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?