The Journals of L.M. Montgomery – Author of Anne of Green Gables

L.M. Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables (see Part One for the Original Manuscript) kept journals for most of her adult life, starting in 1889 when she was just fifteen until shortly before her death in 1942. She willed them to her younger son Stuart with the express wish that after a suitable time had elapsed, they be published, in accordance with his judgement. Before his death in 1982, he turned over the handwritten journals and a much abridged version which she had typed, as well as her scrapbooks, photographs, and other papers to the University of Guelph. The journals span ten large legal-size volumes of approximately 500 pages each and almost 2 million words.

An often quoted journal entry from a younger Maud….

When Professors of English at the University of Guelph, Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston, first read the journals in the 1980’s, they were surprised by what they found.

But First a Short Biography of Maud’s Life:

Lucy Maud Montgomery was born on Nov. 30 1874 in Clifton, Prince Edward Island.  Her mother died of tuberculosis when she was 2 years old and her father was unable to care for her, so she continued to live with her maternal grandparents in Cavendish, who had been looking after her during her mother’s illness.   Despite a large network of relatives and cousins, she spent much of her childhood alone and resorted to creating imaginary friends to cope with her loneliness.   When she was sixteen, she spent a year out west with her father (they were “chums”) and step-mother (who resented her) but things did not work out so she returned to the island.  During that year she made her father proud by publishing her first poem in a Charlottetown newspaper.  

When she returned to the island, she obtained her teacher’s certificate and taught in Bideford for a year.  Her first story was published in Ladies Journal in July 1895.  She attended Dalhousie College in Halifax for a year (all she could afford), then returned to PEI and did two more teaching stints, until her grandfather MacNeil passed away in 1898 and she felt it her duty to return to Cavendish to care for her grandmother.   During all those years she published many more stories and poems.  Anne of Green Gables was written in 1905, accepted in 1907 and published in 1908.

In 1911 her grandmother died, and Maud, who had been engaged for five years to the Reverend Ewan MacDonald, was married that June.  After a wedding trip to England and Scotland, they moved to Leaksdale Ontario for fifteen years, where her husband was the minister at a church.   In 1926 they moved to a different ministry in Norval Ontario, until they retired to Toronto in 1936.  Maud died in 1942.  

These are the facts of her life, but the journals reveal the stories between the lines.

The Journals:

The two professors had been invited by Dr. Stuart MacDonald, LLM’s youngest son, to edit and publish the journals, which they did in four volumes over the subsequent decade. They were astonished by the dichotomy between the cheerful Anne stories and the troubled and often unhappy life of this famous author.

Maud considered them her “grumble books” and was often quite blunt in her opinions of people, hence the forty year publishing delay ensured no one mentioned in them would still be alive.

Recognizing their historical significance, Maud began to recopy the earlier diaries into legal-sized ledgers in 1919. Of note the page recording her first impression of her future husband was cut out and replaced, and it’s difficult to tell how many other entries were altered from the original. Still they read as honest and real.  As well they stand as a record of what life was like for women in the early half of the century, a century which saw enormous social and technological change, (from horse and buggy to motor cars), a Depression and two world wars.    

It was interesting to see the changes in women’s fashions over the years….

When you read through the journals, especially the first volume from 1889 to 1910, shortly after Anne was published, you can see the seeds of Maud’s stories, in her schooldays and her teaching career.  Although Maud always said Anne was not modeled after a real person, including herself, there is a similarity between their “orphan” status, vivid imagination, love of beauty and “purple prose,” and highly sensitive nature.     

There are many photos in the journals – young Maud reminds me of Anne.

Maud proclaimed Cavendish her favorite place in the world, and it always puzzled me how someone who loved the island so much could stand to leave it?  Could her minister husband not have obtained a placement there, or were his mental problems already apparent?  Perhaps after her grandmother’s death, there were too many ghosts, and she looked forward to a fresh start in a different province?  Although she came back in the summers to visit her cousins it wasn’t the same.

Volume Two – early married life

After her grandmother’s death her uncle inherited the farm, (there is a hint of family politics in one entry where she records that her uncle had not spoken to her grandmother in five years) and then a nine month gap in the journals while Maud is grieving her death and the loss of the only home she has ever known.   When she does resume, the record is a particularly anguish filled one.   With no home left, Maud stayed with her cousins in Park Corner and was married from there in June of 1911 to a minister, Ewan McDonald, to whom she had been engaged for five years, and whom she was ambivalent about marrying. They seemed to have little in common, she was by far the more intelligent, and he did not share her love of literature or nature.

Maud had had several past love interests, including a broken engagement to a distant cousin, but as she writes she wanted companionship and children.  The man she had fallen in love with years earlier, a farm hand she met while she was boarding during one of her teacher placements, was of lower station and education and so she ended the relationship.  He died a few years later of the flu and she was grief-stricken.     

To marry or not to marry – that is the question…..

Even self-supporting authors were expected to marry back then (Maud made $500 off her writing in 1903, a decent amount for the time), but if you describe your wedding day as “I sat at that gay bridal feast, in my white veil and orange blossoms, beside the man I had married and was as unhappy as ever I had been in my life…..the mood passed. By the time I was ready for going away, it had vanished completely and I was again my contented self.” – well there’s really nowhere to go but down.

