Tuesday, September 8, 2015
Lucy Maud Montgomery : the gift of wings - Mary Henley Rubio
Maud was brought up by her maternal grandparents on Prince Edward Island, the famous setting for her most loved books.Her mother died when Maud was only a small child & her father left the Island & eventually remarried. Maud's grandmother was a sympathetic but conventional woman; her grandfather was stern & very dismissive of the ambitions & dreams of a mere girl. Maud had to struggle for her education & she used her journals as an escape from her life when it became difficult. Eventually she became a teacher & began writing stories & poetry which she sold to newspapers. Her emotional life was difficult. She was bright, vivacious & talented at recitation & story telling. She was also very conscious of the downside of living in a small community where gossip could be deadly. Her grandfather's sarcasm at her ambition or her presumption in "putting herself forward" had the ability to dampen Maud's spirits.
Maud had to contend with intrusive talk about her prospects as she grew older & was still unmarried. Her Journals describe a passionate relationship with a young man, Herman Leard, with whose family she boarded when she worked as a teacher. This secret relationship was vividly described in the Journals but Maud never mentions the fact that Herman was engaged to another girl at the time. How much was true & how much was romantic imagination? One of the most fascinating things about the biography is in exploring the truth of the Journals. Maud rewrote them years after the events were originally described & Rubio explores not only the accounts in the Journals but also what she discovered in the process of editing & publishing the Journals in the 1980s. She was able to interview many people who were mentioned in the Journals & it's often amazing to see the differences between the way Maud records an incident & how others viewed it.
Nowhere is this disconnect between Maud's reality & what others remembered than in her account of her marriage. Maud married Reverend Ewan Macdonald when she was in her thirties. Ewan was an Islander, like Maud, & they were secretly engaged for five years before marrying in 1911. Ewan was a good man, kindly & caring to his parishioners. Unfortunately he suffered from depression & the social stigma of any kind of mental illness combined with the medications he took to relieve his symptoms, made his life a misery for much of their marriage. Both Ewan & Maud seem to have been severely over-medicated for much of their lives. Ewan saw doctors who prescribed bromides & sedatives but he was also self-medicating with other over-the-counter medicines while Maud often dosed him with her homemade wine or brandy. The strain of parish work in small communities, "keeping up appearances", & later problems with their eldest son, Chester, played on Maud's nerves & led to her taking all kinds of medication. She often seems to be on the verge of a complete nervous collapse. Maud's Journals portray all this in great detail but she was also able to put on such a good face to neighbours & parishioners that many people who knew the Macdonalds in their parishes in Norval & Toronto were amazed when they read the Journals. Even their maids, who lived with the family, were shocked to discover what Maud had written. They were also shocked by Maud's caustic opinions about many of the people she knew in her daily life.
I found the description of Maud's literary career especially interesting. The success of Anne of Green Gables was enormous & laid the foundation for Maud's career. The financial rewards compensated for Ewan's lacklustre career & Maud certainly enjoyed her fame. Sometimes the effects were two-edged, as when the success of her books led to such an increase of tourists making the pilgrimage to PEI that Maud could no longer relax when she went home. I also couldn't help wondering how Ewan felt about his wife's career & whether the humiliation of being sidelined, both financially & emotionally, may have contributed to his depression. As Rubio writes at the end of the book, we only have Maud's side of the story so Ewan's story will never be told. Maud's lawsuits with an unscrupulous publisher dragged on for years & she felt stifled by the demands of her public for stories with happy endings. Her popularity did her no favours with the literary critics, nearly all of them men. Although Maud worked hard to promote Canadian literature & help young authors, her books were sneered at by male critics who relegated her to the lowly status of an author of children's books & romances. Even her later books, such as A Tangled Web, which she intended for an adult audience, were invariably shelved with the children's books in libraries & bookshops.
Mary Henley Rubio's biography is the product of many years research & the thoroughness of that research is evident on every page. When I was reading the Journals, especially the final one, I can remember having to put the book down several times & read something light because Maud's final years were just so grim. I felt the same way when reading this biography. The contrast between the sunny skies of her novels & the storms & dramas of her life is so great that it was useful to be able to look at it from the outside with the perspective of a biographer rather than to be inside the maelstrom with Maud as it often felt when reading the Journals. Reading the biography has also made me want to read more of the fiction. Last year, I read Jane of Lantern Hill & Rilla of Ingleside when they were reprinted by Virago & I have the Emily books & A Tangled Web on the tbr shelves.