft and Courage of L. M. Montgomery. I was surprised to learn a few years ago that the author of Anne of Green Gables was not happy in her personal life, in contrast to many of her characters.  This was a good perspective. My Oath of Office. Good no matter who is elected. […]

  2. Lisa Smith

    Thank you again for this series on Lucy Maud Montgomery. That she could write such beautiful words despite the darkness she experienced both within and without is such an inspiration to me to keep writing even when I don’t feel like it. Perhaps that’s the time when we need to keep going the most, to remind ourselves and our readers of the light that still shines.

  3. Kirstyn

    I don’t have anything “new” to comment with, but I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this series and wish it were longer! I appreciated your neat conclusion of WWI being “the war to end all wars” in LM’s mind, and then WWII breaking her heart…taking Rilland The Blythes Are Quoted into context, that seems to be exactly what happened. Poor Maud.  🙁

    I’m off to re-read Jane of Lantern Hill…I’ve read all L.M.’s works, but don’t remember anything about this one, and I’m excited to read it again as I’m a rather big fan of domestic arts, myself.  😀

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