Monday, August 11, 2014

A kindred spirit

Back in 2008, I wrote about a new biography of Lucy Maud Montgomery that had recently been published, which reminded me that "Anne of Green Gables -- and her author -- were stillbirth mothers."  I STILL haven't read the book (erk!) -- but I was reminded again this past weekend that LMM was "one of us" -- or, as Anne might say, "a kindred spirit."

Dh & I spent Saturday afternoon in Leaskdale, the tiny Ontario community where LMM lived between 1911 and 1926, and where her husband served as the Presbyterian minister.  Leaskdale is a little off the beaten path (albeit not terribly far from Toronto -- about an hour's drive north and east of the city, perhaps a little more or less, depending on your starting point) and certainly not as well known a LMM destination as Cavendish, the Prince Edward Island community where she grew up and where so many of her novels are based. (She also lived in Norval, northwest of Toronto, and spent her final years in Toronto itself.) 

But in recent years, Leaskdale has begun to assert its connection to Montgomery. The Lucy Maud Montgomery Society of Ontario has taken ownership of the historic Leaskdale church, as well as the nearby manse where LMM and her family lived.  The manse has been restored and redecorated with period furnishings to match how it looked when LMM lived there as closely as possible. Both buildings are open for tours during the summer & early fall months, and for special occasions and by appointment at other times during the year. The society receives no government funding, relying on private foundation grants, donations and fundraising.

After taking the tour (for which we were charged a mere $5 each), and a look around the well-stocked gift shop in the church basement, dh & I headed upstairs for an afternoon performance of "Maud of Leaskdale,"  a two-hour, one-woman show based entirely on the journals LMM kept during her years in the community (i.e., every word uttered onstage comes directly from the journals).  The young actress (from nearby Uxbridge) playing Maud (as she preferred to be known) is absolutely wonderful in the role ("Sometimes we think she really IS Maud," the volunteer who introduced the play told us, laughing, and it was easy to see why). Dh, who basically came along to humour me, admitted he thoroughly enjoyed himself, far more than he expected.

I think both of us visibly winced when "Maud," confiding to us her delight in finding herself pregnant for the first time in her late 30s, commented, "I always thought a childless marriage was a tragedy." (Ouch.)

But I forgave her, because (a) at that time, it WAS a tragedy for many women, who had no other outlet in their lives beyond family, and (b) I knew what was to come.

Her first son, Chester, arrived safely in 1912.  A while later (fall 1914), Maud told us that she was expecting Chester's little sister or brother... and shortly afterward, her face contorted with grief, cradling a small empty wooden cradle in her arms, she sobs as she tells us about how her baby (another son, Hugh Alexander) was born dead, how she never ever imagined this, how much she wanted and would have loved this child, while so many other children in the world go unwanted and uncared for.

As tears welled in my own eyes & I squeezed dh's hand, I marvelled at how, despite the century between us, the words Maud wrote/spoke could so easily have been written by any stillbirth mother today.  I knew about little Hugh; I had read the journals the play was based on. But there was incredible power in hearing those words spoken aloud, in having Maud's experience -- my experience, your experience -- given voice.

Hugh's death coincided with the beginnings of World War I, and both events cast a dark cloud over the next several months for Maud. No doubt she worked through some of her feelings as she wrote "Anne's House of Dreams," in which Anne & Gilbert suffer the loss of their first child, a little girl they name Joyce -- but as she finishes the novel, she admits to us that it has taken a lot out of her. (No kidding!!)

Maud refers to Hugh several other times during the play, including on his 9th birthday, wondering what he would have been like. (She had one other son, Stuart.) 

I was so pleased that the producers chose to include so much about this part of Maud's life in the play. It's not the only aspect of her life explored, of course, and there is laughter as well as tears to be had.  If you are in the Toronto area and are a LMM fan, it is well worth the trip -- but note that the play is only on through the end of August, and only on certain days.  See the society's website for further details. This is the third summer the play has been performed at the Leaskdale church;  with any luck, it will continue in summers to come.


  1. I reread that book shortly after we list Eliza, since Anne was one of the few people I knew who had lost a child. I remember being shocked that Joyce's death, as poignant and significant as it is in the novel, is the main part of only a chapter or two. Anne's life was not blighted forever, as I felt mine would be. I continued reading the series and Joyce was referred to again in the final book. Also I appreciated that the words of wisdom people try to offer Anne ("she's in a better place") are flatly rejected. Anyway, I love L.M. Montgomery and still hope to visit P.E. Island someday!

  2. Wow...that must've been quite an experience. Glad the both of you enjoyed it. I was given the books when I was younger, but never had a chance to read them all (I've only started the first book) and I had to leave them back in Indo.

  3. What an incredibly powerful play. And while heartbreaking too, I love the idea of connection in this: "despite the century between us, the words Maud wrote/spoke could so easily have been written by any stillbirth mother today."

  4. I read "Anne" in early adolescence. Discovered that there were other Anne books in my early 20s. "Anne's House of Dreams," in which she loses her firstborn child, her daughter Joyce, affected me profoundly. I had been through dysfunction, poverty, parental addiction and abandonment, and the early death of my parents (both from cancer in their 40s). At that point, I had never lost a baby, but LMM's decription of Anne's grief - particularly Anne's rejection of aphorisms like "in a better place" etc - has stayed with me since.

    Fifteen years later, when we lost Ivy in a premature birth, going back to Anne's "fictional" loss was one of the few things I had to desperately cling to. I wanted to write about it, to show how life and art can illustrate and illuminate, but I did not have the energy at the time. After losing 7 babies in 9 years, and facing a life sentence of involuntary childlessness, I still don't.

    In any case, I was always intrigued by LMM's life and how it informed the Anne books and her other writings. It did not surprise me, but it was heartwrenching, when a few years ago, LMM's granddaughter revealed the family "secret" that LMM committed suicide in 1942. There were many contributing factors, apparently: a mentally unstable husband that she shored up for years, prior grief from losses associated with WWI, and the prospect of more losses from WWII. Although most of what I read about her when this was revealed c.2008 did not mention her own pregnancy/childbearing losses, it was clear to me that these had to play a part in her final, desperate end.

    My disabled sister is a fan of the Anne books, and I have made a vow to never reveal the circumstances of LMM's likely end. It broke my heart in a new place, and it would likely break my vulnerable sister's heart, too. It was LMM's family secret. Now it is one of mine, too.

  5. I love the title to this - "A Kindred Spirit" indeed. And I love your love affair with LM Montgomery - I went to PE Island mostly because I loved her books too.

    Tears came to my eyes as I read your story of sitting with your DH and watching the play, with all its heartbreak. Loss doesn't get easier across the centuries, does it? But I too am glad that they kept that experience in the play. It's a part of human experience, and needs to be acknowledged.

  6. @Cerridwen: I remember reading about the revelation of the suicide note a few years ago. That was beyond the scope of the play, which is just based on the journals of her life in Leaskdale -- but it did include (besides the stillbirth of her baby) her horror over WWI, the discovery of her husband's mental illness/depression, as well as her grief (at the end of WWI) over the death of her cousin & best friend, Frede. All this while "keeping up appearances" as the minister's wife in a small community where everyone knows (or tries to know) everyone else's business. No wonder the poor woman broke down at the end of her life. :(