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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Who’s Afraid of Alice Munro?

A long-awaited biography gives the facts, but not the mystery, behind this writer’s genius

Whatever the Cost May Be

Preparing for the fight of our life

Maud’s Darkening Gables

How the world wars shaped L.M. Montgomery’s character—and characters

Carole Gerson

L.M. Montgomery’s Complete Journals, The Ontario Years 1911–1917

Jen Rubio, editor

Rock’s Mill Press

358 pages, softcover

ISBN: 9781772440225

L.M. Montgomery and War

Andrea McKenzie and Jane Ledwell, editors

McGill-Queen’s University Press

258 pages, softcover

ISBN: 9780773549814

War is not a topic generally associated with L.M. Montgomery, best known as an author of entertaining stories whose conflicts and sorrows usually resolve cheerfully. But Montgomery well knew that happy endings belong to the realm of romance rather than reality. As her own difficult life unfolded, from her birth in 1874 until her death in 1942, the author of Anne of Green Gables (first published in 1908) was keenly aware that she was living through an era of unprecedented conflict and change. On January 24, 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, she wrote in her journal, “I read recently a statement to the effect that a man or woman who was born in 1830 and died in 1913 would have lived his entire life in what was the happiest period of the world’s entire history to date. True! … And my generation! What have we not seen? Everything we once thought immoveable wrenched from its pedestal and hurled to ruins.”

New light on this aspect of Montgomery’s life is shed by L.M. Montgomery and War, a collection of ten scholarly essays from the conference of the same title held at the University of Prince Edward Island in 2014 and edited by Andrea McKenzie and Jane Ledwell. This was the eleventh in a series of biennial conferences that in the past have aligned Montgomery with such larger concerns as Canadian culture, popular culture, the idea of nature and the idea of the classic. In their introduction, this volume’s editors remind us that Montgomery’s life was framed by war: her father was present at the Battle of Batoche in 1885; she was well aware of the South African War (1899–1902); in her journals, she closely followed the complex events of the First World War; and she died in 1942, despairing about the outcome of the Second. The other book under review here, the third volume of Montgomery’s Complete Journals, covering the years 1911 to 1917 and edited by Jen Rubio, records her direct experience of the worst years of the First World War.

Montgomery’s self-documentation shows that she consciously presented herself differently to different audiences. To her readers, she was the purveyor of humour and sunshine; to her husband’s parishioners, she was the ever-competent minister’s wife; to her children, she was an adoring mother who became a demanding moralist; to her publishers, she was an uncompromising professional; to her husband, she was both the anchor of the family and a driven over-achiever; to her household maids, she was a domestic perfectionist; to herself, she was the unwanted child projected into many of her stories, usually anxious and often deeply depressed. The darker side of Montgomery’s inner life and debilitating marriage became public more than 30 years ago, when two English professors at the University of Guelph, Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston, began editing Montgomery’s copious journals, which appeared in five volumes of Selected Journals issued from 1985 to 2004. Surprising as it may seem today, their publisher, Oxford University Press, was initially skeptical about the appeal of Montgomery’s personal narrative and stipulated that the text had to be substantially trimmed, a task that Rubio and Waterston handled tactfully and judiciously.

The appearance of these revelatory publications coincided with the rise of second wave feminism, such that from the 1980s onward Montgomery’s academic appeal and public audience simultaneously skyrocketed, generating a gamut of conferences, academic studies, popular and scholarly publications, reprints and various adaptations of Montgomery’s books, as well as countless spinoffs and touristic enterprises. It became evident that there was both an appetite and a market for Montgomery’s unabridged journals, regardless of instances of repetition or long-winded accounts of weather, travels, cats, ailments and relatively minor social events. Initiated in 2012, with Rubio and Waterston editing the first two volumes, the production of Montgomery’s Complete Journals now continues under the expert direction of Jen Rubio (Mary’s daughter). Unlike some editions of writers’ personal documents, this enterprise involves no breach of privacy, for as she became famous Montgomery deliberately prepared her journals for posterity. Despite her conservative demeanour, she included a frank account of her youthful love affairs because she wanted her unborn descendants to know that their greying grandmother was once “young and brown-tressed … and was called a flirt by my enemies.”

Montgomery’s many selves flow through the volume of her journals under discussion here, which covers the first years of her marriage when she left her beloved Prince Edward Island to take up her new identity as a minister’s wife in small-town Ontario. Although she declared 1912 “the greatest year of my life” because it brought her the joy of first-time motherhood, the volume’s overall narrative arc follows a downward spiral shaped by the contours of personal and world history. It opens in July 1911 with her pragmatic marriage to Reverend Ewan Macdonald, and the couple’s extended honeymoon in England and Scotland. Montgomery’s account of what would prove to be her only journey overseas traces the literary associations of their itinerary—which included sites associated with Walter Scott, Robert Burns, Shakespeare and Wordsworth—but the stability of this treasured old world was soon to disappear with the outbreak of World War One.

Married late at the age of 37, Montgomery experienced three pregnancies in quick succession, the second ending in a stillbirth in August 1914, a week after Britain declared war on Germany. Grief stricken for months, she bore her third child in October 1915. Hence her  experience of the Great War was coloured by the daily demands of coping with her two small surviving children in the uncomfortable Leaskdale manse that lacked indoor plumbing, in addition to fulfilling the tiresome duties required of the wife of a Presbyterian minister.

