The Truth Behind “Anne”

In Books, Canada, Peanut on April 7, 2011 at 9:20 pm

I just finished a fascinating and enlightening book: Mary Henley Rubio’s Gift of Wings, a biography of L. M. Montgomery.  Now as any working parent can attest, “reading” consists of snatching two or three pages here and there while your adorable offspring is momentarily distracted by a bite of food or the daily arrival of the UPS truck, so the fact that I finished a 600-page book in a week speaks to its compelling nature. 

For anyone who is not familiar with her, L. M. Montgomery is perhaps best known for authoring Anne of Green Gables.  Growing up in Canada, where she’s a major source of national pride, I devoured every book she ever wrote and, like many people, lines from those books have stayed with me to this day.  She died in 1942, but a new book by her was released in 2009 (well, new-ish; most of it had been previously published in abbreviated form) and I immediately ordered and read that too.  How to capture the appeal of L. M. Montgomery in a few words?  Her characters are spirited, intelligent, and good, yes — perhaps too good, as she apparently developed a reputation for writing sentimental saccharine prose during her day — but I think what most resonated with me was her innate understanding of human nature and emotions, and how funny her books could be when you don’t tend to think of early-1900s writing as being funny at all.  She expertly poked fun at the ridiculous things people regularly do and say, and always cut down supposedly mature and haughty characters to size.

My favourite LMM book is one of my favourite books of all time: The Blue Castle.  It describes in agonizing detail the misery of a 29-year-old “spinster,” Valancy Stirling, who is snubbed and beaten down by her overbearing mother and judgmental, opinionated family, who look down on her because she is nothing special: not married, not pretty, not smart, not rich.  A twist of fate gives Valancy a reason to break free, and she eventually goes on to find all the things she never had.  The skewering of Valancy’s proud family’s hypocrisy is still funny to me today, twenty years after I first read it: her wealthy uncle saying over and over, “Dippy.  She’s gone clean dippy, I say” and each time thinking vaguely that someone has said something like that before, and her grim mother going about the household chores because “Meals must be made ready though a son dies and porches must be repaired even if your only daughter is going out of her mind.”  Anne of Anne of Green Gables had her own source of humour in the inevitable “scrapes” she got into, and one of the things that made her story memorable to me was her relationship with Gilbert, a love story that was understated and, if not exactly believable, somehow still rang true.

Based on all these ultimately happy books, I’m still kind of reeling from the revelations in this biography.  L. M. Montgomery was miserable for much of her life!  Because of the Anne-Gilbert love story, and the love stories that were in nearly all her novels, I was shocked when I read years ago that LMM had written in her journal of her wedding day, “I sat at that gay bridal feast, in my white veil and orange blossoms, beside the man I had married — and I was as unhappy as I had ever been in my life.”  The biography goes into much more detail about this.  LMM’s husband Ewan had severe depression exacerbated by dangerous medications that were the only treatment at the time.  Additionally, her oldest son could probably be characterized as a psychopath (her younger son, a physician, actually diagnosed him as such.)  He was a thief, an adulterer, a liar, and worse.  And she herself had mood swings that might have been considered bipolar disorder today.  This is illuminating, given that a particular passage that hit home for me when I was ten years old and reading Anne of Green Gables was when Anne tells Marilla, her surrogate mother, that she feels emotions so keenly that happiness takes her soaring to the highest of heights and sadness plunges her into the depths of despair.  Marilla says dryly that she would much rather spend her life walking with her feet on solid ground, and Anne says earnestly that no, the lows are made worth it by the dazzling highs.  At the time, I could relate to this because I (especially compared to my dignified family) have always felt emotions rather deeply myself.  But now, knowing that LMM was in need of some serious modern antipsychotics, it colours how I look at all of her work.  LMM’s family revealed in 2009 that she had actually committed suicide (something so shameful in those days that the doctors covered it up so the stigma wouldn’t end her son’s medical career) and reading this, one might see why. 

And here are some other interesting facts for my fellow LMM-lovers out there.  Though she was so adept at depicting human nature and its contradictions in her writing, she apparently didn’t always see them in herself.  In Jane of Lantern Hill, a grandmother wreaks havoc by interfering with her grown daughter’s love life.  In LMM’s life, she did exactly that to her sons.  (I am, of course, going on the assumption that Rubio’s biography is accurate.)  Plus, the male love interest in The Blue Castle, Barney Snaith, may actually have been based on a secret crush the married LMM had on someone named Edwin Smith (about which her church and community gossipped) — because in her final version of the manuscript, there is one typo where “Snaith” is written as “Smith.”  And very embarrassingly, that typo was published.  The most disturbing thing I read in the entire book, however, was that the character of Leslie Moore, a haunted and tragic woman trapped in a nightmarish marriage in Anne’s House of Dreams, was based on L. M. Montgomery herself — and Leslie Moore’s initials are, of course, “L. M.”  If you have ever read Anne’s House of Dreams and you remember Leslie Moore, you’ll understand why this is rather unsettling.

