For those of us who grew up enthralled with Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, details about Montgomery herself always seemed superfluous. Wasn’t Anne enough? A character vivid and realized, her life story so broad and detailed in scope that it seemed impossible she could be the product of someone’s imagination? Besides, we knew the parallels between Anne’s life and that of her creator – both motherless girls with lonely childhoods, an affinity for language, and a passionate attachment to place. Surely Avonlea was Cavendish, and Anne was Montgomery, and if you needed to know any more, you could always grow up and read about Emily.
That readers’ impressions of Montgomery were vague and benign was no accident. The author was fiercely controlling of her image and when her diaries were published after her death, they provided only veiled glimpses of her true nature. The diary entries were based on notes and written long after events had occurred, and later in life Montgomery actually rewrote entire sections with a view toward publication. Such obscuring of fact serves to increase the difficulty of Melanie J. Fishbane’s task with her debut novel: to bring a teenage Montgomery to life through historical fiction.
Maud takes its place in a wave of texts delving into Montgomery’s life and works – including Mary Henley Rubio’s biography, The Gift of Wings (2008); Budge Wilson’s Anne prequel, Before Green Gables (2008); and a previously unpublished final Anne book, The Blythes Are Quoted (2009). New details about Montgomery’s life have emerged to suggest readers hardly knew her at all, resulting in considerable interest in her story.
Hence the teen novel. Fishbane, with a background in children’s publishing and firm connections with the L.M. Montgomery scholarly community, has the right qualifications for this project. She references letters, diaries, and other vital primary sources, and has done considerable research regarding Montgomery’s experiences in both Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island – essential in bringing life to a figure for whom place was paramount.
While historical details lend the narrative authenticity, however, they also serve to constrain the story. There is too little “scope for the imagination,” as Anne would say, in a narrative so firmly rooted in history, and ultimately Maud struggles to take flight. While it’s significant that Montgomery, like many women during the 19th century, had little personal freedom or choice in her destiny, to read about a character trapped in stasis is not always so compelling.
What is more interesting, however, is the subtle strand of the narrative suggesting Montgomery was queer. Fishbane has Montgomery’s queerness manifest in the intensity of her relationships with female friends (though not necessarily in a sexual context), and in her rejection of early romantic relationships, which were eschewed in favour of literary aspirations. As a woman who married in her late thirties, and not before achieving international literary success, Montgomery challenged her society’s notions of femininity and womanhood. Fishbane effectively portrays her burgeoning independence and daring, showing that there would be room in the world for a misfit like Maud after all.
Maud will be best appreciated by L.M. Montgomery aficionados, those for whom Anne, Emily, and the journals will never be enough. And while possibly too slow in its plot to be embraced by YA readers in general, for some, Maud will serve as a gateway to the world of Montgomery, which, even after more than a century, is in no danger of being exhausted.