In some of the essays in L.M. Montgomery and War, this personal side of Montgomery’s wartime life deserves more acknowledgement than it receives. Several contributors focus on what Montgomery did not do for the war effort, despite her prominence as an early 20th-century Canadian writer. Jonathan F. Vance documents her absence from the nation-wide public appeals of such celebrity authors as Ralph Connor, Charles G.D. Roberts and Stephen Leacock, and Susan Fisher points out that despite her penchant for poetry, Montgomery did not write verse about this war. Nonetheless, she was a staunch public patriot, and Vance notes that in Leaskdale, Montgomery led community efforts to support Canada’s participation in the war, frequently speaking at recruiting rallies and presiding over the local branch of the Red Cross. She shared the anguish of friends who lost menfolk at the front and felt uneasily grateful that her own sons were much too young for war service.

Scholars agree that Montgomery’s major contribution to Canada’s literature of the Great War is her novel Rilla of Ingleside, set during the war years and published in 1921. The youngest child of Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe, 15-year-old Rilla (named for Marilla Cuthbert) learns responsibility as she raises a war baby and joins her community’s adult women in Red Cross activities. L.M. Montgomery and War contains a cluster of essays that further contribute to our appreciation of this foundational account of Canadian life on the home front. A historical document as well as a literary fiction, Rilla represents women’s voluntary war work with considerable accuracy, according to social historian Sarah Glassford, whose essay commends Montgomery’s ability to smoothly integrate such activities as “sock knitting, bandage rolling, and door-to-door canvassing” into the characters’ stories. Laura Robinson’s discussion of gender roles in Rilla demonstrates how women’s self-­empowerment through their contribution to the war effort inflected Montgomery’s use of battlefield rhetoric to valorize the female characters’ activities, focusing as much on their usually unsung household and farm labours as on their new volunteer activities.

Once peace was declared, Montgomery’s commitment to the romantic mode enjoyed by her readers did not call for further attention to the nightmare of the war, especially given the general Canadian ethos of forward-looking nation building. Hence a question that underpins a number of contributions to this volume concerns the degree to which the intense wartime experience recorded in Montgomery’s journals penetrated her later fiction. In a comparison of pre-war Anne of Green Gables with post-war Rilla, two novels with many parallels in their accounts of girlhood and adolescence in Prince Edward Island, E. Holly Pike documents a deep shift in social attitudes as Anne’s naive attraction to the glorification of battle (exemplified in the British heroic poetry in her school reader) transmuted to Rilla’s more mature understanding that this war would prove a dividing line in history.

Other critics argue that the First World War shadowed Montgomery for the rest of her life. In Elizabeth Epperly’s analysis, the absence of the Great War from Emily’s Quest (the final book of the Emily trilogy), whose chronology takes Emily’s story into the war years, signals that the author projected her wartime trauma into the larger project of resolving “our consuming human struggle with meaning and despair” by advocating enhanced connections with nature and fostering of the creative imagination. In a similar vein, Caroline E. Jones finds a pattern of “interstitial grief” in traces of the Great War in Montgomery’s writings of the 1930s, a time when the critical political situation in Europe paralleled the decline of Montgomery’s health and her growing recognition of her husband’s mental illness.

Other essays situate Montgomery’s work within different external contexts. Decoding the social and gender politics that inform the cover illustrations prepared for Rilla by various publishers over nearly a century, Andrea McKenzie astutely analyzes these images as reflections of changing attitudes toward women’s engagement with war. In this collection, the most innovative expansions of the horizons of Montgomery scholarship bring her into dialogue with two figures with whom she is not usually associated: German wartime novelist Else Ury and Canadian war artist Mary Riter Hamilton. In the first instance we learn of surprising parallels between the two writers’ depictions of the relationship between gender roles and nationalism in stories for youthful readers; in the second, modernism expert Irene Gammel probes similarities and contrasts in the ways that two creative women mapped the memory of war—one on the page and the other on canvas—in their quest for a “consoling aesthetic.”

While Montgomery’s literary representation of the Great War and its aftermath was modulated by the conventions of romantic fiction, her most compelling testament appears in her journals, recopied (and revised to an unknown degree) between 1919 and 1922, where the reader shares her raw experience of anxiously awaiting the next newspaper account of events overseas. In addition to her worries about friends and family, another major stress during this period arose from conflicts with her publisher, L.C. Page. In skirmishes whose intense descriptions at times resembled Montgomery’s response to action on the western front, she confronted Page’s threats to sue her if she switched to a different publisher (which she did). Altogether, the pages of Montgomery’s journals offer a record of feelings and concerns that could not be communicated through any of her public selves; during one dire moment, she claims “this war is slowly killing me.” In the summation of her biographer Mary Rubio, Montgomery “was obsessed with the war, but she could not stop herself. She put up a map of Europe and followed each advance of ‘the Enemy.’ Towns in Poland with names she was unable to pronounce became as familiar as Toronto, Uxbridge, and Leaskdale.” By contrast, the outbreak of the Second World War coincided with Montgomery’s retreat into silence. As Europe once again descended into mayhem, the final three years of her life proved too painful to ­record and the pages of her journal remained almost empty from June 1939 until her death in April 1942.

Carole Gerson is the author of many publications on early Canadian literature and book history, and is a professor in the English Department at Simon Fraser University.