Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings" by Mary Henley Rubio

Following our recent visit to Leaskdale, I finally dusted off & started reading the biography of L.M. Montgomery that I had bought & wrote about waaayyyyyy back in (gulp) the fall of 2008.  

I've read books about Montgomery before, as well as all but the last volume of her published journals (and, as you might guess, all of her novels -- except I think "A Tangled Web" which I just couldn't get into... I was a preteen at the time, perhaps I should try again). So I knew the basics of the story of her life.  

But there was still so much that I didn't know -- that so many people didn't know -- before reading this book. 

The journals, of course, are an important source for this definitive biography of one of Canada's best-known and best-loved authors -- and Rubio was one of the editors who worked, over a period of some 20 years, to bring them to publication. But as she points out in this book, the journals only show us one side of Maud (as she was known) -- and they were carefully written (and possibly rewritten) with a later audience firmly in mind.  There is always more than one side to any story, and Rubio does an excellent job of delving into the many facets of this very complex woman, her life and times, and the people around her.  

Before he died in 1982, Montgomery's youngest son, Dr. Stuart Macdonald, tasked Rubio with editing his mother's journals for publication. Besides Macdonald, Rubio spoke with many others who knew Montgomery and her family, including relatives, friends, neighbours, members of the parishes where Montgomery's husband, Ewan Macdonald, preached, and several of the family's maids. She sheds new light on a number of important people and events in Maud's life, including Ewan Macdonald and his mental illness, her relationship with her sons, her youthful passion for handsome young farmer Herman Leard, and her midlife friendship/rumoured extramarital romance with another minister from PEI, Edwin Smith.  She also writes about each of Montgomery's novels and how the characters and themes reflect what was happening in the author's life at the time the books were being written.

For all the joy that she brought (and continues to bring) to millions of readers, Montgomery's life was not a particularly happy one. Her mother died when she was very young;  her father left her in the care of her strict grandparents and headed west, where he remarried.  Like her heroines Anne & Emily, young Maud knew the sting of not being wanted or valued, particularly because she was a girl, and a longing for home and family is a theme that runs through most of her novels. 

She finally got a home and family of her own when she married Macdonald -- but she struggled to deal with his mental illness, her wayward older son, her unscrupulous American publisher, an overly zealous female fan, and a male-dominated Canadian literary community and critics who dismissed her work in the modernist years after the war (even as she worked tirelessly with the Canadian Authors Association to promote Canadian books, authors & themes) -- among other issues. (And, as previously noted, she knew the tragedy of stillbirth with the loss of her second son, Hugh, in 1914.) 

The constant struggle to keep up appearances in the face of these mounting problems took their toll (although she did an excellent job -- when her journals began being published in the 1980s, many who had known Montgomery as a cheerful, jovial minister's wife were shocked by some of the revelations -- about her husband's mental health and her own inner turmoil --  as well as her sometimes nasty opinions about family members, friends & neighbours). Throughout her life and especially toward the end, both Montgomery and her husband took copious amounts of barbituates and other prescription drugs (as did many people at the time) to help them cope with their various ailments, not realizing their addictive properties and damaging side effects. Montgomery was found dead in her bed in April 1942 with several bottles of pills on her night table, along with what may very well have been a suicide note. The story wraps up with an epilogue in which we find out what happened to Ewan, Chester, Stuart, and some of the other characters mentioned throughout the story.

The title, "The Gift of Wings," refers to a 1920 passage from her journals, which Rubio feels serves as a good epitaph for Maud's life:

"One cannot have imagination and the gift of wings, along with the placidity and contentment of those who creep on the earth's solid surface and never open their eyes on aught but material things. But the gift of wings is better than placidity and contentment after all."

This was not a particularly happy book to read, and it still leaves us with a number of questions (many of which may never be answered fully).  But it is extremely well researched and written, and a "must" for any Montgomery fan who wants to learn more about the author. (And hefty -- 700+ pages!!)  Montgomery and her novels have been touchstones in my life ever since I read "Anne of Green Gables" at age 8, and reading this book made me realize all over again the profound impact they have had on me.

This is book #12 that I've read so far this year.

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