World Literature

Lucy Maud Montgomery

 

BORN: 1874, Clifton, Prince Edward Island, Canada

DIED: 1942, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

NATIONALITY: Canadian

GENRE: Novels, short stories

MAJOR WORKS:

Anne of Green Gables (1908)

Chronicles of Avonlea (1912)

Emily of New Moon (1923)

The Blue Castle (1926)

Emily’s Quest (1927)

 

 

L. M. Montgomery. Montgomery, L. M., photograph. Public Archives of Canada.

 

Overview

A popular and financially successful writer, Lucy Maud (or L. M.) Montgomery MacDonald is considered one of Canada’s best-known and most enduring authors of children’s fiction. Although she wrote many works for adults— romantic novels, short stories, poetry, an autobiography, and Courageous Women (1934), a collection of biographical sketches—her books for young readers are her most important achievement. They emphasize the imaginative, emotional, and nostalgic aspects of childhood and adolescence while underscoring the importance of their Prince Edward Island settings. Characterized by both realism and sentimentality, they document the conflicts and successes of heroines who are motherless or orphaned.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Child’s Respite in Books and Writing. Lucy Maud Montgomery was born on November 30, 1874, in Clifton, Prince Edward Island. Her parents, Hugh Montgomery, a former sea captain turned merchant, and Clara Macneill Montgomery, came from large, long-established, and eminent Prince Edward Island families. Clara Montgomery died before her daughter, always known as Maud, was two years old. Montgomery’s grief-stricken father sent her to live with her elderly, strict Presbyterian maternal grandparents at their isolated farmhouse in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island.

Montgomery was a solitary child, sensitive, imaginative, and rather out of place in her grandparents’ household. She found respite in books, notably, works by Dickens, Scott, Byron, and Longfellow, and in writing stories and poems of her own, a talent that she developed at a very early age. She also enjoyed the company of her many cousins and later school friends.

In 1890 her father, now remarried and with a new family, asked Montgomery to join him in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, and she spent the next year in the Canadian West. She found her stepmother uncongenial (she was expected to serve as an unpaid maid and nanny and was kept home from school for months) and her father too busy with a variety of enterprises—business, political, and social—to be much of a companion. However, she soon made several close friends. She was thrilled in November 1890 when her first published work, a poem, appeared in the Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island Daily Patriot. She was equally excited to return to Prince Edward Island in August 1891.

Trading Teaching for Writing. In 1893 Montgomery went to Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown to prepare for a teaching career. She taught in rural schools for three years, finding the work rather taxing and less rewarding than she had hoped, but she was able to devote several hours a day to writing. By the mid-1890s she had achieved moderate success as a writer, having had many stories and poems published for money.

Montgomery’s grandfather died in 1898, and for the next thirteen years, with the exception of a brief stint in 1901 as a reporter for a Halifax newspaper, she lived with and cared for her aging grandmother in Cavendish. Her life there was very constrained, but she found enjoyment in writing. During this time Montgomery produced poems and stories, which, by the early 1900s, provided considerable income. During this time she also began two of her most important long-term friendships, based almost entirely on correspondence, with Canadian teacher Ephraim Weber and Scottish journalist G. B. MacMillan. In her long letters to these sympathetic friends she was able to express her hopes and fears as a writer.

Success with Anne. In 1907 Montgomery’s previously rejected first novel was accepted by a publisher. In 1908 Anne of Green Gables, the appealing story of an imaginative, irrepressible, redheaded orphan girl who was adopted by two elderly Prince Edward Islanders was published by the L. C. Page Company of Boston. The story was clearly inspired by Montgomery’s own childhood in Prince Edward Island with her grandparents. It was an immediate and tremendous success with readers of all ages and both sexes. Montgomery wrote to a friend, ‘‘Anne seems to have hit the public taste.’’ Among the thousands of fan letters Montgomery received was one from Mark Twain, who described her heroine as ‘‘the dearest and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice.’’ A sequel, Anne of Avonlea, followed in 1909 and, despite not having received very favorable royalty terms from her publisher, Montgomery’s professional and financial success was assured. Eventually, eight Anne books would be published.