Enthralling stuff, I tell you, for someone who read every word of her novels, and now I’m inspired to find all her books and reread them.  This biography was based on LMM’s private journals, which she recopied because she intended them to be published after her death (she was world-famous for the last 30 years of her life.)  The reliability of her journals is questionable because she herself altered them to make people and events seem as she wanted them to seem, and that’s such an interesting idea too … offering your private journals to the world because you know that whatever you write, whether it’s the full truth or not, will become the last word.  No one else in her life was famous enough to be publishing their journals, so only her side would be told.  Oh, these revelations about my favourite childhood authors.  First Enid Blyton, then LMM … who’s next, Dr. Seuss?

So anyway … read L. M. Montgomery!

I’ll close with a snapshot of Peanut and her best buddy, “A,” doing what they love to do best: stand at the front door and monitor the neighbourhood.  There is little funnier than two 19-month-olds harassing passersby.  A middle-aged man jogged by the other day and P and A inexplicably screeched “Baby!” after him.  And heaven help any creature of the canine persuasion who has the misfortune to happen by.  P and A love dogs, and they show their love by barking at them.  Peanut has also developed a new habit of, when throwing a fit, stopping mid-wail and saying reproachfully to us, “Peanut CRYING,” just to make sure her cruel, heartless parents have noticed.  She has also, however, started saying out of nowhere, “Peanut happy!” and giggling, which just melts our cruel and heartless hearts.

  1. I LOVE SO MANY THINGS ABOUT THIS POST! I had no idea who L.M. Montgomery was before reading this, now I’m kind of inspired to read her books, though I have a million others to get through first. What an interesting experience–to learn more about the personality that created a series of books you loved. I recently read a book that did something similar for me with David Foster Wallace, one of my favorite authors. I knew DFW had serious depression (he committed suicide in 2008), but it was weird to read a book presented entirely in interview format with his responses largely unedited. He was totally neurotic! More neurotic than me! He worried about silly things, made the same stupid jokes over and over. It was weird, because I kind of idolized this genius writer, but also nice because it definitely reaffirmed his humanity. It sounds like LMM was very particular about what was known about her–I couldn’t imagine recopying and editing my journals…if I had any. Still, I’m glad you found a good biography, and you just might have inspired me to seek out some of LMM’s works.

    I love the bit about Peanut and A! BABY! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

    • Vric, you should totally read LMM — I think you in particular would really enjoy and appreciate her. I have not read any of David Foster Wallace’s work, but I need to add him to my list. Then I can write an entry about him, and you can write an entry about her, and we can live in synchronicity.

  2. This makes me want to write a blog! I read Anne of Green Gables a hundred times, I have the book my grandmother got me – age 12 or so – upstairs in a bookcase. I hope to read it to my grandchildren. This was fascinating stuff, I’d love to read her biography. Thanks for the critique!

    • Thanks Kerry! Have you read the other 7 (now 8, counting the book published in 2009) books in the Anne series? I know what you mean, I am really looking forward to reading these books with the Peanut. In fact I already have a pretty established list I want to get through, so I am picturing bedtimes wherein she puts herself to sleep and I stay up reading.

  3. Hey,
    I got this link from a mutual friend. I loved your post! I visited Canada and went to PEI last summer and it was one of the best times of my life! Just to know PEI really existed…

    My favourite LMM is ‘The Blue Castle’ as well. Brilliant. Can’t wait to read more of your stuff.


    • Hi Akhila, and welcome! Who is our mutual friend? I am exceedingly envious of your PEI trip, as it’s always been on my must-see list of travel destinations, and I haven’t made it there yet. It’s especially exasperating because I was actually born quite close by, but moved at 4 months and have never yet made it back. Oh well. Did you know The Blue Castle is LMM’s only book set in Ontario and not in PEI? More useless trivia for you. Thanks for your comment!

  4. Great post as always, Much! Who knew that 12 years after you forced… I mean, generously allowed… me to read The Blue Castle, you would be writing a blog entry about it? This does inspire me to read biographies of some of my favorite writers! Too bad I’m still slogging through Freedom…

    • Thanks O! Why don’t you just dump *Freedom* and go back to the Millennium trilogy? I just finished *The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest* a couple of weeks ago and I need to discuss the whole thing. Crazy Swedes.

  5. Dear Much,
    Though deeply saddened by this account of her true life, I still love LM Montgomery and cherish the memories of reading her books as a child growing up in Canada. I am now persuaded to re-read them with this new perspective of who she really was….perhaps with a new appreciation of how painful it must have been for her to so clearly articulate her understanding of life and people despite what she was experiencing.
    Thank-you for this blog!


  6. “Dippy” is pure comedic gold on its own, but throwing in “clean” before it? Just a scrumtrillescent effort by Maud (…yes we’re on a middle name basis despite her death preceding my birth by 40 years)

  7. […] our history (“stained the pages of our life’s book backwards,” to paraphrase L. M. Montgomery) and now it is one of those times we’ll always remember.  I don’t consider September […]

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