Lucy Maude Montgomery, church lady

Lucy Maude Montgomery is famous for “Anne of Green Gables”, about an orphan girl who finds a home in Avonlea, Prince Edward Island. As a child, relatives gave me all four books in the “Anne” series because I had red hair. I was encouraged to be original and “imaginative” and to give this book more importance that the other books of the genre: “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” “Pollyanna”, who were obedient and cheerful girls. I went off on my own when it came to “The Princess and the Goblin,” which was written by the Rev. George MacDonald, an early Universalist who never quite left the English church.

“Anne of Green Gables” tended in that direction, particularly in the books’ celebration of nature. One would guess she was always safe and happy, or at least I did until I was in Saskatoon where her journals were in the bookstore. Though she edited them, they were quite a different story. Just now I read the Wikipedia account of her life and was even more enlightened. I already knew that she’d had an unhappy life and a miserable marriage, but I did NOT know that through her life she had felt what she called “flashes” which were evidently the kind of spiritual lightning strikes that I’ve been trying to understand.

She was a transcendentalist nature connector and glimpses often show up in her writing. They can come close to being sentimental and overly domestic. Here’s a sample:

“The warm June sunshine was coming down through the trees. white with the virginal bloom of apple-blossoms, and through the shining panes, making a tremulous mosaic upon Mrs. Eben Andrews’ spotless kitchen floor. Through the open door, a wind, fragrant from wandering over orchards and clover meadows, drifted in, and from the window Mrs. Eben and her guest could look down over a long, misty valley sloping to a sparkling sea.”

“The Complete Chronicles of Avonea” is an anthology of short stories, almost all in the mode of the Anne books until the end and then just as was ready to put down the book, here was a raw, real story about the frontier town of Prince Albert — little more than a trading post — where she spent some young years with her father and his wife, a person she did not get along with.

It is a racist story in modern terms because of using the terms: “squaw, papoose, half-breed” but the heroine is a beautiful half-breed girl who is dropped by her near-lover when a blond, blue-eyed East Coast woman shows up. In a fight the man is shot and dies slowly enough that the half-breed girl can generously go to get his white sweetheart for his last moments. A terrible storm and a frantic horseback race are the climax.

It’s well known that writers can make a flight to safety and love with their stories. It’s also known that once a person makes the kind of handclasp with readers that Montgomery could, they can be gripped by it so hard, they never find a way to let go. This happened to Louisa May Alcott as well. Readers can be like addicts, wanting more and more of the same, but with greater intensity. The poor characters get dragged around and even murdered. LM’s troubles as a writer were increased by a devious, corrupt, and vicious publisher who stole her money, much like today’s movie stars and pop singers.

Jonathan Poletti looks at the repressed side of sexuality in public characters. This was easy in the case of LM since she was living in the age when women were owned and belittled by men, though completely dependent on them to determine their lives. LM had some respectable proposals early in life but turned them all down. It may not have been so much a matter of sexuality as economics. Even in my day people talked about whether someone was “worth” marriage, whether they were equal in value to oneself, thus fair reward for dedication. One didn’t marry “beneath” oneself.

Partly it was a matter of vocation, so marrying an older clergyman might have seemed appealing, though the man turned out to be almost pathologically depresssed. She devoted herself to her three sons: the first one screwed up his life, the second one died at birth, and the third one was drafted. She had already seen many of her former Sunday School boys listed as killed in action. This was also the time of the Spanish Flu, which she caught but survived. Towards the end she was a barbituate addict and her death might have been suicide. At least it was a relief.

And yet she could have these “flashes” that transformed the moment. She doesn’t seem to have related them to the literature of the times about mysticism — James, for instance — nor even to have written about them herself unless it was someplace I don’t know about.

Since I exclude supernatural visitations from explaining such things and since there is ample evidence of drugs being able to produce “flashes” in a brain, I do not jump to the idea that God or an angel was compensating her with martyrdom, but I do think something real was happening. It is remarkable that there are instances of humans being in a moment so intense that it is like being struck by lightning. But literary people might wish for something brilliant to come of it. Is imagining Anne Shirley that momentous?

Are her passionate declarations of love for other women any more than the conventional compensating human intimacy of a time when men were simply not available or willing? The idea of emotional intensity originating in a human being gets projected out into the cosmos, as though it were divine and intended by an authority. But can’t it be an upwelling from a sentient being, whether in need or just overflowing? Two of the stories in this anthology are from the point of view of a man who intensely loves a woman.

LM wrote with a kind of vocabulary of the land and sea, orchards and pines, wind and sun — with occasional snow. The people were likewise a kind of grammar: the curly headed moppet, the embittered old woman, the devious sly rival, and the stalwart handsome man — all interacting with a slightly unconscious but appealing young woman. Thus she wrote story after story, but never broke the grip of tragic limitation.

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.