L.M. Montgomery (1874–1942): A Writer’s Creative Life
L.M. Montgomery was surrounded by stories and storytellers.
Stories were woven into the Island's small communities, where both family tall tales and town gossip flourished. Stories were embellished and passed down by the oral traditions of her Scottish and English—Macneill, Montgomery, and Woolner—clans. Stories opened new worlds, too, and Montgomery treasured books as gateways to daydreams and imagination. For Montgomery, stories were vital.
She began writing poetry and keeping a journal when she was only nine, and once she started, the words and the stories just kept coming.
She escaped into what she read; she lived in what she wrote.
“Some might think it [my childhood] dull. But life never held for me a dull moment. I had, in my vivid imagination, a passport to the geography of Fairyland. In a twinkling I could —and did—whisk myself into regions of wonderful adventures, unhampered by any restrictions of time or place. Everything was invested with a kind of fairy grace and charm, emanating from my own fancy.” 1
After her mother's death in 1876, Maud (as she was called by family and friends) was raised by her maternal grandparents. Alexander and Lucy Macneill were perhaps dour and old-fashioned, but not wholly without charms. Alexander himself was a keen storyteller, and Lucy was supportive of her granddaughter's ambitions for education. Maud was encouraged to explore the outdoors and to respect the written word, which proved to be just what the spritely, imaginative child needed.
She attended the little white Cavendish schoolhouse and revelled in all the triumphs and tragedies of school days with other young people in a small settlement, which she shaped and recorded (sometimes dramatically) in her journals and scrapbooks.
She wrote, and she read, through it all. Looking back at her writing career in The Alpine Path, Montgomery said "[i]t goes without saying that I was passionately fond of reading." And like many passionate readers, she found that extra stories spilled out through her pen. She published her first poem just shy of her 16th birthday, and her first essays the following year. Before she turned 24, when she returned to Cavendish from years of teaching and schooling to care for her now widowed grandmother, she had published (approximately, for her records are incomplete) 46 poems, 28 short stories, and 12 other sketches and essays.
Her life in Cavendish, roughly from 1898 to 1911 (apart from the months she spent working on a newspaper in Halifax), would appear, to the outside observer, rather small, but these years back home proved to be crucial to her artistic growth. Her imagination thrived, and she had the time to hone her style, journal and draft, discreetly send out dozens of stories and poems from the Macneill kitchen post office, and read and absorb other literature. She planned and "brooded up" incidents and characters on long walks through her favourite haunts—Lover's Lane, the shore, the hill fields, the woods—talking them out to herself and infusing them with colourful descriptions of the landscapes around her. Her continued work for the magazine market helped her develop this process, which she called "spade work," that would become foundational to her novel-building process. She tested images in poetry, outlined plots and poetic descriptions of place, and thoughtfully wrestled with words and wording. She also began taking hundreds of photographs, experimenting with visual framing and scale to capture the parts of Cavendish that meant so much to her.
“Were it not for those Cavendish years, I do not think Anne of Green Gables would ever have been written.” 2
After all her years of apprenticeship and hard work (sometimes publishing over 100 pieces in a single year), she took the plunge and worked on a whole novel. Montgomery's life changed dramatically with the publication, and immediate success, of Anne of Green Gables in 1908. While she had always been Cavendish's young writer, she suddenly became Cavendish's famous authoress, who granted interviews with journalists around North America and who had received a note from the office of Mark Twain proclaiming that he found Anne "the dearest and most moving and delightful child since the immortal Alice."
Throughout her "Cavendish years" she was busy, too, with correspondence and reading, with community and church events, an active Cavendish Literary Society, and with a secret, five-year engagement to the Reverend Ewan Macdonald. Grandmother Macneill died in 1911, and Montgomery could then announce her engagement, marry, and leave Cavendish to join her husband's parish in Ontario. In the preceding decade, she had published four novels and hundreds upon hundreds of poems and short stories.
To her friends, she was still "Maud," and to her readers, she was "L.M. Montgomery." When she married Ewan and settled in Leaskdale, Ontario, she became "Mrs. Rev. Ewan Macdonald,” a role with a host of responsibilities and public obligations attached. But despite the new duties on her schedule, Montgomery continued to read widely and write steadily.