The marriage was not a happy one.  Ewan suffered from some sort of “religious persecution or melancholia”, where he felt he was dammed to hell, as well as his wife and children.  Frequently he was not well enough to preach, and suffered from “nervous breakdowns.”   At one point he was so severely depressed he signed himself into a mental sanatorium in Guelph.  Several nerve specialists were consulted over the years – although sometimes he had remissions and could appear quite well, at other times he was almost catatonic. It surprised me that “manic-depressive insanity” which was contemplated as a diagnosis by one of the psychiatrists, was known back then.  He also had attacks where he heard voices, had delusions and raved obsessively, so there may have been a schizophrenic component.  As a minister’s wife, it must have been a burden for Maud to act the ever-cheerful minister’s wife, arranging church suppers and socials, and trying to hide his acute mental health problems, as well as deal with her own issues.  She wrote that she regretted marrying him, but divorce would have been scandalous back then and she felt it was her duty as a Christian woman to make her marriage work.    

Maud herself struggled with depression and bouts of anxiety during her life, much of which is made evident in her journals, especially the later volumes.  There were numerous entries of her pacing the floor at night dealing with insomnia over named and unnamed worries.   As a medical person I found the medications prescribed for both of them of historical interest – barbiturates and choral hydrate were still around when I first graduated forty years ago, although fallen out of favor. Perhaps the flip side of having an active imagination, is always imaging the worst, but she often seemed to be in the “depths of despair” as Anne put it.  

There was so little understanding of mental illness then and less to treat it with….
Volume Three

Note: I read these back when they were first published,and although I bought the first three, the latter volumes were so depressing that I borrowed the fourth from the library.

Ewan’s mental problems worsened to the extent they had to change parishes, he was sued in a car accident (cars were in their infancy and he was a reckless driver), he refused to assist with raising the children or the household chores, and her son Chester was causing her much grief.  As an older mother (she was 36 when she married), she had three sons – Chester, Hugh (stillborn) and Stuart, her “good son” who became a respected doctor. Chester was described as a never-do-well, who lied, stole and manipulated. He failed law school several times and got a young girl pregnant whom he hastily married, but could not support their children. It may have been the flapper era but this was scandalous stuff for a minister’s wife.  Maud wrote later that her oldest son had made a mess of his life, and his wife had left him.

Maud was under a lot of pressure and stress, so the cheery Anne sequels, and other novels like Emily of New Moon, must have provided a needed distraction from her everyday life. To shut herself up in her parlor and write for a few hours each day must have been a blessed escape.   Although even there was stress, including several legal disputes with her initial publisher Page and Company, whom she had left for McClelland and Stewart in 1917 when she discovered he was cheating her. (She received seven cents off each copy instead of the 19 cents she was entitled to). Page boasted that he had made millions from the Anne books (including the movie rights in 1919), while she made $100,000, a tidy sum but “it’s a pity it doesn’t buy happiness.” She stood her ground and eventually won her court case in 1928.   

One wonders how she even found time to write, with her motherhood, household and church duties. She also read extensively and there were committee meetings and public speaking engagements, but Maud was good at multi-tasking and had tremendous work ethic and discipline. During her lifetime she wrote 20 novels, (seven with Anne as the central character), 530 short stories, 500 poems, 30 essays, a book of poetry and a short autobiography. In her later years she had tired of writing about Anne and wanted to try something different, not what the publishers and readers expected – she felt “she had never achieved her one ‘great’ book.” I disagree, although it is a juvenile book, Anne of Green Gables is as close to perfection as can be.

Her declining years were plagued by poor health and mental anguish. In a handwritten journal entry dated July 8, 1941, she wrote “Oh, God, such an end to life. Such suffering and wretchedness.” Then on March 23, 1942, she wrote her final entry “since then [July 8, 1941] my life has been hell, hell, hell. My mind is gone — everything in the world I lived for has gone — the world has gone mad. I shall be driven to end my life. Oh God, forgive me. Nobody dreams what my awful position is.” (quoted from The Gift of Wings – 2008 biography written by Mary Rubio, the definitive biography of LMM). (Note: the comment re the world has gone mad could pertain to her political concerns about WW2 and conscription as she had two young sons.)

On April 24 1942 Maud was found dead in her bed, at the age of 67. The primary cause recorded on the death certificate was coronary thrombosis. However in 2008 her granddaughter Kate revealed in a Globe and Mail article that Maud might possibly have taken her own life through a drug overdose. She had become addicted to barbiturates by then having been given them by doctors to treat her depression. A note was found on her bedside table which read,

“This copy is unfinished and never will be. It is in a terrible state because I made it when I had begun to suffer my terrible breakdown of 1940. It must end here. If any publishers wish to publish extracts from it under the terms of my will they must stop here. The tenth volume can never be copied and must not be made public during my lifetime. Parts of it are too terrible and would hurt people. I have lost my mind by spells and I do not dare think what I may do in those spells. May God forgive me and I hope everyone else will forgive me even if they cannot understand. My position is too awful to endure and nobody realizes it. What an end to a life in which I tried always to do my best.”

