As we crawl through the Anne series, I increasingly find myself wanting to reference back to things in Montgomery’s real life. Which seems unfair since I haven’t laid out basic information yet for everyone to share. So here it is! The post where I do that!
There is a really amazing biography of Montgomery called “The Gift of Wings” which is after 20 years of intense research, and using modern historical biographical practices (for example, understanding that people could be gay before 1969 even if no one was using the word “gay”). I have not read this book, I will someday and then probably want to come back to this post and up date it. But based on what I have learned second hand about this book, and details I picked up from all over the place, this is what I’ve got on Montgomery.
I’m gonna start at the end, because the ending is perhaps the most important in this case to understanding Montgomery’s writings. She killed herself in 1942. Her life was a long slow journey into darkness that finally defeated her. The second world war of her life, years of battling depression, a son who brought horrible shame to her, a husband who battled even worse depression combined with psychosis, everything just built up and she couldn’t move on. At the time, it was listed as heart failure. But today, her descendants want it to be acknowledged as suicide, because they want to remove that stigma from the tragedy, to let the truth be heard in hopes it may help other families. It is still an open question to some degree, but a note found next to her body reads in part, “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“. Whether she actively killed herself, or just wished for death to the point of being careless with her medication, she did not end her life in a happy place.
But the beginning was happy! At least, I think it was. Based on her books of lonely tragic orphans, and the common stories she told of her childhood of being dreamy and having imaginary friends, it is easy to think of her as a sad little girl. But a few years back I visited Prince Edward Island and got to see all the houses she stayed at and here all the stories, and I came away thinking it was probably a really happy time in her life. That changed how I read her books as well, the way her heroines are so lively and happy, passionate in their friendships, passionate in their interests, and marriage and love are sort of the end of things rather than the beginning.
Montgomery’s mother died when she was a baby and she was sent to live with her maternal grandparents. Her grandfather was a farmer and also the post master for their small community, so their kitchen was a bit of a community hub as folks came in and out for their mail. She had cousins living nearby who she visited regularly, as a teen she went to the nearest town for a high school program, followed by 2 years of college (until the money ran out). She taught all over the island, living independently in boarding houses. And she had a hot and spicy romantic life! A romantic life remarkably similar to what a young woman might have today. Her first boyfriend was at 14, a childish relationship that she outgrew. Then there was an older man who was intellectually challenging but dull, and a brother of a friend who she saw as more of a friend than a romantic interest. Finally she accepted her 4th proposal, at age 23, because it seemed to promise security. She quickly regretted accepting the proposal and put off the marriage. In the meantime, she started a hot sexual affair with a man living in the same boarding house who was also engaged at the time. Her diaries are explicit that she had a passionate physical desire for him and vice versa, and that when alone in the boarding house they did everything short of intercourse. She was convinced this relationship could not work as it was merely physical and they had little intellectually in common, but also realized she could not marry anyone else. She broke off her engagement and ended the physical relationship as well. Shortly after, the boyfriend died of influenza, leaving her heartbroken and regretful.
At age 25, she moved back to her home to live with her grandmother. And there she stayed for 13 years, working on her writing, taking care of the farm and her grandmother, and playing piano for the church services. Anne of Green Gables was her first full book published after years of successful short stories, when she was 34. 3 years later, at 37, her grandmother died and she married the 41 year old minister of her local church. They left her hometown and Prince Edward Island, never to return, for another job in Ontario.
When reading Montgomery’s books, most of which were written after marriage, I now think of them as her escape to those happy first 37 years of her life. She was loved, she had a home, she had friends, she had an identity. She had much romantic fulfillment, intellectual and sexual and friendly, between her various suitors. It wasn’t a life without sadness, she and her father’s second wife never got along and there was one disastrous year when she attempted to live with him as a teen before an estrangement began which was never solved. She always missed her mother’s love, that is clear in her writing. And of course there was the death of her sexual boyfriend, and later various other young friends including a cousin who was her best friend since childhood. But she wasn’t depressed.
Depression is terrible. It’s not feeling sad, it’s that you don’t feel anything at all, that you are just crawling through life trying to make it mean something. Bad things happened to Montgomery in her childhood and young adulthood, but she had the tools to deal with those things. It was only after marriage when she was dragged away from her home and dropped into a nightmare that things got really really bad.
