An Extravag-Anne-za for Lucy Maud
U of G marks 100th anniversary of Anne of Green Gables with conference celebrating the life and cultural influence of L.M. Montgomery
BY REBECCA KENDALL
|This portrait of Lucy Maud Montgomery was taken in 1908 when she was 34.|
She was a feminist before feminism existed and a political hero to the oppressed. She also earned fans among some noted historical figures.
Who knew that stories of a spunky orphan girl named Anne Shirley, written a century ago, would spark the imagination of millions and influence people the world over? Certainly not the author, Lucy Maud Montgomery, who wrote several classic tales of Anne, a character who was first introduced to the world in 1908 in the novel Anne of Green Gables.
“I had no idea of Montgomery's wide cultural impact when I started working on her,” says University professor emerita Mary Rubio, English and Theatre Studies (SETS). Together, she and Elizabeth Waterston, also a University professor emerita in SETS, have travelled the globe researching Montgomery's life and legacy.
Rubio and Waterston edited The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery in five volumes between 1985 and 2004. They also collaborated on Writing A Life: L.M. Montgomery, a short biography of the author that journeys “behind the scenes” of her life. It's available online at www.lmmrc.ca.
On Oct. 17, Rubio's long-awaited biography, Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings, and Waterston's guide to Montgomery's writings, Magic Island: The Fictions of L.M. Montgomery, will be launched at an event running from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. in Room 103 of the University Centre. The authors will read from their works, answer questions and sign copies of their books.
Rubio spent more than two decades doing research for Gift of Wings, including extensive interviews with people who knew Montgomery best, including her son, friends, maids and relatives, all of whom are now deceased. She also travelled to Poland and Scotland collecting information. The book is an intimate narrative that covers Montgomery's childhood in Prince Edward Island, her adolescence, her legal fights as a world-famous author and difficulties with marriage, motherhood and her celebrity.
Magic Island draws on Waterston's study of Montgomery over more than four decades. The book discusses a different Montgomery book in each chapter and draws parallels between the author's internal “island” — her personal life and professional career — and the characters in her novels. It also explores how Montgomery's intelligence, drive and sense of humour were components of her creative success.
Rubio and Waterston have also supported the McLaughlin Library and the president's office in developing the upcoming conference “From Canada to the World: The Cultural Influence of Lucy Maud Montgomery.” Running Oct. 23 to 26, the event is expected to draw fans, scholars and biographers alike and will feature a unique combination of lectures, performances, films, music, tours and exhibitions.
The conference will draw on the University's extensive collection of Montgomery memorabilia — her private journals, scrapbooks, handiwork, photographs, first editions and other material — and the L.M. Montgomery Research Centre website, a scholarly resource designed to make the library's collection easily accessible to scholars and readers.
“Each year, many researchers, students, faculty and members of the public travel to Guelph to look at and use the holdings in our collection,” says Lorne Bruce, head of archival and special collections in the McLaughlin Library. “This year alone, in addition to people from across Canada, we've had visitors from Japan, Sweden, the United States, the United Kingdom and Italy. We're also starting to get e-mails about our virtual exhibit of more than 1,200 photographs stored in our online database. This collection is not only fascinating but also provides a seemingly inexhaustible source for generating new ideas about her life and works.”
Rubio became interested in the life and legacy of Montgomery after reading Anne of Green Gables four decades ago. “I fell in love with her books,” she says, adding that Anne wasn't written for children. “It was intended for a general audience of men, women and young adults.”
She and Waterston joined forces as researchers after discovering one another's passion for Montgomery.
“Elizabeth did the first serious scholarly work on Lucy Maud Montgomery ever,” says Rubio. “She was the first person to take the author's work seriously and to see her social impact.”
They aren't the only ones to have been moved by Montgomery's words. To date, her work has been translated into 34 languages.
As a character, Anne Shirley was strong and confident, an anomaly in early 20th-century literature, says Rubio. These traits, which Montgomery carefully crafted to create a figure of female empowerment, were deemed inappropriate and offensive by some. Others saw her as a key figure who played a powerful role in promoting feminism and equal opportunities for women.
“Elizabeth and I have discovered she's a writer who truly changes people's lives,” says Rubio. “Even more surprising, our travels and contacts around the world have demonstrated that she has had major political impact in some places.”
Despite her legacy as a visionary for women, Montgomery was considered by some to be a subversive writer. During the Second World War, the publishing division of the Polish army printed and distributed her book Anne's House of Dreams to soldiers in the trenches, says Rubio. “The purpose was to inspire them to fight hard for a peaceful hearth and a safe home where there was trust and love.” After the war ended, however, the Russian-dominated government tried to get her books banned. Polish educators fought back by insisting her books were harmless.
“Montgomery presented such a powerful picture of loyalty to family and friends that it undercut the communist belief that your first loyalty should be to the state,” says Rubio.
In the ensuing years, Montgomery's books became so popular that they were sold through “the underground.” It wasn't because they were prohibited but because there simply was not enough paper to print the volume of copies being demanded, says Rubio. “The books never reached the open shelves of bookstores.”
Over time, Montgomery's work has been met with adoration as well as objection. Although she was initially revered, there came a time when her male counterparts decided she wasn't worthy of the respect and admiration she was receiving. Rubio says many began to consider Montgomery's work to be childish, and a lot of critics dismissed her stories, which invariably had happy endings.
“When I first read Montgomery in the late 1960s, she was regarded in Canada as a third-rate writer of sentimental books for children. Men didn't read her books, scholars belittled them, and it wasn't safe to admit in educated company that you had a secret passion for Montgomery.”
Despite the negativity, a number of noted male figures were happy to admit they respected Montgomery's writing. Mark Twain is reported to have called Anne Shirley the sweetest creation since Alice in Wonderland. Rubio says Twain admired Montgomery because of the ways she reminded him of himself.
“The two authors had a similar sense of humour and irony, and they both had a talent for creating memorable characterization and atmosphere through landscape. She also had his ability to write out of the oral tradition, making her book readable for all ages through the skill of professional storytelling.”
Another Montgomery fan was Canadian governor general Earl Grey, who was a strong supporter of the arts in his day. His love of Anne of Green Gables led him to Prince Edward Island to meet the author, says Rubio.
“Earl Grey says he wrote all his friends back in the United Kingdom about this wonderful new author he had discovered in Canada, but was surprised to learn they'd already read her. It seems Anne of Green Gables had been published in an English edition the same year as the American one.”
Former British prime ministers Stanley Baldwin and Ramsay Macdonald were also noted Montgomery fans.
“She had fans everywhere, and they were male heads of state as well as women,” says Rubio. “By 1920, she was an international celebrity, and she says in her journals, with no false modesty, that her novels were known all over the English-speaking world.”
In 1923, she was the first woman to be elected to the British Royal Society of the Arts, and in 1935, she was honoured with the Order of the British Empire.