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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You’re never through with surprises til you’re dead…

I’ve been reading up on Lucy Maud Montgomery lately for a piece I’m writing. I’ve learned a few sad, surprising, and interesting things.

One, she didn’t write Anne until she was 30-years old. Her first novel (AGG) wasn’t published until she was 33-years old. This makes me feel like slightly less of a loser.

Two, she likely died by suicide, 75 years ago today. I remember when this news came out back around the Anne centennial in 2008 but I had put it out of my mind. Her life in Ontario seems quite lonely and full of hardships, mostly domestic.

Three, her archives are at the University of Guelph, 45 minutes from my door. I must pay a visit.

And four, the Emily series, my absolute favourite, was her most autobiographical work. Emily was a dark little weirdo writer I always strongly identified with as a young person. I recently re-read the whole series for the first time in 20 years and loved it just as much.

Thanks, Maud, you strange little Island weirdo, who made millions of us feel less alone.

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Reading…

The Game by Ken Dryden, which chronicles a week in the life of the 1978-1979 Montreal Canadians. They say it’s the greatest  hockey book of all time, so I picked it up at the library, and it didn’t disappoint. He’s a great writer, rare for an athlete, especially such a good athlete, and he’s also super introspective and conflicted — which is the really interesting part considering he was the best goalie on the best team in the league and won the Stanley Cup six times in eight years. What is there to be conflicted about when you’re so awesome?

Oh, but he does ennui so well:

From the referendum on Quebec’s independence to the “son of Sam” murders, I find almost everything ‘interesting’ and if pressed for more,  I offer explanations. I show that I ‘understand’ how such things happen and I go no further. But as I hold back, giving less of myself,  I find that I am losing my enthusiasm for the game. In an athlete, it is not the legs that go first, it is the enthusiasm that drives the legs.

Easy, David Foster Wallace. And here he is, on playing at Maple Leaf Gardens in the late 70s vs. going there as a kid.

It was a period piece – elegant, colonial Toronto – perfectly shamelessly preserved from a time before glitter and spectacle came to the city; and came to sports… I don’t much like the Gardens now. Competing against a child’s memory, that is perhaps inevitable, but it is more than that. The building’s elegant touches are gone, but anachronistic perhaps, even in that other time, most deserved to go. It has been expanded and modernized for contemporary needs – more seats, more private boxes, a bigger press box – but I dislike the haphazard, graceless way it was done. There is a veneer of newness about it now that doesn’t quite fit. It has been stranded in an awkward transition; no longer what it was, it cannot be what it wants to be. Now after nearly fifty years, there is nothing special about it. It is just another rink; just another place to play.

Such a great book. Highly recommend it.

A debate on Toronto beaches…

Yeah, I wouldn't go in if I were you either, kid.

ALIX: so where does one go to a beach around here?
RANDAL: the toronto beaches are all pretty damn clean
ALIX: except for all that poo in the water
RANDAL: we have some of the cleanest water in the world, yo. It’s tightly regulated and Toronto closes down the beaches at bacteria levels 3-4 times less than the ones in Cali.
SO BAM
but yeah the water right by the harbor is shitty… full of garbage
ALIX: I”M FROM A PRISTINE ISLAND IN PARADISE a toronto beach WILL NOT
DO
RANDAL: LOL
yeah I didn’t think about that
ALIX: I have pretty high standards

Been busy this week…

Doing my patriotic duty at Brutish &  Short.

Canadian music Part 1

Martha Wainwright doesn’t have bangs, but more importantly, doesn’t sound like she has bangs.

Canadian music Part 2

Hawksley Workman has no equivalent, American or otherwise. Most musicians can be compared to somebody — Hawksley certainly has influences, but he mangles them all together in such a way that they come out like musical compost, rich and dense with nutrients. Sometimes he sounds like Prince, sometimes he sounds like Zeppelin, sometimes like Freddy Mercury, sometimes like Katy Perry.

Canadian music Part 3

In parting, here’s a perfect example of what I mean when I say ‘a brave Canadian song’ — basically something Stan Rogers would stomp and sing along to if he were still alive, while Leonard Cohen sat in the corner, nodding approvingly at the lyrics: