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Maud’s House of Dreams

by Janet Lunn

Reading Janet Lunn’s new biography of Lucy Maud Montgomery, it’s often easy to forget that this is in fact the life of Montgomery, not one of her famous fictional creations. It’s hardly surprising since, as Lunn states, “all Montgomery’s novels, most especially the Anne and Emily books, are Lucy Maud Montgomery living and reliving, shaping and reshaping the Prince Edward Island childhood that had meant so much to her.”

Throughout the biography, Lunn highlights the parallels between real people from Montgomery’s life and their fictional counterparts, and so we get glimpses of the sources for, among others, Diana Barry, Uncle Jimmy, the dreadful Aunt Ruth – and, of course, Anne and Emily themselves.

The similarities between Montgomery and her heroines are startling. Lunn writes that Maud was “a small, spindly sparrow of a child with long, straight, gold-brown hair usually pulled back from her small, intense face in two tight braids. She had a delicate mouth and nose and clear grey eyes that noticed everything around her. She had the same sharp, determined chin she gave both Anne and Emily and she, too, could have been described as ‘elfin.’” Quick-witted, clever, and keenly sensitive, life for her was “a constant succession of acute joys and griefs.” Moreover, she loved words and books and, though extremely social, craved the solitude necessary for quiet walks, reading, and writing.

Like her heroines, Maud was a virtual orphan. At two she lost her mother to tuberculosis, and was brought up in Cavendish by severe maternal grandparents. Maud was hardly at a loss for extended family– indeed one might say she suffered from a little too much family. Lunn reckons that more than half of the population of Cavendish were Maud’s relatives, and the dramatic cast of uncles, aunts, and cousins of the first, second, and third variety is so great that I must confess getting befuddled – and fearing for the health of the PEI gene pool. To simplify: Maud’s maternal relatives (the Macneills, Simpsons, and Clarks) seemed an emotionally constipated lot; while her paternal relatives, the Montgomerys, seemed a much more affectionate and jolly bunch, though sadly they lived 20 kilometres away in Park Corner, a full day’s buggy journey in 1880.

Reading Lunn’s biography, I was left with the impression that Maud’s childhood, despite its deprivations, was essentially a busy, happy one. Like her heroines she had an intense inner life, but also a genius for friendship. She was never without a pack of chums, male and female, to accompany her to her community’s various prayer meetings, picnics, and literary and musical events. And from the age of 13 on, young Maud had no shortage of male admirers, professing their love and proposing marriage. But Maud never felt able to return their love. Marriage was not what she wanted yet: she was singleminded in her goal of becoming a teacher, and ultimately, a writer. At 23 she “had come to really believe that she wasn’t a girl who could fall in love.”

It wasn’t until she was engaged to marry Edwin Simpson that Maud did fall in love, but not with her fiancé. While teaching she boarded with the Leard family, and hit it off with their 27-year-old son Herman. “Then one night, in the buggy driving home from prayer meeting through the frosty air, Herman put his arm around her. He kissed her and she discovered a ‘rapture such as I had never in all my life experienced or imagined.’” In 1906 it’s hard to imagine anything racier that could possibly happen after a prayer meeting, especially given Maud’s engagement. Her love for Herman gave her the resolve to break off with Edwin, but not the courage to actually marry Herman, a farmer, who would never meet with her family’s approval, or – more to the point – share any of Maud’s other interests.

It was writing that would be Montgomery’s true passion in life, and she seems to have always realized it. Lunn covers her early career in satisfying detail: the first rejection letter at age 12 (she burned the offending poem), first publication at 16, of a poem in the Charlottetown Patriot. Her reaction? “I grew dizzy, the letters danced before my eyes and I felt a curious sensation of choking… I can’t find words to express my feelings.” At 19 she had her first New York publication, a poem in The Ladies World Magazine, and after that she continued to write poetry and short stories steadily, with a mix of rejection and success. Lunn includes details of Montgomery’s early literary influences, and some of them – florid occult romances by Edward Bulwer-Lytton for instance – go some way toward explaining Montgomery’s penchant for decidedly purple prose.

Lunn has drawn extensively from The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery, and so the book is generous with Montgomery’s own vibrant words. Perhaps by comparison, I found Lunn’s retelling a bit bloodless, but now wonder if this wasn’t simply my own desire for the kind of melodrama and intensity that Lucy Maud herself wrought with the same biographical material. Lunn takes us from Maud’s birth right up to a crucial double turning-point in her life: the publication and success of Anne of Green Gables when she was 33 and her marriage at 37 to Ewan Macdonald, a man she didn’t love but with whom she hoped for “a workaday, bread-and-butter happiness.” Contrasted with the joy of her literary fame (and her past passion with Herman), this marriage seems a decidedly melancholy affair, the more so since it took her away from her beloved island. But, as Lunn rightly notes, she never really left it.

What particularly entranced me about the Emily books as a child was Emily’s inextinguishable fire to succeed as a writer – it was Montgomery’s fire, too, and reading about it here is one of the pleasures of Lunn’s biography. In her diary Montgomery once wrote that her most valuable asset was “a belief in my power to succeed. As long as I possess that I shall face the future with an unquailing heart.” Anne or Emily couldn’t have said it better.


Reviewer: Kenneth Oppel

Publisher: Doubleday Canada


Price: $24.95

Page Count: 152 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-385-65933-4

Released: Oct.

Issue Date: 2002-9


Age Range: ages 12+