An alternative suggestion, presented by Professor Mary Rubio in her 2008 biography, is that Maud may have intended it as an entry in part of a journal now lost, rather than a suicide note. There were typed versions of the journals as explained in this article, Accident or Suicide, posted by the L.M. Montgomery Literary Society. (link)

Rubio believes that the number “176,” written at the top of the note, indicates that it was page 176 in a handwritten journal, which Montgomery would have intended to transcribe by typewriter, as was her custom. The missing 175 pages, which have never been found, may have been taken by Montgomery’s eldest son, Chester Macdonald, who was living in the basement of their Riverdale house, and whose dependency and cruelty reportedly exacerbated his mother’s poor mental health. Or perhaps they were destroyed by her husband? Dr. Stuart MacDonald said that in her last few years she had burned quantities of letters and papers she considered unimportant, and others mysteriously disappeared before he was able to have them removed from the house.

I think I prefer Rubio’s version, that the note serves as instruction regarding the journals, and perhaps forgiveness for hurting people with some of the entries. It jibes with my recollection of the latter entries in the fourth volume which were gloomy and sporadic as she knew her life and her mind were waning. Whatever the cause, she was certainly in poor health and troubled by family problems, and her once bright mind was clouded by medication.

No autopsy was performed, and her son who was a medical intern at the time and her family physician disposed of any evidence. The note was handed to Professor Mary Rubio decades later by her son Stuart Macdonald, who died in 1982 and she did not ask for particulars about it at that time. Ewan MacDonald died a year later. They were both buried in Cavendish, P.E.I. Whatever happened, whether it was an accidental or intentional overdose or death from natural causes, it was a sad ending to a life once so full of hope and joy.

L. M. Montgomery tombstone

I found Maud to be a fascinating person. She was extremely intelligent and articulate, and possessed of an extraordinary imagination and memory, but behind the smiling cheerful face she presented to the world, was an anxious tormented soul.

It would be wrong to assess a life solely from journals, but they do provide a window into the soul.  As she had no close confidante, they became a refuge of sorts, a place to air her unhappiness and grievances, but certainly she had more than her fair share of life’s troubles.  In addition, there were two world wars to be gotten through, and other deaths including that of her beloved cousin Frede from the Spanish flu.   Although there are happier entries, including those of her seeking solace in nature and when her children were young, predominantly I remember the journals overall as having a dark tone.  Success doesn’t always guarantee happiness, and she must have looked back on her younger years on the island as the happiest time of her life.    

Prince Edward Island:

In the 1980’s I visited the east coast of Canada, but only spent a couple of days in P.E.I. including an afternoon visiting the Green Gables Heritage Place in Cavendish. I have surprisingly few photos.  Film was 24 per roll and you rationed it as I recall.

Cavendish is to a large extent the Avonlea of the books. Maud’s grandparent’s house was torn down in 1920 by her uncle as he was tired of people traipsing by to see it. The Green Gables of the book was drawn from the old MacNeil/Webb place, “not so much the house itself as the situation and scenery, and the truth of the description of it is attested by the fact that everybody has recognized it,” Maud recorded.

The home’s period furnishings reflect the novel’s late 1800’s setting. Visitors can stroll the grounds, including Lover’s Lane and the Haunted Woods.      

The entrance to the Haunted Woods…..

I was disappointed in the area, as while pretty it just looked like ordinary farmland to me, albeit with red earth and the sea shore nearby.  The Haunted Woods did not exactly look spooky on a bright summer afternoon.  The Lake of Shining Waters looked like a big flat pond.  I did not get a chance to stroll along Lover’s Lane, as it was farther away. Even the remnants of the apple orchard and the famous Snow Queen just looked like gnarled old trees.

Descendants of the Snow Queen?

I’m not sure what I was expecting – the vivid descriptions from the book?  Perhaps that is the difference between books and reality – what you imagine or envision in your mind, very seldom ever matches real life.  Maybe the same can be said of success.  Still it was a nice place to visit if only for a few hours.

PS.  I’ve often wondered that about other famous authors, the more tragic figures like Sylvia Path, the Brontes and Jane Austen. If they could have happiness or lasting fame – which would they choose?  And why does it so often seem that people can’t have both?

Anne of Green Gables – The Original Manuscript

This time of year when the trees are blossoming always reminds me of Anne of Green Gables. Anne declared Prince Edward Island “the bloomiest place ever,”

and there are numerous references to them in the book, from the Snow Queen and the cherry orchard right outside Anne’s bedroom window to the White Way of Delight, where the overarching trees created an avenue of bloom on the buggy ride home from the train station, to a simple arrangement of apple blossoms in a chipped blue jug on the table. Anne Shirley was a fan of nature, and so was her famous creator, Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Last summer I had the delight of re-reading this favorite children’s class, and I enjoyed it just as much as when I first read it as an eleven year old girl, the exact same age as Anne.

My 1965 childhood edition had several illustrations.

This month’s Literary Salon pick – Anne of Green Gables – the Original Manuscript was released by Nimbus Publishing in Halifax in July of 2019.

