Losing and finding Lucy Maud Montgomery

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I just finished the Lucy Maud Montgomery biography by Mary Henley Rubio, and it broke my heart over and over again. There’s so much I didn’t know about her, and what I mostly didn’t know was how bad it was: her life was hard. She struggled with her own mental illness, in addition to her husband and son’s. I’m certainly not the first person to assume that the person who invented Anne Shirley had a happy childhood and generally contented life.

Beyond her personal family struggles, the critics turned on Maud in the 1920s; this devastated her. Rubio writes:

In the mid-1920s, the growing cadre of men who panned her books included influential newsmen, university professors, and writers in Canada, and they all knew each other. In 1926, one of Canada’s powerful newspaper critics led the attach, labelling her books the nadir of Canadian fiction. A much respected professor of literature termed her books ‘naive’ with an ‘innocence’ that suggested ‘ignorance of life.’… In the face of such attacks, even the critics who had previously lauded her writing started being careful to temper their praise.

Nevertheless, all these men were impressed (and annoyed) by her sales and success. While some allowed that her large readership might speak to some undefined cultural need, others have felt that her popularity merely proved her ‘lowbrow’ quality. These detractors spoke with such a powerful voice in Canada between the mid-1920s and her death in 1942 that her work fell into disfavour… By the 1970s, the general wisdom was that Montgomery was a sentimental writer who appealed to the uncultured and masses of undiscriminating women and children, and still in the 1980s expressing an admiration for Maud’s books was rather risky. She was relegated strictly to the category of ‘children’s writer,’ and was judged by her weakest books, not her best.

For over 50 years, even during the hardest times, even when her family was coming apart at the seams, L.M. Montgomery kept writing. I can’t imagine what that drive is like – part of it was motivated by financial worries, since the publisher of her early books, especially the cash cow Anne of Green Gables, screwed her out of royalties. A lot of her drive came from being an ambitious hard worker at a time and place (turn of the century PEI) where being ambitious was not something a woman should be.

I feel closer to Maud now that I ever have. There’s something very sad about her, but something inspiring too.

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