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Saturday, 26 October 2013

Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings

I've been deeply fascinated by L M Montgomery ever since I met Anne and her kin. I've loved many authors, but my fascination with 'Maud' runs much deeper - it feels like a personal connection. For nearly two years after Anne of Green Gables, my reading consisted almost solely of Montgomery's works. First the Anne series, then the Emily books, then The Blue Castle and A Tangled Web...

I'm not sure what it is about Montgomery that attracted me to her above all authors. The protagonists with whom I felt I had much in common? The feeling, loving creation of setting that has immortalized Prince Edward Island in the hearts of many ardent fans (including myself)? After I had read all the aforementioned books and some, plus some collections of short stories, I felt like I personally knew the author. With Montgomery, who uses similar themes in most, if not all her books, and who endows every protagonist with some of the same qualities (her characters are different, but they all possess imagination, intelligence, wit and generally a way with words), it is easy to feel as if she is sometimes talking about herself. It is easy to fancy that you know what she would have been like. To me, it was as if a 'kindred spirit' were talking to me from across time and space - I'd related to characters in books before, but never, never at the level at which I identified with Montgomery's protagonists. After a while though, it became less about the books and more about what I could find out about Montgomery by reading them. I became rabidly curious to find out more about the author who'd ruled my imagination for years. A preliminary google search revealed to me the news that Montgomery may have committed suicide.

This may not seem like much to you, but to a sensitive, over-imaginative girl, this was almost earth-shattering. I couldn't believe that this author - whose works contained so much joy, so much life - could even have a reason to take her own life. I retreated, in my mind, behind a defensive shield, refusing to believe that her life could have ended so tragically. As long as there was any shadow of a doubt, I resolved not to believe this. I also decided (thankfully) that I wasn't ready to read Montgomery's journals or any of the books written on her, yet. I would wait till I was less involved, more sensible and less sensitive.


When I received an Amazon gift card this August, I knew what I was going to use it for. Mary Henley Rubio's biography of Montgomery, of which I'd heard good things. I'm mature enough to handle this now, I thought. It's time to get some closure and put this obsession to rest.



The first part of the book, where Rubio is describing Montgomery's ancestry, wasn't very interesting. Once she got to her life, however, I couldn't put it down. I knew some of the things that Rubio describes, but not much. Maud was an extraordinary women, determined, disciplined, talented and extremely resilient.

The book did not give me much happiness, however. I'm not sure whether it was intended that way, but Maud's life comes across as tragic and full of disappointments, perhaps because the unhappy periods in Maud's life get far more attention and description. What is it about artists and men and women of genius that draws us to the flaws and unhappiness in their lives? When we remember Van Gogh, why do we simultaneously remember his art and his famously severed ear? Why is there so much emphasis on Virginia Woolf's suicide? Dante's exile? Dante and Beatrice? Do we get some sort of vindictive satisfaction in saying, "They may have been geniuses, but they didn't lead very happy lives"?

This emphasis on the tortured artist is something that has always troubled me. Is it mandatory for a great artist to die unhappy, melancholy and disenchanted with life?
What justice is there in a world in which people who provide so much happiness to others in the form of their work, are unhappy themselves?

Back to Maud - reading the book, you come across instance after instance of disappointment, of loneliness, of difficulty. The saddest parts of the book, for me, were where Maud fights depression. Her highs and lows resonated deeply with me, because I am the sort of person who can be exquisitely happy and tremendously sad.

But with what strength, what discipline Maud fights this! Rubio says she set aside a few hours for writing everyday, and she wrote, no matter what. If she felt burdened and couldn't write, she would copy texts or things she'd memorized, over and over again until she found inspiration.

From all accounts, she did face rather a lot of difficulties.

She supported herself through her higher education, with little support from a male-centric society, slaved away for a few years teaching and writing at the same time, developed terrible migraines, married a husband whose depressive fits worsened her own, took tablets that resulted in bromide poisoning, and had a terrible son who seemed to do anything that would break his mother's heart.

For all her resilience, for all that she fought, Maud dies exhausted and broken, referring to her life in her journal as 'hell, hell, hell.'

'My position is too awful to endure and nobody realizes it. What an end to a life in which I tried always to do my best in spite of many mistakes.'

Oh, Maud!

I read the last page, shut the book and wept. I wept for my idol, for this woman who'd done so much and felt so much; I wept out of sheer sympathy; I wept out of sorrow, out of fear that I'd end up the same way (I don't flatter myself with regards to talent, but as I've already said, her highs and lows resonated with me deeply). That night, I regretted reading this book, regretted my stupidity in thinking I was mature enough to handle this.

But when a few days had passed, and I was standing a little farther away from myself, I was able to look at things more rationally.

Most accounts of Montgomery's life naturally rely on her journals as a primary source, but for most of her adulthood, Maud wrote in her journals only of things that upset her, when she was at a breaking point, and situations were past endurance. Rubio tries to overcome this by talking to all kinds of people who knew her, including Montgomery's son Stuart (who was the good son; the disappointing one was Chester). She mentions the discrepancy between the troubled woman in Maud's journals, and the witty, sparkling, laughing women most of these people spoke of. Yet, troubled, tragic Maud gets more attention, perhaps understandably, considering that Maud may have ended her life.

But I think that joyous Maud deserves attention too. The woman who wrote of beautiful lands, fun times, raptures, soaring imagination and funny people deserves mention too. Who are we to say who Maud 'really' was? What if, underneath all the bad luck and sad circumstances, the 'real' Maud is the one we see in people's descriptions and in her protagonists? Busy, kind, witty, laughing, fun?

I've made peace with Maud's story. I refuse, however, to look at her as some sort of tragic heroine. There was tragedy in her life, but there was bliss too. I think she deserves to not have that glossed over. And despite whatever I said about the distress her story caused me, I think I have gotten that closure. I don't think I shall obsessively look for more biographies and analyses. I will let Maud rest in peace, reserving a spot in my heart for a wonderfully accomplished, resilient artist.