|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.