The Publishers Blurb:

This fascinating book presents the original text of Montgomery’s most famous manuscript, including where the author scribbled notes, made additions and deletions, and other editorial details. For example: Diana was originally called Laura, and then Gertrude, before the author settled on Diana. L.M. Montgomery scholar Carolyn Strom Collins offers a rare look into Montgomery’s creative process, providing a never-before-published version of the worldwide phenomenon.

Differing from previous versions of Anne, this book provides a transcription of the text and notes from Montgomery’s original manuscript, and shows how they were integrated to form the full novel.

Discussion:

As a life long fan of Lucy Maud Montgomery, our most famous of Canadian authors, being given permission to scan all 844 pages of the original handwritten manuscript must have been a labor of love for editor, Carolyn Strom Collins.

The manuscript is kept in the archives at the Confederation Centre for the Arts, in Charlottetown PEI, in a dark room with no photography allowed as befitting an object of such literary reverence. It is 116 years old now, and Maud kept it all her life, (in her journal she proudly proclaimed it “mine,mine,mine” the day the first copy arrived in the mail), although the typed copy she submitted to the Page Publishing company in Boston in 1907 has since been lost.

The manuscript is in two parts, the main body of 709 pages and 135 pages of notes, some of them misnumbered.   Maud wrote quickly and sometimes overlooked punctuation, especially in the notes section.  The pages measure 8.5 X 6.5 inches, considerably smaller than the average typed page, and are about 3 inches thick in total.

In this newly released edition, there is a scanned copy of the first handwritten page at the beginning of each chapter.

Maud was a schoolteacher so her handwriting was fairly easy to read. Paper was scarce so she wrote on both sides, and sometimes on the backs of bills and other stories.

The editor decided to place the changes and additions Maud made in the notes beside the corresponding pages for easy viewing.

I was amazed at how few changes Maud made to the handwritten copy. Likely her stint working as a copy editor and columnist for a Halifax newspaper came in handy. As the typewritten copy she submitted has not survived, it’s unclear whether final changes in the book were made by Maud or the editors, or both. Mostly they had to do with punctuation. Although this was her first book, Maud was an experienced author by then, having published well over 300 short stories and poems in the previous decade, enough to provide a source of income, but I suspect she was also one of the lucky ones whose words just flowed out of her head.

Although she records in her journals “brooding” up her heroine and and blocking out chapters and incidents, if there are any written copies of this prep work they are long gone.

The story behind the book and it’s publication is an interesting one, and lucky for us it didn’t stay in a hatbox.

Anne of Green Gables began as an idea jotted down in a notebook many years earlier, “Elderly couple apply to orphan asylum for a boy.  By mistake a girl is sent them.”  In the spring of 1905 Maud was searching through the notebook for suitable ideas for a seven-part serial for a Sunday School paper, but as the story progressed Anne took possession of her, and casting morals and lessons aside she decided to write a whole book about her instead.  Many of Maud’s own childhood experiences and dreams were worked into it’s chapters. Didn’t we all sigh over Gilbert Blythe who was based on one of her school-chums? Many of the scenes of Avonlea in the book – the Lake of Shining Waters, Lover’s Lane – were based on locales in the small farming community of Cavendish where she lived.

Journal entry – Aug 16 1907

After sketching out the plot outline, she began to write in May 1905, finishing it eight months later, in January 1906. She wrote for a few hours a day, mostly in the evenings after the rest of her work was done, and in longhand with a pen that had to be dipped in ink.   “It was a labor of love and nothing I have ever written gave me so much pleasure to write.”   She then typed it up on her second-hand typewriter, which didn’t print w at all.  (I saw the typewriter, set up on the kitchen table, when I visited the Anne of Green Gables museum many years ago.)  

She mailed the typed manuscript out to four American publishers (one new firm, one “betwixt and between” firm, and two old established firms, MacMillan and Henry Holt “some merit but not enough to warrant acceptance”) over the course of 1906, with universal rejection, so she gave up and stored it in a hatbox, where it remained until the winter when she decided to try again, this time with the Boston publisher L.C. Page and Co, a company she admitted she knew nothing about.   It was close to rejection again, but a staff member who was from Prince Edward Island, advocated for Anne. 

Journal Entry Aug 16 1907

Maud signed a contract for a paltry royalty and five years of any future work, which she agreed to reluctantly, thrilled to have the book accepted, and promptly began work on the sequel – Anne of Avonlea – which was published a year later in 1909.   I remember her journals being full of legal disputes with Page & Co. in later years when she had switched to McLelland and Stewart in Toronto.

She was pleased with the final appearance of the book, “lovely cover design, well bound, well printed. Anne will not fail for lack of suitable garbing at all events.”

The  book sold well right from the beginning,  went through seven printings and 20,000 copies by the end of the first year 1908, and has never been out of print since, with 50 million copies worldwide and over forty translations. 

She recorded in her journal, “I can’t believe that such a simple little tale, written in and of a simple P.E.I. farming settlement, with a juvenile audience in view, can really have scored out in the busy world.”

She produced seven more Anne books, ten other novels, two collections of short stories, a book of poetry and many stories, essays and articles before her death in 1942, but it is her first novel that remains the most famous.  “It was born of true love and often such books are most successful.”

I enjoyed reading the story again and taking a peak into the author’s creative process. It was interesting to see how a book goes from an idea jotted down to a few chapters to a completed manuscript to a printed copy….with all it’s many sequels. She never seemed to run out of ideas. I can’t imagine having to dip your pen in ink every few lines – we have it so much easier today. But I also wonder when things are so quickly deleted if we will lose this recording of how a book comes about….for it did not spring fully formed, even though her words may have flowed easily.

What lessons can aspiring novelists learn from this?

The best writing is a labor of love.

If you should be so lucky as to be published, don’t be too eager to sign everything away.  Research a bit first.

Just to begin, for that is often the hardest part, even for Maud. 

“Of late years I have been thinking of it seriously but somehow it seemed such a big task I hadn’t the courage to begin it. I have always hated beginning a story. When I get the first paragraph written I feel as though it were half done. To begin a book therefore seemed a quite enormous undertaking. Besides, I did not see just how I could get time for it. I could not afford to take time from my regular work to write it.”

And most importantly perseverance – many books have been written in just a few hours a day. I hope you have found this tale of how Anne came to be inspiring.

PS.  The manuscript will be online in 2022, as part of a digital exhibition entitled Exploring a National Treasure: LMM’s Anne of Green Gables Manuscript, curated by the Confederation Centre Art Gallery and the L.M. Montgomery Institute at the University of PEI. It’s nice they gave the editor of this book, Carolyn Strom Collins, a few years to profit from her efforts.

PS.  Next week in Part Two I will blog about The Journals of L.M. Montgomery, published fifty years after her death, which provide a fascinating insight into her successful but often tormented life.   Plus a bit about my trip to Cavendish, Prince Edward Island – holy ground for Anne fans – if I can find the photos.

The Jane Austen Society

This month’s literary salon pick, The Jane Austen Society, by Natalie Jenner, is a novel set in post-WW2 England about a group of villagers determined to maintain the legacy of Jane Austen by opening a museum at Chawton House, the cottage where Jane spent the last eight years of her life and the most productive period of her writing career.  

Who would have predicted that Jane Austen would still be so popular 200 years later, with her face on the ten pound note, dozens of biographies in print, and entire museums devoted to her fame, not to mention the whole tourist trade to places she visited, lived, or described in her novels.  

It’s a further testament to her continuing popularity that An Interview with Jane Austen remains my most read post, at 150 some views, from every country in the world, with several more added weekly.  Yes, some frivolous little piece I dashed off for Valentine’s Day two years ago is more popular than any post I’ve slaved over for days.  But to give credit to Jane, other than the interviewers questions, most of the words are hers, famous quotes from a book I received for Christmas that year, The Wit and Wisdom of Jane Austen.   The post itself was inspired by a question – which dead person you would most like to interview?  I can’t imagine my small blog of 300 readers is high up on any google search list, so I can only surmise that it must have been shared by a Janeite on one of the many Jane Austen websites.

     I would not describe myself as a Janeite, having only ever read Pride and Prejudice and Emma, and watched the movie versions, the dashing Mr. Darcy/Colin Firth, and the petulant Gwyneth Paltrow who forever spoiled Emma for me, and the classic Sense and Sensibility with Kate Winslet, Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant.   Other than Pride and Prejudice I find her life more interesting than her books.  

        JA was born in 1775 and lived most of her young life with her large family of siblings at the rectory in Steventon, where her father was a clergyman.   Upon his retirement, they sold everything (including a thousand books, for hers was a well-read family) and Jane moved to Bath with her parents and sister Cassandra.   Bath was a very social place and it’s widely assumed this change in residence was partially intended to find marriage partners for the daughters, but that was not to be, for despite rumors of several failed romances Jane never married.   After the death of their father and the rental of diminished living quarters, her wealthy brother Edward, who had been adopted by a childless couple in need of an inheritor, eventually offered his widowed mother and sisters the use of the steward’s cottage on his large estate and so they moved to Chawton House in 1809.

The cottage was a large L-shaped building, quite near the street and a busy crossroads, so the thundering of coaches passing by offered little privacy,

but there was a large private garden at the back and they were grateful to finally have a permanent residence of their own.   

Although she had written earlier drafts of her novels, this was the scene of the final revisions and the long hoped for dreams of publication, starting first with Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816). Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously with the seventh and last, Sanditon, left unfinished.  (Although never published, PBS filmed a horrible adaptation of Sanditon last January which was universally condemned. Jane would certainly never have approved of the unhappy ending.)

Jane Austen’s writing desk

She wrote at this small desk, still a fixture of the museum today, placed by the window for maximum lighting as she wore spectacles, and was known to cover up her manuscript if there was an unexpected visitor at the door. From her niece’s recollections we have an image of Jane sitting by the fireplace and laughing, as a sudden thought occurred to her and she leapt up to write it down. Much of her early writing originated as a means to amuse herself, and her family, as there are only so many samplers you can embroider before you die of boredom.    

   After her untimely death in 1817 at the age of 41 (of Addison’s Disease), her mother and sister lived on in the cottage, with Cassandra dying in 1845. Although Jane lived long enough to enjoy some initial publishing success and literary fame, it was after the publication of a biography by her nephew in 1850, that her literary reputation was revived, and it has remained steady to this day.   

