I was very moved to read the revelation in last Saturday’s Globe and Mail that L.M. Montgomery’s death was suicide. All these years, it has been called ‘heart failure’ – and indeed, her heart did fail at last, but not in the polite way we were told.
I have read her Selected Journals over the years, volume by volume as they came out, discovering that she was much more complex than her sunny novels-for-girls. I also discovered that my life came curiously closer to hers than I’d ever realized. I had always thought of her as living off in Prince Edward Island, not in the brick house I often drove past on Highway 7, on my way through the small town of Norval. In 1991, I realized another crossing point…
A strange sluggish day – partly the result of sleeping for almost 10 hours and then sitting around in my bathrobe reading the second volume of L.M. Montgomery’s “Selected Journals.”
I hadn’t realized, when I went to the Writers Union meeting last month and stayed at John Abbot College in St. Anne de Bellevue, that Montgomery had stayed there herself when she was called to the deathbed of her beloved cousin and friend, Frederica Campbell. David had told me that John Abbott had been MacDonald College, the old agricultural school, but it didn’t mean anything in particular at the time.
I wish I had known. I would have tried to find out some of the history: where Montgomery had actually stayed, which building would have housed the infirmary. History makes such strange layerings- a group of writers clustered on a terrace on a mild, sweet evening where an anguished woman wept and paced seventy years earlier.
The journals oppress me – first with that sense of incessant work, work, work. Missionary Band and Sunday School concerts, pickling hams and putting up pears, and putting up with visits to parishioners. The idea of a life where you might get half an hour to yourself at the end of the day makes me wince with a combination of guilt and pity.
(Especially as I sit here at noon in my dressing gown. The pace she maintained would drive me literally insane in a month. I can keep that kind of life going for a week or two at most before turning poisonous.)
The other oppressant is the emotional stress. That horrible year of losing Frede to the Spanish flu epidemic; finding out that her husband had developed ‘religious melancholia’; wrestling over ongoing copyright issues related to Anne of Green Gables – and all of it with no apparent emotional outlet, no capacity to discharge the stress safely.
It seems curious, to a woman today, that the prospect of Ewan losing his parish would strike such horror into her. The idea of having to put him in a sanitorium, break up the Leaskdale manse and find another home was unthinkable, and she exerted all her formidable energy to conceal and make up for Ewan’s illness. But why? She was a well-known writer who could make a substantial sum from her pen. Leaving the duties and constraints of a minister’s wife’s life should have seemed like a back door into freedom. But she didn’t seem to put her hand on that door-knob, even in thought.
Perhaps the financial constraints of raising two boys on a writer’s royalties would have been too much. However, I think the real barrier to freedom was a psychological one – her sense of Protestant duty, combined with a deep-down sense that a woman derives her status and place from her husband.
No matter how successful she might be in her own right, L.M. Montgomery could not really exist outside the confines of a book jacket. Her real social identity was that of Mrs. Ewan MacDonald. In that identity, she was mother of her sons; in that identity she decorated her home and, in fact, had a home to decorate. That identity was both structure and trap.
She never let herself off the hook, never let herself open the door because, in a very real sense, she could not. Upbringing, the expectations drilled into her as a girl and reinforced by a young womanhood spent in cramped attendance on her grandmother paralyzed her. The expectations about what kind of man was eligible to link with her, about what kind of life she was allowed to live were so ingrained that (even if she ever did question them) she couldn’t break their hold.
Had she been a happier woman, she might have been a better writer. Her natural inclinations to take risk, to experiment, to express all the wide range of emotions she was torn by had been throttled back. To compensate, she developed a writing creed that ruled happy endings and kept her from truly exploring the full range of human behaviour in her fiction.
But she did manage to write a book a year! And we still read her – including the happy endings.
I admire her. I’m glad she wasn’t my mother. I would have liked to know her as a friend.
Journal entry, 1991