Montgomery’s husband, Ewen MacGregor, was not a bad man. He wasn’t really interested in the same things she was, but he wasn’t cruel and he was educated and intelligent enough to be a minister. As a choice of a husband, at age 37 having just lost her childhood home with the death of her mother, he wasn’t a terrible decision. But what Montgomery didn’t know was that Ewen suffered from terrible depression. And what no one knew was that the medications given to him were driving him deeper into depression and ultimately psychosis. Montgomery was both his caretaker, and the primary wage earner of the household. On top of that, there was the horrible need to keep what was happening a secret from the outside world because of the shame of it. She became exhausted and depressed herself as she struggled to raise 2 (a 3rd died as a baby) children and run a household as a minister’s wife, while her husband stared into space and declared himself doomed to Hell.
The Anne books and her other writing should have at least given her the finances to help her situation, but they did not because she was a woman and it was the early 1900s. Her publisher was ripping her off and she had to fight for decades to get the money that was due to her. The first 4 books in the Anne series did not provide her money because the American publisher stole the rights. It was only the books published afterwards which gave her profit. She kept writing furiously fast, while also being a beloved ministers wife to a congregation who had no idea their minister was losing his mind. By 1919, she was seriously considering divorce but finally decided against it because it would not be “Christian”. She began taking an assortment of medicines to help her maintain a smiling public face while her life fell apart in the background.
Her son Chester added to her problems. Along with being an alcoholic and failing to hold a job, there was also a scandal that Montgomery avoids describing in detail but later research showed he clearly got a maid of the household pregnant, possibly through rape, and had to marry her in a hurry. He went on to abuse his wife and expect his mother to support the family. Her other son, Stuart, was a nice stable boy and it is his descendants who are active in supporting her legacy today.
There was also The World Itself. WWI almost broke her. She started the war caught up in the noble fight and so on and so forth. But as it dragged on and on, day by day, she struggled to cope with the constant stream of terrible news. She also suffered the death of her middle son during the war years. And in 1919, just as the war ended, her cousin and best friend since childhood died of influenza. This seems to be when she began taking serious medication. It is also this close female friendship which has opened the possibility of some sort of queerness in Montgomery’s life. I’m not sure what I think about that. She was miserable in her marriage, and she turned down many proposals from men, while treasuring her female friendships. But on the other hand, she recorded a passionate physical attraction to at least one man in her life. I think it is just that people are complicated. She loved her female friends in a way beyond what the word “friendship” usually means, just as the characters in her books loved their friends more than what “friendship” means today.
And that brings me to the end of her life again. In many ways, she was in a better place. Her publication fight had ended in triumph, her many many books had all achieved success, her husband was retired so that strain was gone, her sons were grown and settled, and she was living in a house she owned and loved. But she was now unable to function without drugs, and still missed the friends of her youth as she approached late middle-age. And then came WWII.
The people who experienced both wars as mature adults get little mention in history, but the few times I have run across them, it is universally a deadening depressing experience. Montgomery didn’t fight in WWI, nor did her sons or her husband, but she saw what it did to the world around her, and she felt surrounded by death and misery to no purpose. And then, at age 65, she as faced with the same thing over again. But worse, because she feared her beloved son Stuart might be drafted. Her death came in the middle of the war, 1942, but it came within a month of Canada’s decision to begin the draft. As she wrote to friends, that was the one thing she could not face.
So that’s Montgomery. A happy happy life for half her life, and a series of disasters overtaking her for the second half. Disasters outside of her control, a mentally ill husband, a bad son, and two world wars. I think seeing both halves of this life is the only way to fully appreciate and understand her books, especially the Anne series which runs from the start to the end of her writing career. Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea were written before her marriage, when she was living with her grandmother in her childhood home, having had adventures and romance and now returning to a quiet happy life. Anne of the Island was written early in her marriage, after her first child was born but before her husband’s full blown madness began. Anne’s House of Dream’s was written after the death of her second child as an infant and when she had determined that her marriage was not satisfying in many ways, and during WWI. Rainbow Valley was written during WWI, and after she was ready to give up on her marriage entirely and escape her life. Rilla was written just after the war, after the death of her best friend, after she had escaped death from influenza herself, and in the lingering shock and misery of what she had experienced in the preceding 4 years of war. And then she came back to Anne in 1936, when her husband had retired and she had bought her happy retirement home, she wrote Windy Poplars. And finally Anne of Ingleside in 1939, the last book she wrote before WWII and depression took away her ability to write.