      Today Chawton House is the site of the Jane Austen Museum. (link to a virtual tour of the house). As well as original clothing and furnishings of the period, several of her letters are on display, as well as some jewelry (two topaz crosses) given to the sisters by their naval brother. The nearby great house houses a JA library with first editions of all of her books. Jane memorabilia is in such high demand that one of her handwritten letters was recently auctioned off for $200,000, a four page missile to Cassandra, dealing with fashion trends and family news. It saddens me to think of a future with no such memorabilia, only emails and texts which we blithely delete. I’ve never been to England but Chawton House would be high on my list of historical sites to visit. Although thousands of tourists frequent Bath every year in search of Jane, I’d prefer to see where she wrote, not where she went bathroom dancing.

Now back to our book club selection. 

Here’s the publishers blurb: “Just after the Second World War, in the small English village of Chawton, an unusual but like-minded group of people band together to attempt something remarkable. One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England’s finest novelists. Now it’s home to a few distant relatives and their diminishing estate. With the last bit of Austen’s legacy threatened, a group of disparate individuals come together to preserve both Jane Austen’s home and her legacy. These people―a laborer, a young widow, the local doctor, and a movie star, among others―could not be more different and yet they are united in their love for the works and words of Austen. As each of them endures their own quiet struggle with loss and trauma, some from the recent war, others from more distant tragedies, they rally together to create the Jane Austen Society.”

About the author:   “Natalie Jenner was born in England and emigrated to Canada as a young child. She obtained her B.A. and her LL.B. from the University of Toronto, where she was the 1990 Gold Medalist in English Literature at St. Michael’s College, and was Called to the Bar of Ontario in 1995. In addition to a brief career as a corporate lawyer, Natalie has worked as a recruiter, career coach, and consultant to leading law firms in Canada for over two decades. Most recently Natalie founded the independent bookstore Archetype Books in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs. A lifelong devotee of all things Jane Austen, “The Jane Austen Society” is her first published novel.” (Goodreads profile)

Quite a distinguished resume, but what’s so interesting about Natalie Jenner is that in her 30’s she wrote five unpublished books – Five. Unpublished. Books.   There’s a lot of tenacity there.   After her husband developed a serious illness, she turned to re-reading her favorite novels for solace, including the JA novels.  Later, when he had recovered, she was contemplating writing a novel set in a great house similar to Downton Abbey but decided to change it to a fictional novel about how the JA museum came to be.  For research she took a bucket list trip to a Jane Austen Festival in Bath, (yes there are many of these conventions) as well as the village of Chawton, in order to immerse herself in the world of all things Jane.  

Discussion:

This was an enjoyable read, even if you aren’t particularly a JA fan, in much the same genre as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and the Chilbury Ladies Choir.   I’m sure the movie rights have already been sold.   In true Jane Austen style, the author manages to pair off most of the characters, some more successfully than others and some in a politically correct way, although I had difficulty getting a sense of the two characters who were mirrored after Emma and Mr. Knightley.   A minor point, but there’s one graphic scene (me too/movie starlet on the casting couch) which seemed out of place. This was noted in a a Goodreads review, and it’s like when someone points out a flaw, you can’t un-see it.   The reviewer said she quit reading after that, saying that such a jarring scene had no place in a Jane Austen-like book.  I wouldn’t abandon the book over that but subtle allusion might have been more appropriate, or perhaps some gentle editorial guidance.  

This book debuted on the bestseller list, as any book with JA in the title is bound to attract attention due to the sheer number of her fans worldwide.    (I wonder if I changed my website to The Jane Austen Homeplace, if I might attract a few more followers?)

Jane Austen must have had a strong belief in herself, and a premonition that her works would live on, as she left the bulk of her estate (400 pounds, the proceedings from her books), to her sister Cassandra, with the unusual request that 90 pounds, a considerable sum back then, be set aside for a burial at the prestigious Winchester Cathedral, instead of the local churchyard where her family could visit.  Her brothers made no mention of her literary life on the tombstone, perhaps deeming her novels too inconsequential to note, but thousands of tourists flock to her grave-site every year to pay homage to her literary greatness.      

The extraordinary endowments of her mind!

The Literary Salon

I’ve always wanted to own a bookstore and host a literary salon at night for all my witty and talented friends.    A literary salon is different from a book club, as people can just drop in, like a cocktail party.   In Paris in the Roaring Twenties salons were frequented by intellectuals, writers, artists and the celebrities du jour (Hemingway, Picasso, Fitzgerald & Co), with the sole purpose of providing stimulating conversation, amusing repartee and a lively exchanges of ideas…..plus free booze.   With a book club, you can have all of those too, but you are there to focus on the book…..hopefully.  

