I have not often had occasion to have warm and fuzzy feelings about Robertson Davies, whose elitism has in general turned me off. I am always happy to find exceptions, though, and Jane Urquhart gave me pause about my Davies disdain when she cited a passage of his in making her point that Lucy Maud Montgomery’s fame has outlived those of her detractors, the men who kept her out of the Canadian literary canon for so long. Writing about Montgomery in the Peterborough Examiner at the time of her death, Davies captures so crisply a feeling I have about the place of the arts:
Nations grow in the eyes of the world less by the work of their statesmen than their artists. Thousands of people all over the world are hazy about the exact nature of Canada’s government … but they have clear recollections of Anne of Green Gables. (58)
I think it’s his poke at politicians that I like, though I also admire the appeal to empirical evidence. The “value” of art is such a tricky thing to pin down, and it’s not about measurable outcomes in any case, but go ahead and prove it with numbers when it’s that eloquent.
Jane Urquhart, for one, is in no doubt about the value of Montgomery’s place in the canlit canon. She argues that it was Montgomery who “gave permission to succeeding generations of Canadian writers to mythologize their dusty small towns and marginal farms, their daily lives and those of their seemingly unexceptional neighbours” (57). At the end of her biography of Montgomery, Urquhart imagines a girl who, having read all of the Anne and Emily books, sees her world anew:
Drama, the child now knows, drama of a very significant, almost Shakespearean nature, could be unfolding in the rooms of any one of [the buildings in town]. Because of her summer reading she has become enlightened to the fact that stories unfolding in the plain brick and clapboard houses of the Dominion of Canada can be just as riveting as those that take place in large, dark country houses set in sad, neglected grounds near glens and moors. (148)
I thoroughly enjoyed Urquhart’s biography, and the only complaint I have is that it is too short, which is not her fault in any case. This is a volume in the Extraordinary Canadians series by Penguin, in which extraordinary subjects are matched to remarkable biographers (Marshall McLuhan and Douglas Coupland, Glenn Gould and Mark Kingwell) and all of the biographies are of a similar length: short. (Documentaries have also been filmed of each of the 18 subjects in the series. See interview with Urquhart here and with John Ralston Saul, series editor, here.)
Urquhart follows a theme of “the self divided” in this biography, and she draws neat distinctions between Montgomery’s many selves. In contrast to the sweetness and light of her books, there is the sorrow and madness in her life: the early death of her mother, her almost life-long separation from her father, the multiple rejections of her manuscript of Anne of Green Gables, her loveless marriage to Ewan Macdonald, a Presbyterian minister whose belief in predestination (and his own inevitable damnation) led to severe mental breakdowns, her never-ending battle with insomnia.
Then there is the divide between her fiction and her journals. Urquhart speculates that Montgomery “needed to write every day. Nothing had meant anything to her until it was written down” (7). Her journals, which were heavily edited and revised by Montgomery, are now available from Oxford University Press, in five volumes, but as Urquhart notes, there is rarely an overlap between the fiction and the journal writing:
Occasionally, the description of a place from the journal will enter the setting of a book, or the diary will comment on an achievement or a setback in her career, but with the exception of one long, faintly self-conscious passage chronicling the development of Anne of Green Gables written well after the fact with—one suspects—posterity on her mind, there is very little talk in Maud’s journals about the process of writing, and even less about how her imagination chose a subject, a character, a tone. These things she kept close to her heart or quite possibly prevented them from coming fully to consciousness at all. For Lucy Maud Montgomery, the place where imagination rearranged episodes from a painful childhood was one best visited by an oblique, almost evasive route—for the sake of the transformation demanded by her art, but also for the sake of her psyche, which needed to heal—however inadequately—the wounds of her youth rather than reopen them. (100)
Urquhart also examines Montgomery’s work as a photographer. She learned photography as a girl, had a darkroom in her grandmother’s house and took hundreds of snapshots (not formally or artfully composed photographs) of her houses and the landscapes around her.
There are several moments in the diaries when one does not entirely trust her reliability, especially during the passages written long after the fact. This is not so with the photographs. Right or wrong, we feel manipulated neither by the images nor by the suggestion of the pleasure Montgomery must have felt while taking them, as we sometimes do when reading the journals. Her eye—her “vision”—is more closely tied than is her considerable intellect to the creative impulse that went into making her art. This may account for the fact that many of Montgomery’s readers retain vivid memories of rooms and views, streams and fields, and an assortment of woodlands and orchards long after the peculiarities of personality attached to the characters that inhabit the books have begun to fade. (64)
Urquhart adds her own version of a self divided; in the final chapter she imagines a girl who, having read Montgomery, has decided to become a writer herself. The decision sets her apart from her world:
She … wants to name the woods in which … small dramas took place, wants to call it something like the Haunted Forest, but knows that a name such as that doesn’t fit the ways in which she and her brothers have passed their time there. (143)
I love that reference to honesty, that reference to the sense that as powerful as the imaginative impulse is, it must somehow stay true to experience.
Read Full Post »