The writing Montgomery produced—both autobiographical and fictional—buzzes with the energy of her sharp mind, honed by reading and enamored with words.
Her Leaskdale journals map her escapes into text. There are long entries listing and discussing what she had been reading, dreamy and descriptive accounts of past times and present visits to P.E.I., and reports of her progress on, or the reception of, her novels. She published more stories and poems for magazines, six more novels, a volume of poetry, a short autobiography, and a volume of short stories in just 15 years. Meanwhile, she kept a tidy house, kept up with her "pen friends," encouraged and supported Ewan, raised her two sons, sustained the heartbreaking loss of another son at birth, and met the needs of the community. The Leaskdale years were rich with both triumph and tragedy. And while she certainly did not minimize her burdens and painful losses, stories helped her maintain a determination not to succumb to them:
“But my givings-up never last very long. When I get rested and cheered up by a bit of a dip into some interesting book—or even by a dose of confession in this, my diary—I rise up again and resolve to endure to the end.”
-Dec. 13, 19193
Stories and Sequels
In Leaskdale into the 1920s, and at the Macdonalds' second post in Norval, Ontario, into the 1930s, Montgomery reveled in reading and writing. She wove old family stories and clannish disagreements into A Tangled Web (1931), its very title a reference to an image from her beloved Sir Walter Scott's Marmion (1808): "Oh, what a tangled web we weave, / When first we practise to deceive!" (Canto VI.XVII.27-8). She spent time re-reading dozens of her favorite books and authors, and she carved out time to write whenever possible, working on novels and long letters to her correspondents G.B. MacMillan and Ephraim Weber.
No matter the personal upheavals, her husband's illnesses or family stresses, no matter the financial or professional setbacks of the time, stories read and stories written revitalized Montgomery's heart and mind.
After she and Ewan retired to Toronto in 1935, she kept a busy schedule of public appearances, doing readings of her own work or giving talks promoting Canadian literature. She was an active member of both the Canadian Author's Association and the Canadian Women's Press Club, attending events and working diligently to prepare engaging, well-structured lectures. She saw the development of the National Park that took over the Green Gables house and watched her legacy grow. She published her last three novels—Anne of Windy Poplars (1936), Jane of Lantern Hill (1937), and Anne of Ingleside (1939)—while preparing for such public events, and while retyping her already re-copied journals, again layering stories upon stories, words upon words.
L.M. Montgomery died in Toronto on April 24, 1942, just after submitting a final Anne-related collection of sketches and poems, The Blythes Are Quoted to her publisher. To Montgomery, the written life was the lived life, and she wrote right until the end.
Epilogue, “My Favorite Bookshelf”
In 1917, Montgomery published a short, musing article called "My Favorite Bookshelf"; with only minor edits, she republished the piece in The Island Crusader newspaper in 1937. The article gives readers an imaginative tour of her favorite "shabby old bookcase" and its treasured contents. It is no accident that an essay about her books resonated with her 20 years after she wrote it. Despite personal upheavals or professional struggles, stories were always essential to Montgomery's life.
The books on her "Favorite Bookshelf" were arranged in no particular order, a book by "a Great Poet to whom I turn when I need consolation" resides next to "a garden book" and a "book of travel to which I flee when I am desperately weary of well-trodden ways." She, like her own readers, turned to stories.
“These books are my friends; the books in the other bookcases are merely agreeable acquaintances. Here is a book for my every mood and the white magic of it never fails. I sink wearily into my 'lazy' chair, open up the worn covers, and presto, change! Everything is different and as it should be.” 4
All of Montgomery's creative reading and writing left a legacy. Even a century later, the creations of her pen invite readers to experience what she also prized about stories: the immersive and powerful joy of homecoming.
1 The Alpine Path: The Story of My Career, 1917, Nimbus, 2005, p. 10. Back
2 The Alpine Path, p.10. Back
3 The Complete Journals: The Ontario Years, 1918–1921, edited by Jen Rubio, Rock's Mills Press, 2017, p. 357. Back
4 The L.M Montgomery Reader, Volume 1: A Life in Print, edited by Benjamin Lefebvre, University of Toronto Press, 2013, p. 155. Back