My experience with book clubs has been poor.  Attempting to infiltrate a library book club proved a disaster as the tightly-knit group had been together for over a decade and there always seemed to one or two members who squashed any opinion which didn’t agree with theirs, or worse monopolized the discussion.  The group was so large (18-25), as to be unwieldy, with some (myself included), being too intimidated to speak up, despite the best efforts of the moderator to make sure everyone had a say.  The structure was rigid, with a list of questions to cover in a set period of time.   Also, there was no food, or even coffee and it was late afternoon, which tended to interfere with my nap time.   I then thought of hosting my own more informal book club evenings with a smaller group of literary friends, perhaps once a season with food, like Southern cooking for The Help….pass the pecan pie please.   A group of local women self-published a book about their book club theme nights, complete with menus and lots of bevies, but they were rich and prone to extravagant weekend getaways, plus the hostess had to buy everyone a copy of the next book.      

What is the difference between a book club and a famous literary salon like the ones Hemingway attended, other than better food and more chic clothing?

Paris salon

Hard to imagine Hemingway at a book club.   Do men do book clubs – possibly in big cities, but not in my neck of the woods.   Only in the movies, like The Jane Austen Book Club, where they may have an ulterior motive ie. a crush on one of the members.   But they might be tempted to drop in on a literary salon if alcohol was provided.   Most afternoon book clubs tend to be female affairs  with tea in china cups and fancy sandwiches and cookies, or evening wine and cheese and gossip….but first we must discuss the book with a list of questions to cover.    Literary salons tend to be more free ranging affairs with small groups of individuals, male and female, congregating and discussions covering any number of topics…..and of course gossip!   It would be nice to combine the best of both worlds, good conversation, good food and drink and a relaxed atmosphere (one where you can hang out in your PJ’s).   Of course, if you are hosting a literary salon, having a Paris address helps, but since WordPress is our blogging home, that will have to suffice.     

So starting in January, I would like to present my new virtual Literary Salon.  We will open with the murder mystery, An Unwanted Guest, by Shari Lapena  (see link).   It’s the perfect book for a blizzard, so button up your overcoat, you don’t want to get chilled.     Please feel free to drop by anytime…..   

Postscript –  Bring Your Own Beverage – a Bloody Mary might be suitable for our first selection. 

Cue some jazzy twenties cocktail music:

 

 

 

 

Bronte Country

Heathcliff is dead……again.    This is the third time I have tried to grow heather, but alas, it was not meant to be.   I have resigned myself to the fact that you can not grow heather in North America, there is a reason it is only to be found in abundance on the windswept moors of the UK.    Here is a photo of  Heathcliff (the-Plant-formerly-known-as-Heather), from last June, all healthy and blooming and alive.  

Heather  And here is a picture of him in September at his funeral.    

Heather

 I arranged a few red maple leaves around his skeletal remains, for a more poetic look, otherwise he might have been mistaken for a stringy birds nest which had fallen to the ground.    I had planted him in the same kind of poor rocky soil I imagined on the moors, and basically neglected him for the rest of the summer.   Heather likes full sun, (see care sheet), but the days were cloudy and melancholy and he took up drinking and drowned his roots in sorrow, (kind of like Branwell).    I must console myself though, that while we were not meant to be, he died young at the end of the rainiest season ever.   It was nothing personal, he just did not like our Canadian soil or climate.     

Heather

While doing some postmortem research, I discovered too late that heather likes well-drained acidic soil, and mine is clay and clumpy, so once again I had been lured in by a pot of pretty flowers.   I had thought they were more hardy souls (like lavender), who would grow anywhere.   Apparently there are many different types, and this  Better Homes and Gardens article says anyone can grow heather and heaths……well perhaps not the truly heartbroken gardener like myself who may never fully recover.         

Heather 

I have occasionally seen heather for sale in nurseries here in early spring, sometimes with pinkish flowers.   One July I bought some half-dead half-price specimens from the bargain bin.   I knew when I bought them they were probably beyond CPR, but they were only a dollar.   I planted them one week and dug them up the next.   My other futile attempt involved a specimen which the nursery clerk told me was the only heather they stocked.   It lived one short season, spread out a bit, produced 2 or 3 purplish blooms, then died off never to be seen again.   I knew it was not real heather because the foliage was too soft.    A friend who used to visit Scotland regularly, brought me back a piece of heather once as a souvenir – lucky for him the plant police did not catch him as smuggling plants is generally against the law.   I was surprised by how coarse it was.    I had expected from the pictures that it would be softer to the touch.

The moors must be beautiful in the summer and early fall, with all that heather blooming and the sky a bright blue, very Wuthering Heightish.  

Bronte Heather

Before Heathcliff, my only exposure to heather was from the window of an  tour bus in a downpour.   I was in Ireland in September where it rained every day – so why did my poor heather not survive?    The Irish heather (which was near a bog where they were cutting turf), was not nearly as stunning as the English heather in Downton Abby, the last episode of Season Five where they pack up the whole household and go grouse hunting at a castle on the moors and Mary and Edith meet their future husbands.    (You see, heather does inspire romance).   That was a beautifully filmed scene and inspired my mother to paint a picture called The Moors, which she included in her last art exhibit, (but then she has been known to paint shipwrecks from Poldark too).

The Moors - AMc

The Moors

 Victoria magazine is one of my favorite sources for inspiration, and in this past September issue they had a feature on Exploring the Bronte Legacy and the village of Haworth where they lived.  (September is always the British issue and there was also a Susan Branch picnic party in the Lake District for any Beatrice Potter fans). 

