CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 29 . . . . March 30, 2018
A great many books have been written about Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1942), the Canadian author who achieved international fame for her novels, starting with Anne of Green Gables. The definitive biography is Mary Henley Rubio's Lucy Maud Montgomery: A Gift of Wings (Toronto, Doubleday, 2008), a 684 page volume with a 19 page bibliography which includes Montgomery's journals (published in 1895). While dealing with all aspects of Montgomery's life and work, Rubio emphasizes the fact that girls and women worldwide kept buying her books and being inspired by them, despite attacks on her subject matter and artistry by the male Canadian literary establishment. The resurgence of the women's movement in the mid-1960s brought a renewed scholarly interest in her books which were still in popular demand.
Young adults who love Montgomery's novels and would like to know more about her would be daunted by Rubio's magnum opus, so a book like House of Dreams, at 354 pages, fills a need. The challenge for any Montgomery biographer is to compress the abundant source material into a volume of manageable size, and Rosenberg has achieved this feat. Her sources include Rubio's book, as well as the Selected Journals of Lucy Maud Montgomery, edited by Rubio and the late Elizabeth Waterston.
While Rubio emphasized Montgomery as an inspiration to girls and women to fulfil their aspirations, Rosenberg emphasizes Montgomery's romantic involvements, disappointing marriage and her struggles with loneliness and depression. She presents the early experiences that contributed to Maud's unhappiness, including her mother's early death, her father's absence from her life, her unkind grandfather, and more.
Teenage girls will be interested in the social and romantic life of a young girl growing up in the 1880s and 1890s, particularly the section on 21-one-year old Maud's passion for Herman Leard, a young farmer in Lower Bedeque, Prince Edward Island, where she was teaching in 1897-8. Leard, the son of her landlord and landlady, "triggered an electric awakening of body and mind in Maud." Both Herman and Maud were engaged to other people at the time of their hot and heavy (but unconsummated) affair. Rosenberg accepts Maud's journal account of this relationship at face value, but Mary Rubio suggests that it was exaggerated. In A Gift of Wings, Rubio says that "Maud was a consumer of all kinds of literary romance and she probably embellished the story of her entanglement with Herman when she recopied her journals after 1919."
"Lucy Maud was a terrible judge of the opposite sex," writes Liz Rosenberg in House of Dreams. "She loved the wrong men always," says Rosenberg. In fact, in two instances, she avoided marriage to seemingly eligible men because she felt no special spark for them. Although she didn't feel the "highest upflashings of the divine spark" for the Rev. Ewan Macdonald, she married him when she was 36, despite misgivings, because they had "mutual affection". Ewan suffered from religious melancholy and what sounds like bi-polar disorder. He was dismissive of her work and jealous of the attention she received and the income she earned, although he benefitted from it.
The other major theme in House of Dreams is Maud's struggle with depression. Rosenberg diagnoses seasonal affective disorder and "manic depression" which worsened over time, culminating in Maud's apparent suicide in 1942. When her life seemed stalled, when she lost loved ones to death, and during Ewan's health crises, Maud wrote about her mental anguish in her journals.
Rosenberg mentions Montgomery's contemporary, Virginia Woolf, who suffered from mental ilness and also committed suicide, noting that both authors were urged to give up the emotionally taxing work of writing. (Neither did.) In focusing on a subject's psychological distress, a biographer risks minimizing the healthy, normal aspects of their lives, and their achievements. Michael Cunningham has been criticized for portraying Virginia Woolf in The Hours as a "case", neglecting the fun-loving, witty side of her nature that produced great books. To be sure, Rosenberg mentions Maud's happy times with her family and friends, but the emphasis in House of Dreams is Maud's brave struggles with a slipping-down life that ended in an overdose. Rosenberg writes that, even in her last years, Maud "remained a poised and popular public speaker full of funny, lively, sparkling stories", but we don't see enough of this side of her in this biography.
Some of the wording jars, such as the tendency to use "Maud" several times in a paragraph when it would have been smoother and quite grammatically correct to use "she" and "her." In a segment about Grandmother Macneil's financial contribution to Maud's education, we read that Mrs. Macneil "had a little independent money. She'd earned it by doing extra work at the homestead and by taking in boarders." "Homestead" is a term many of us associate, not with a well-established P.E.I. farm, but the settlement of the west. And how did Mrs. Macneil earn money in addition to taking in boarders? Sell eggs? Take in laundry? It's doubtful if she worked as a farmhand.
The promotional material accompanying House of Dreams indicates that 10 to 14-year-olds are its intended audience. While advanced readers in this age range could probably handle the fairly sophisticated language, the subject matter (which includes such things as "honeymoon cystitis", flashing, abuse of prescription drugs, and, ultimately, suicide) is more suitable for those in grade 11 and up. The illustrations by Julie Morstad, though cute, are a bit juvenile for late-teen readers, and are at odds with the serious content.
On the whole, however, House of Dreams is a well-structured, comprehensive biography that will appeal to teenage girls and inspire them to explore other works about Lucy Maud Montgomery.
Ruth Latta has read the "Anne" and "Emily" novels, along with the Journals and a number of scholarly works about L. M. Montgomery. Ruth's most recent novel, Grace in Love: A Bovel about Grace Woodsworth (Ottawa, Baico, 2018) is for grownups.