LUCY MAUD MONTGOMERY
The Gift of Wings
By Mary Henley Rubio
Published October 2008
'Maud had lived much of her life, like her volatile little heroine Anne, between the soaring of the imagination and the 'depths of despair.' " This sentence from the final chapter of the much-anticipated new biography by veteran scholar Mary Henley Rubio might serve as its motto. The result of several decades of research, Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings soars with the energy of its title, but delves even deeper into the darker side of the author's life.
The book begins with Montgomery's birth on her beloved Prince Edward Island, and with her family roots in Scotland, closely following The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery, co-edited by Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston. But the voluminous biography's most revealing parts ponder her life in Ontario after she became the celebrity author of Anne of Green Gables.
Rubio deftly paints the portrait of a multitasking modern woman with an amazing work ethic and discipline. She wrote fiction, gave recitations and talks to thousands of people, promoted Canada's national literature through the Canadian Authors Association, supported younger authors, wrote letters to her fans and read at least one book a day. A loyal wife, she supported her husband on parish visits, organized theatre performances and kept an immaculate house. The main breadwinner, she was generous to a fault, making loans to friends and family. Yet there is a tendency for Maud's house of dreams to turn into a house of disappointments.
Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, in her book Subject to Biography, writes that female biographers often turn to their subject in search of an ideal, "an ideal friend or sister, a sexual ideal, an ideal of productivity, and of creativity, an ideal liver of life - and in some way, often more than one way, being disappointed." The biographer works to find a balance toward the subject.
In the introduction, Rubio recollects such a moment of disillusionment when, in "the late 1970s," she first met Dr. Stuart Macdonald, whom Montgomery called her "one good son." The young Rubio made the mistake of telling Stuart that Montgomery must have been "the ideal mother": "That ill-advised remark clearly hit a nerve, and I will never forget Dr. Macdonald's slow, appraising look, first at me and then into me and finally through me."
There is pathos in little Stuart learning to recite all 50 stanzas of Walter Scott's The Lady of the Lake, one of her favourite poems, to attract his busy mother's attention. There is even more pathos in a woman who comes to motherhood late in life only to have her adored son Chester grow up to become a liar, thief, swindler, manipulator and, from all accounts, an exhibitionist. (The reader is startled to see an image of Chester in handcuffs, arrested for embezzlement in 1954, fortunately after his mother's death). Her first-born was a spoiled brat who knew how to charm his mother.
The biography is also the tale of the marriage of a celebrity author and a country pastor, the Rev. Ewan Macdonald, who cannot possibly understand his talented wife's ambitious desires, let alone satisfy them. Flaubert's Emma and Charles Bovary come to mind, though Maud was no Emma when it came to sex. She kept a screen in her bedroom, and advised her daughter-in-law to do the same in order not to let her husband see her naked. If there was extramarital desire, as a gossipy maid insinuated, it was sublimated into the writing of The Blue Castle. Fiction was the canvas for the projection of emotion.
Meanwhile, Ewan remains curiously voiceless in this biography, as Rubio admits: "His side of his story will never be told." Described by his son Stuart as a hypochondriac, Ewan had several severe mental breakdowns; he escaped into prescription medication (carrying his cough medicine like a flask and apparently begging various doctors for codeine). After his retirement, when asked to help with chores in the house, he sought refuge with neighbours, who thought him a lovely and lonely old man.
It is here, in interviews with neighbours, maids and friends, that Rubio provides fascinating new insights into the toxic family dynamics, although students and scholars might wish for more consistent notes so as to be able to gauge the sources' reliability, given also that the famous L. M. Montgomery was subject to a great deal of rumour.
In a life filled with drama and fights with powerful men, such as her Boston publisher L. C. Page, a fight she won, and William Arthur Deacon, book review editor of The Toronto Mail and Empire (1928-36) and The Globe and Mail (1936-61), which she lost. Her most agonizing struggle, however, was against depression, her husband's and her own. Rubio details the couple's spiralling dependency on prescription drugs.
On Sept. 20, 2008, Kate Macdonald Butler, Stuart's daughter, revealed in The Globe and Mail that her famous grandmother took her own life, a dark secret the family had kept for decades. Rubio, in contrast, argues that cause of death cannot be conclusively determined: Montgomery could well have died of an accidental overdose, or from natural causes. No autopsy was performed. Stuart, a medical doctor, and intern at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, and Dr. Richard Lane, the family physician and close neighbour on Riverside Drive, where the Macdonalds resided in Toronto, disposed of the evidence after reading the scene as a suicide.
What Rubio doesn't say in the biography, but disclosed at a recent talk I attended at the University of Guelph, is that three decades ago Stuart had entrusted her with the very note dated April 22, 1942, he found on his dead mother's bedside table and pocketed. Identifying it as a rough note for her journal (including final instructions of what is to happen with the journal posthumously), Rubio concludes that it was not a suicide note per se.
Or was it? Did Montgomery not have an ingenious way of always speaking through indirection? If we look at all the evidence provided by Rubio and others, it seems that Montgomery, fragile and exhausted, was taking us eerily close to the door of death in a planned and volitional manner. She had said goodbye to her friends, had burned her private papers in a bonfire, had delivered a final manuscript to a publisher (letting nothing go to waste) and had placed the note with provisions for her journal on her bedside table where it had to be found. (Given that she was highly protective of her personal writings, is this not evidence of volition?)
Years earlier, Montgomery had told her pen-pal Ephraim Weber: "I envy those who die in their sleep," adding, "I have a horrible fear that I'll die by inches." Suicide was a recurrent romantic fantasy in her journal as in one entry dated June 15, 1939, that eerily anticipates the scene of her death. She is in her bedroom, her beloved cousin and friend Frede Campbell, who had been dead for two decades, is looking down on her from the picture on the wall, and Maud imagines the day "I really will step into that picture and hold out my hands to her as she stands among the shadows and say, 'Beloved, we are together again and the years of our severance are as if they had never been.' "
But perhaps this story remains to be written.
A significant contribution to the field, Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings will find a home on the bookshelves of Anne and Emily and Pat aficionados alongside other cherished books, including The Wheel of Things: A Biography of Lucy Maud Montgomery, by Mollie Gillen, who celebrated her 100th birthday on Nov. 1, 2008, in a nursing home in Toronto. When Gillen was recently asked what she thought of Montgomery's death, she replied: "Angels came down to take her away."
Some kindred spirits will prefer that ending.
Irene Gammel is Canada Research Chair in Modern Literature and Culture at Ryerson University. She is the author of Looking for Anne: How Lucy Maud Montgomery Dreamed Up a Literary Classic, a book that uncovers the mystery of how Anne was born.
The Gift of Wings can be purchased from Amazon