My Dear Mr. M: Letters to G. B. MacMillan from L. M. Montgomery.

L. M. Montgomery with her husband
Ewan MacDonald and George Boyd
MacMillan in Scotland
.
I read the letters of Lucy Maud Montgomery to George Boyd MacMillan in quite a leap of faith: the only novel I've read by Montgomery was Anne of Green Gables (1908), and though I've been intending to read the rest of the 'Anne of Green Gables' series I've not managed it yet. But a few weeks ago I was reminded of Jillian's love of Montgomery and by extraordinarily good luck a few days later came across My Dear Mr. M in a charity shop (in an area I don't even tend to visit much!) so I bought it, read it, and loved it.

It was a strange thing to read the letters of someone you barely even know the life of, but in doing so I learned a little about her. She was a Canadian author born in 1874 and is best known for those 'Anne' books - Anne of Green Gables (1908), Anne of Avonlea (1909), Anne of the Island (1915), Anne of Windy Poplars (1936), Anne's House of Dreams (1917), Anne of Ingleside (1939), Rainbow Valley (1919), Rilla of Ingleside (1921), and The Blythes Are Quoted (2009). She lived in Prince Edward Island with her grandparents following her mother's death (Montgomery was just 21 months old when her mother died of tuberculosis), then, following her marriage to Ewen (or Ewan) MacDonald, in Ontario. She led a very difficult life. The early to mid-20th Century was of course ravaged by war, but personally, L. M. Montgomery suffered depression, migraines, stillbirth, the death of her much-loved cousin Frederica Campbell, and the severe depressions of her husband. She died in 1942 of coronary thrombosis: it's suggested that she in fact committed suicide.

With such a dark history, it's remarkable how upbeat and positive Montgomery's letters could be, but in a way they were not that unlike the diaries of Sylvia Plath which tended to dwell more on the good things and were marked by a refusal to succumb to her depression. Montgomery wrote letters to G. B. MacMillan, a Scottish author to whom she was introduced by Miriam Zeiber in 1903 when she was 29. MacMillan, who was 22 at the start of the correspondence, was an aspiring writer and the early phase of their writing (which would last Montgomery's lifetime) was dominated by talk of publishing. As their friendship grows the letters become more personal, yet it's hard not to notice that Montgomery is very private. She mentions her marriage to Ewan, for example, but not the courtship, and it is not until the very end of their correspondence that she reveals how very difficult her marriage has been. What is clear is Montgomery's sensitivity. Her joy in nature, for example, is palpable and her attachment to her childhood home in Prince Edward Island is undeniable. Very gradually, however, we do see the traumas of her life very slowly wear away at her. She writes in some depth about not only the death of Frederica but also her adored cats Daffy and Lucky, and the decline in her husband's health, and, at the very end, the long letters turn to postcards when she was certain all good things were at an end, and, as she notes on 23rd April 1941, "We have loved to see beauty vanished from the world".

There was something unsettling about reading this volume of letters, and very moving. While there was a sense of joie de vivre, particularly in the early letters, there is too the decline, not just the inevitable old age and associated frailty, but a person who has had too much suffering in their life: as she noted in her final letter, "My husband's nerves are worse than mine even. I have kept the nature of his attacks from you for over 20 years but they have broken me at last". We do not see MacMillan's replies in this volume, but one can imagine his sadness and fear in receiving this and the other late letters when, in a sense, that wall came down and Montgomery finally confided in him.

As I was reading this book with no knowledge whatsoever of Lucy Maud Montgomery, I was frequently surprised and taken aback, and I didn't appreciate what she shared or, more importantly, what she did not share with MacMillan, so from that point of view I think perhaps someone with more knowledge would appreciate this book more. Yet that didn't hamper my enjoyment, more it made the shock of her later years greater (I suppose one can only imagine how MacMillan felt). They are very beautiful letters, and it was interesting to learn about the author of the 'Anne' novels (and a surprise to learn that she wasn't so fond of writing them). After this I'll certainly go on to read more of her works, and I'll be interested to read her letters and journals if I come across them.

Comments

  1. This sounds like a fascinating read! I was aware she had a friendship/correspondence with MacMillan, but didn't realize the letters spanned two decades. Will look out for this one after I re-read the Anne books.

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    1. It was very interesting and enlightening. I must get to the Anne books - I really liked the first one, not sure why I didn't carry on!

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  2. It is believed Maud's husband was actually suffering from an ill-effect due to medication administered for his depression. The more depressed he got, the more Maud gave him (on medical instruction), and this plunged him still further, which inspired more medication. An unfortunate feedback loop. Before all this, he was (from what I've read) a steady, quiet sort, who was good to Maud. Later, as Maud became overwhelmed by his illness and finances, she began to take the medication, thinking it would help. This is the same stuff that was apparently being given to Virginia Woolf. I can't recall what the medicine was, but a great many people suffered from its effects in the 1930s/40s, according to something I read near the end of The Gift of Wings (Mary Rubio).

    I've read Montgomery's 1910-1921 journals. HIGHLY recommended. :)

    xx

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    1. That's horrendous. I suppose I'm not surprised given that even today antidepressants have these kinds of side effects, but even so, wow. That's tragic.

      I'll be sure to check out those journals - I'll try and get them soon :)

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  3. I have read the Anne series (how embarrassing, as a Canadian, if I hadn't! ;-) ) so I'll be on the lookout for this book. It's nice to find books that makes the authors seem somehow closer and that give insight into their lives and therefore their writing. Thanks for the excellent review! :-)

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    1. Thank you, I'm glad you liked it :) And yes, it is good to see authors in their more day-to-day setting as it were. A very good book, this :)

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  4. my daughter devoured these at an early age; i believe they helped kickstart her into becoming a doctor(veterinarian)... a bit off the point, i wonder if the severe corsets ladies had to wear in those days contributed to health problems: the picture is painful to look at; she must be very uncomfortable...

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    1. It does look uncomfortable, yes. I'm certain there would have been health problems, in fact I think I read something on it once. A bizarre fashion. Mind we still have health-damaging fashions now (I'm thinking high heels specifically) so I don't think it's much better now than then...

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