Montgomery’s grandmother died in March of 1911. Four months later the author married Ewan MacDonald, a Presbyterian minister to whom she had been secretly engaged for five years. After a honeymoon in the British Isles, the MacDonalds returned to Canada, where Ewan resumed his pastoral duties in Leaskdale, Ontario. Montgomery found that being a minister’s wife involved endless rounds of meetings, sewing bees, Sunday school classes, choir practice, and visits. To these responsibilities she soon added those of a mother, with sons Chester born in 1912 and Stuart in 1915. Despite her hectic schedule, she continued to write.

Growing Appreciation of Her Work. World War I was a source of great concern to Montgomery, and her relief over the end of the war was soon overwhelmed by a series of travails. In January 1919 her cousin and closest friend, Frederica Campbell, died. Later in the same year her husband suffered an attack of what was termed ‘‘religious melancholia,’’ a feeling of hopeless certainty of eternal damnation. After several months Ewan recovered, but he remained subject to attacks at irregular and unpredictable intervals for the rest of his life. Henceforth, Ewan became a source of chronic anxiety for Montgomery. In addition, in 1920 she became engaged in a series of acrimonious, expensive, and very trying lawsuits with publisher L. C. Page, which dragged on until Montgomery finally won in 1929.

Montgomery did find consolations in the 1920s, however. Her growing sons were always a source of delight and pride to her. In 1926 the family moved to Norval, Ontario, where Ewan became the minister of a smaller congregation. In the early 1920s Montgomery created a new, highly autobiographical heroine, Emily of New Moon, who proved nearly as popular as Anne. Her achievements were recognized in 1923 when she became the first Canadian woman to be named a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in England. She was further honored in August 1927 when she was asked to meet the visiting Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) and Stanley Baldwin, the British prime minister and Anne of Green Gables fan.

Accolades and Anxieties. Montgomery’s successes and anxieties continued through the 1930s. Several of her new juvenile books were well received. She was invested with the Order of the British Empire in 1935, and in 1936 the Canadian government created a national park on Prince Edward Island in and around Cavendish because of the renown Montgomery’s books had brought the area. Ewan’s health, however, was her primary concern. In 1935, after a series of physical ailments, he had a complete breakdown and was institutionalized for months. He slowly improved, but, overwhelmed by stress, Montgomery had a brief breakdown of her own. In 1935 Ewan retired, and the MacDonalds moved to Toronto, where their sons were at college. Ewan and Montgomery both had breakdowns again in 1937, but both recovered, and by the spring of 1939 Montgomery wrote that she was feeling better than she had in years.

Her recovery was of short duration, however. The outbreak of World War II depressed her greatly. Ewan’s health declined, and, after a bad fall in 1940, Montgomery herself became very ill. Her condition worsened in 1941, and she died on April 24, 1942.

The author of more than twenty books and hundreds of short stories and poems, Montgomery never felt she had achieved what she had aimed for—her ‘‘great’’ book. She was appreciative of her financial and popular successes and felt that her work was well done as far as it went, but she recognized and regretted her limitations. Serious critics agreed with her, and for years she was dismissed as a hack writer of children’s books. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, however, as part of their search for a unique Canadian identity, Canadian scholars devoted a great deal of attention to L. M. Montgomery and the continued popularity of her works.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Montgomery's famous contemporaries include:

Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922): Esteemed Scottish scientist and inventor best known for his invention of the telephone.

Charles Talbut Onions (C. T. Onions) (1873-1975): English grammarian and lexicographer best known for his collaborative work on The Oxford English Dictionary.

James W. Tate (1875-1922): Pianist, composer, songwriter, accompanist, and producer of popular pantomimes and revues.

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915): American educator, author, and leader of the African American community. Washington, a former slave, led a teacher's college for blacks and eventually became a spokesman for African Americans.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

''Youth is not a vanished thing,'' Montgomery once wrote, ''but something that dwells forever in the heart.'' Here are a few works by writers who reach back into their own childhoods for inspiration:

Little House on the Prairie (1935), a novel by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Part of a literary series known collectively as the Little House series, these stories feature a hard-working family who lives in the untamed West of the United States in the late nineteenth century.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), a novel by Harper Lee. Lee based her novel about racial tensions on an event that happened in her hometown in Alabama when she was ten years old.

Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), a novel by Truman Capote. Capote, a childhood friend of To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee, wrote this, his first novel, based on his youthful experiences in Alabama.

Claudine at School (1900), a novel by Colette. This novel and other ''Claudine'' novels by Colette present a roughly autobiographical sketch of a sometimes shockingly forthright girl growing up in France.

 

Works in Literary Context

Throughout her career Montgomery struggled with an inner conflict: whether to satisfy public taste by writing profitable light romances or fulfill her own desire and produce a serious literary work. She never realized that with Anne of Green Gables she had produced a classic.

The Childhood of an Orphan. Having been raised by strict disciplinarian grandparents in an otherwise lonely atmosphere, Montgomery began to read a great deal. When she began writing, it was ‘‘with an exhaustive, unforgiving memory of what a thin-skinned, imaginative child can suffer and an unquenchable delight in children’s pleasures,’’ wrote Frances Frazer in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Montgomery’s own mother died before she was two years old, and her father left her to be cared for by her grandparents. This absence of typical parental figures is reflected in her two most famous fictional creations, Anne Shirley and Emily Starr. Both are girls who become orphaned at a young age, yet remain optimistic and good-natured despite their hardships.

 

Works in Critical Context

Montgomery’s critical reception has been mixed. Many critics label her works nonliterary, pointing to her use of excessive sentiment, flowery prose, and inconsistent characterization. Montgomery’s plots and characters are sometimes regarded as derivative, and she is censured for not representing real growth except in Emily and Anne. Some critics hold that Anne’s appeal diminishes as she gets older and more conservative. Others say that none of Montgomery’s works equaled her first book. Most reviewers, however, commend her as a true storyteller whose charm and honesty transcend her faults. Montgomery ‘‘remembered exactly how it was to be a child,’’ explained Jean Little in L. M. Montgomery: An Assessment. ‘‘More than that,’’ Little continues, ‘‘she was able to record the experience of being a child so faithfully and vividly that reading children, years later, find themselves in her stories.’’ So it was, especially, with Anne of Green Gables.

Anne of Green Gables (1908). Anne of Green Gables, the appealing story of an imaginative, irrepressible, red-headed orphan girl who is adopted by two elderly Prince Edward Islanders, remains Montgomery’s greatest popular success. It was performed as a play in 1937, made into two filmed versions in the United States in 1921 and 1934, adapted for a British television series in 1972 and two Canadian (CBC) TV films (Anne in 1985 and Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel in 1987).

 

Responses to Literature

1. Read Anne of Green Gables. Anne finds the subject of good behavior troubling. What does it mean to the characters in the story to be ‘‘good’’? Why do you think good behavior is so important? Do any of the characters stray from the rules? How? Does Anne change her attitude and behavior, and if so, how? Why?

2. Montgomery loved fashionable clothes and looking smart. Her attitude toward fashion can be seen in the novel. What role does fashion play in it? What do the characters’ attitudes about fashion reveal about themselves, and how do these attitudes affect their relationships with one another?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Gillen, Mollie. The Wheel of Things: A Biography of L. M. Montgomery, Author of ‘‘Anne of Green Gables’’. Don Mills, Ont.: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1975.

Ridley, Hilda M. The Story of L. M. Montgomery. London: Harrap, 1956.

Waterston, Elizabeth. The Clear Spirit: Twenty Canadian Women and Their Times. Edited by Mary Quayle Innis. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966.

Periodicals

Gilmore, Rachna. ‘‘Transcending Time and Space: The Allure of Montgomery’s Landscapes.’’ Kindred Spirits, September 22, 2004.

Rosenfield, Wendy. ‘‘Delightful Orphan Back for Encore.’’ Philadelphia Inquirer, January 2007.

Web Sites

Librivox. Anne of Green Gables. Accessed on February 9, 2008, from http://librivox.org/anne-of-green-gables-by-lucy-maud-montgomery.

Lucy Maud Montgomery. Accessed on February 9, 2008, from http://www.uxbridge.com/people/maud.html.

Lucy Maud Montgomery Institute. Accessed February 9, 2008, from http://www.upei.ca/~lmmi.