Victoria Bronte

Here are some of the pages, including the famous heather.

Bronte

We have Emily to thank for the popularity of heather, as we will forever associate it with her descriptions of the moorland in Wuthering Heights, as this quote attests,  “I have fled my country and gone to the heather.”   Although I have never been to England, I hope some day to put those words into action, as a literary tour is definitely on my bucket list. 

No wonder the Bronte sisters wrote such wonderful books, having that lovely vista to gaze at during their daily constitutional on the moors.  (Although no matter the scenery, I find that after a particularly fruitful writing session, a little walk can be beneficial for mulling things over).

Below, the steep cobblestoned streets of the small village of Haworth.

Bronte

Here’s the dining room table where they wrote their works of art and paced and plotted how to find a publisher, and no doubt discussed what to do about Branwell. Bronte

 The magazine article mentioned the 2017 PBS movie, To Walk Invisible, the story of the Bronte’s, which I watched and was somewhat disappointed in, although it is certainly worthwhile for any Bronte fan.   In truth I found the movie as dark and dreary as the moors must be on an overcast winter’s day.  There did not seem to be much joy in that household, but maybe I am confusing their rather bleak existence with that of the moors.     

I thought Charlotte and Anne well-cast, Emily miscast, and Branwell just plain annoying.   The movie ends with them walking on the moors after Branwell’s death, so it is not as depressing as if they had ended it later after they had all died.   But then their story is not a happy one.   I wonder if they would have traded their fame for more happiness and a longer life.   

This year is the bicentenary of Emily’s birth in 1818.   Here is Emily’s small and cozy room with a wonderful window view, as befitting a genius at work.  

Bronte

Emily remains the most puzzling one, so reclusive, yet the creator of such a  stormy and passionate tale.   No doubt she drew inspiration from her beloved moors but perhaps it’s very wildness was a reaction to their isolated existence.   She had a lot of time to think and imagine.   Her novel was considered dark and disturbing and somewhat shocking at the time, while Charlotte’s more conservative Jane Eyre was the more popular.    In the movie there was a scene where Emily was talking about where she got the idea for Wuthering Heights, but she spoke so quickly I could not follow, and I have since tried to research it to no avail.  Although googling did reveal plenty of theories about Asperger’s syndrome, as it seems popular these days to slap anyone the least bit anti-social with that label (think Doc Marten).     There are plenty of books about Charlotte, (see postscript), but not so many about Emily or Anne (who I think of as the forgotten middle child).    After seeing disheveled, weak, whiny immature Branwell it seems unlikely he could have been the muse for such a strong character as Heathcliff.    (But would any sane woman want a Heathcliff in real life?  All that anger and rage and jealousy just creates a whole lot of drama and angst, and wasn’t he a bit too possessive?  Somewhat stalkerish?  Better to marry someone more stable and level-headed if you want a happy home life, but I suppose if a wild passionate affair is your aim, then Heathcliff is your man).    

The movie contained nothing new, if you have already read such bio’s before, including the usual dose of family dynamics.   The ending was well done, three bright suns who were expected to dim their literary lights and walk invisible, in order to prevent embarrassment for the male heir of whom much had been expected, but little produced.   As for the issue of addiction so rampant in our modern world, that too is an age old question.  Their clergyman father could not decide whether to give in and supply his feckless son with drinking/opium money or just say no – the parent’s universal dilemma, to be an enabler or an enforcer of tough love?    In the end, it didn’t matter anyway –  TB won out.   Tuberculosis caused by a drafty old parsonage and those windblown moors.   Unfortunately, he took his two sisters with him.    

I have to admit the part I found most disappointing in the movie was the cinematography of the moors.   They must have filmed the outdoor scenes in  winter for there was no heather to be seen, just a bleak and brown landscape and overcast skies.   Perhaps they didn’t  have a choice, or more likely they wanted that gloomy depressing atmosphere, for it all looked as dull and dreary as a November day.           

Now that we are in late November, the weather has grown chilly and darkness descends early, and tonight the winds are howling and there is sleet against the windowpane.   The perfect night to settle in by the fire with a cup of tea, and re-read Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte’s masterpiece.  Although, I noticed that her name is not even on the cover of my 1984 copy, one of those classic editions with the fancy gold edging that are hard to find anymore.    

Wuthering Heights

I must confess, it has been a long time since that high school book report, and I cannot recall much of the story, other than it was a sad tale with a layered multi-generational plot.   But I do remember the descriptive imagery of those famous windswept moors, and the tragic ending of Cathy and Heathcliff, two star-crossed lovers who were never meant to be, but who remain immortalized forever between a marble and gilt cover.        

Postscript:   Most likely Charlotte, Anne or Emily never dreamt at the time that their books would still be bestsellers over 150 years later.    I wonder how those classics would fit into the Best Seller Code, which I will be blogging about next week. 

Postscript:  A goodreads review of  Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart 

Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery HeartCharlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This latest 2016 biography of Charlotte Bronte is well worth the read, even if I do wonder why Charlotte always gets all the attention. I enjoyed it so much, I bought a bargain bin copy. A good choice for fans, both old and new.

Bronte Country - AMc

Bronte Country