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A Self-Portrait of Anne's Author
by Clara Thomas

Once again, Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston have done an impeccable job of selecting and editing to give us the penultimate volume of L.M. Montgomery's voluminous Journals. Their project has been in progress for many years, and has taken the editors on far-flung expeditions across Canada and to foreign lands, as well as committing them to the painstaking slogging that such an editorial task entails. In total, their volumes present us with a vivid record of the life and times of a famous writer, devoted mother, busy and often harassed homemaker, and minister's wife, whose journal was both confidante and therapist. More than that, the series is also an unparalleled social history of her times in her birthplace of Prince Edward Island, in the two small Southern Ontario towns of Leaskdale and Norval, and in Saskatchewan.

Volume I covers the years 1899-1910; Volume II, 1910-1921; Volume III, 1921-1929; and Volume IV, 1929-1935. Volume V obviously will take us up to her death in 1942. For wealth of detail and emotional frankness, there is nothing else in Canadian literature that even approaches these volumes and they will always provide a source book for historians considering such varied topics as teaching in rural schools in the early years of the century, physical and mental illness and its treatments, World War I, the controversies surrounding Church Union in the twenties, and the effects of the Depression in the early thirties.

Montgomery was a truly professional writer from a very early age. She was born in 1874, her mother died when she was very young, her father moved to the West where he remarried, and she lived with her grandparents in Cavendish, P.E.I. It was there, after her grandfather's death when she was alone with her grandmother for many years, that she practised and perfected her skills as a storyteller, which culminated in the triumphant publication of Anne of Green Gables in 1908. Long before that, though, she had imposed on herself the discipline of a professional-writing, polishing, sending out and resending story manuscripts to publishers. Fortunately, her grandmother was the local postmistress. With Anne, she achieved a real breakaway-a feisty redhead whose combination of dreaming idealism and unbreakable spirit is as attactive to readers today as it was then. She walked off the page and into the minds and imagination of tens of thousands, and she is still doing it!

Montgomery began her Journals in 1889 when she was fifteen, but only when she was well into her maturity and was enjoying the rewards of her success did she decide to copy out her work with a view to future publication. Rubio and Waterston have made selections from ten legal-sized volumes, each approximately 500 pages long. The care and work involved on both Montgomery's and her editors' parts are daunting. For Montgomery, the Journals are yet another sign of her consummate professionalism, as well as evidence of a very sound evaluation of their value and her own fame.

Volume I tells a fascinating story of a young woman of high intelligence and intense sensitivity, subjectivity, and burgeoning sexuality governed, and sometimes frustrated, by the strict manners and morals of her time. At times, her mental health was precarious and always her apprenticeship as teacher and writer was in progress. The triumph of Anne's publication and its astonishing success ends the volume, but not without a prophetic note of the self-regarding, self-pitying strain that was to grow ominously with time: "Good-bye old journal. You have been in all these long, hard, lonely thirteen years almost my only comfort and refuge."

Volume II records the early years of her marriage to Ewan Macdonald (a Presbyterian minister whom she frankly admits to respecting but not loving), the birth of their two sons, Chester and Stuart, and their early years in the manse in Leaskdale, one of the two churches in Ewan's charge. I believe that Montgomery was at her happiest when her two boys were little, but the years of World War I also show an emotionally overwrought strain in her makeup. As she matured, she allowed her Journal's voice to grow ever more tart. Volume III is perhaps the most enjoyable of all, for more and more, she unleashes her quick wit and sharp tongue as an outlet for the many frustrations, demands, and conflicts of being a minister's wife.

Volumes II and III also deal with the hovering disaster of her married life: Ewan Macdonald's recurrent depression and tormenting conviction that he was damned in the eyes of God combined with Montgomery's own tendency to nervous crises ("Neuresthenia", as she came to call it) undermined both their family and public lives. Mental illness and a bitter lawsuit with Page (the Boston publishers of Anne as well as the popular Anne series) ensured that there were virtually no calm and peaceful days in their lives. Moreover, the tensions and bitterness produced by the years just preceding the union of Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational churches into the United Church were constant afflictions. The Macdonalds were emphatically "Continuing Presbyterians" and Montgomery bitterly and (in her Journal) vocally resented any desertion among their congregation. She still reported vividly, however, her intense pleasure in family holiday trips back home to the Island, and in the fame and adulation that her success brought her.

Volume IV begins with their move to Norval, a larger church, a larger village, and a more comfortable and electricity-supplied manse. Beyond that, the signs were all ominous. It is impossible for the reader not to notice that, from being a wittily judgmental woman, Montgomery was fast becoming a bitterly judgmental one, out of sorts with her times, her demanding roles as mother, wife, housekeeper, and general servant of the two fractious congregations of Union and Norval. Partly through circumstance and partly because of her own temperament, she had become a controlling woman. She was used to running her family, her Bible Class, various church functions, and her writing career as she saw fit, and any deviation from her views caused her great dissatisfaction. So it was that the onset of the Depression found her already seriously disturbed. Her reading public was shrinking, for adult readers who had read her books in the twenties were turning away from romances and toward the modernists (Morley Callaghan, for instance, in her opinion one of the current purveyors of "filth"). Matters deteriorated steadily as her income shrank, various loans that she had made to family members and dear friends went unpaid and were, obviously, uncollectable, and Ewan's salary was often in arrears. Most frightening, the writing that had always been her delight and pleasure proved more and more difficult for her, and the second of the Pat series was actually refused by the American publishers. The crowning disappointment was her older son's failing first year Engineering at the University of Toronto, and soon afterwards, his hasty and secret marriage to a young woman she deemed unsuitable: "I didn't deserve this," she wailed, the ultimate age-old cry of self-pity. In fact, she was so traumatized by these, in her mind, disasters, and also by Stuart's failing first year Medicine, that she was unable to write in her Journals for three years.

Then she proceeded to write up the missing years from her scattered notes, but always in the midst of yet another family catastrophe: Ewan's complete breakdown, which necessitated his resignation from the ministry, and their final move to Riverdale Avenue in West Toronto. There ends Volume IV, its disasters somewhat mitigated by the possession of a fine and spacious home and the promise of the kind of city and cultural activity for which she was starved. It was a depressing volume, however, with Ewan almost absent from it until his illness, his symptoms noted day-by-day with clinical precision but little or no warmth. Early in the volume, Montgomery had noted that the aftermath of menopause had left her unable to tolerate marital relations, though she and Ewan continued to share a room and bed, and she was often to complain of his inability to sleep beside her while she lay awake, a prey to her fears and anxieties.

The reader's compassion for Ewan is twinned with a growing conviction that Montgomery's own all-too-obvious neuroses must have played a major part in his condition. The imbalance in their incomes must certainly have been hard on both Ewan and his congregations. To make matters worse, by the thirties, Mongtomery writes as if the well-being and education of her sons depended on her alone. In fact, even in the depths of the Depression and in spite of minimal salaries, minister's families were educated, often at both private schools and universities, thanks to many special arrangements made available to them. I was growing up in a similar small Ontario town at that time, very aware of the discrepancies in opportunity between ministers' families (who in my experience had one income only) and my own.

Volume IV is the sad story of the disintegration of a wonderfully gifted, creative, high-spirited, and successful woman. But it is bravely told by herself. It is a cautionary tale for any sensitive reader, as poignant as King Lear, and as timely as the day before yesterday. 

Clara Thomas is a writer and professor of Canadian literature at York University.


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