Wednesday, 15 November 2006

The Selected Perceptions of L.M. Montgomery

I have a confession to make here [pauses to take a deep, tremulous breath]. My name is Orange Swan, and I’m a L.M. Montgomery geek. I own all her books (all the novels, all the posthumous short story collections, even the expendable account of her early career, The Alpine Path). In the summer of 2004 I visited the University of Guelph’s Montgomery collection, looked at the photos Montgomery had taken of herself modelling the various ensembles from her trousseau, and got slightly breathless when I opened one of the legal-sized volumes containing her hand-written journal. I’ve been to Toronto’s Riverside Drive to have a look at the house where Montgomery spent the last seven years of her life. (Possibly my only saving grace is that I haven’t visited the tourist trap faux Green Gables in P.E.I.) And now I’ve read the last volume of her exhaustive journals, The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery, Volume V: 1935-1942, as edited by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston.

Surely it isn’t just my Montgomery geekiness speaking when I write that Montgomery’s journals are fascinating on a number of levels. Of course if you know her work, there’s the obvious benefit of being able to draw parallels between her life and what she wrote. But there’s so much more to them than that. The journals have a narrative drive to them that makes them very readable in their own right. I could not take my nose out of this book until I was finished because I wanted to know what happened – did her son Chester ever manage to graduate law school? Did he make things up with his wife or did he leave her for another woman? The journals are also interesting as a record of what life was like in Montgomery’s day. In this volume one gets, for instance, glimpses of Toronto in the thirties, and insights into how the first half of the twentieth century with its tumultuous changes struck a woman who came of age in Victorian era. I should never have thought that Montgomery had ever read Gone With the Wind (and been unable to put it down) or knew of (and admired) Katharine Hepburn, yet she did. They also provide a picture of the Canadian literary scene as it then was, and of Montgomery’s experience as a public figure. Montgomery was arguably the most famous woman in Canada from Anne of Green Gables’s publication when she was thirty to the time of her death at the age of 68. She met many notable Canadians and her often acerbic and satirical comments on them are a delight.

But as I closed this last volume the thought uppermost in my mind was that these books are the ultimate example of someone who endlessly and needlessly tortured herself emotionally and made her own inner life a thing of agony, to the point that I would mentally admonish her, “Good grief, woman, can’t you ever just RELAX.”

I am taking into consideration the fact that Montgomery had very real and serious problems.
I am also aware of the fact that Montgomery’s journals are not an accurate reflection of her total mental state. Montgomery used her journals as her safety valve. Many of her problems had to be kept secret, and Montgomery was born in a time when reticence and endurance were considered key virtues. When Montgomery could not – or felt she could not – confide in anyone about her husband’s mental illness or her married son’s affair with another woman she wrote about it. At the same time Montgomery was a woman of wide acquaintance and of many friendships, did have people with whom she could share her joys and pleasures, and so would not have felt the same need to write in her journal about happier times.

Even allowing for these factors, Montgomery was a woman who was wired for pain. Her expectations - of herself and of others - were unreasonable. This is a woman who tortured herself for many months over a mistaken engagement while the reader of journal entries on this topic is thinking, “So give the ring back already.” She wrote of her then small son, “Chester told me a lie today. I can never feel the same towards him again.” She walked the floor for hours in anguish over her sons’ (admittedly terrible!) university grades. In the footnotes it’s revealed that Montgomery’s son Stuart was a superlative athlete and would have been one of the delegates to the 1940 Olympics had the Olympics not been cancelled due to the outbreak of World War II. But in Volume V, aside from a few mentions of Stuart going off to his club for the day, there is not one mention of her son’s athletic prowess. In the main his mother has chosen to discuss her anxiety over his poor grades, his boils, and abscessed tooth, and his relationship with a girl Montgomery despised. Montgomery agonized over world events. She tortured herself with imaginings of terrible things that might happen and bitterly asserted that she and all those she loved were under a curse. And she reinforced her miserable view of her life by frequent re-readings of her own journals. Given how evocatively she wrote, there could have been no better way of keeping her wounds laid open to the bone.

As I sit here wondering how to end this essay, I’m entertaining thoughts of closing either with some speculation on how Montgomery could have been helped, or with some thoughts on why it is important that one not live a life of such self-induced misery, but I feel a distaste for both of these options. In the first place it seems so useless to attempt to theoretically resolve the troubles of someone who died in 1942. And in the second, I don’t like to turn Montgomery into the equivalent of Exhibit A in some exposition on cognitive therapy and the power of positive thinking. What I want to do here is to reject Montgomery’s deathbed view of her life as 68 continuous years of thumbscrew-level torture. Montgomery certainly had her share of grief and stress, but she knew happiness as well. Her friends remember her as a vivacious and witty woman, and the charm she had for others is just as genuinely a part of who she was as the despairing words she wrote in her journals. Even in her last, miserable years she was by her own acknowledgement a woman who could take pleasure in a movie or a good book, congratulate herself on having done a good piece of work when re-reading Rilla of Ingleside, lose herself in the act of writing, and find her grandchildren “altogether adorable”. It would be a shame to accept Montgomery’s bitter, final assessment of her life at face value when the totality of her life experience is not only much less negative but also so much more complex and interesting. We don’t know her, but it doesn’t follow that she knew everything about herself.


t r a c y said...

i had no idea her journals had been published so this is a wonderful discovery for me, thank you so much ! :-) i've never outgrown the anne or emily books, having read them all again during my adulthood.

paduasoy said...

This is fascinating, thanks. I recently wrote a paper on the social structure of Montgomery's PEI, and re-visited the final book Rilla of Ingleside - fascinating in its grim portrayal of the war, compared to other children's books of around the same time.