This is a continuation of a post I began back in February and have only got around to finishing today: A Shadow Across the Gables – Part 1.
I think that one of the difficulties of reading much of Lucy Maud Montgomery as a 21st century adult is getting past the Edwardian romanticism and the sunny optimism. It is those characteristics that have given her novels, her short stories, and to a lesser degree her poems, a reputation for being reading for little girls while ignoring many of the shades (both linguistic and phantasmic) that underlie much of her work.
On April 24, 1942 as LMM lay on her death bed* a manuscript was delivered to the desk of her publisher at McLelland and Stewart in Toronto. A manuscript that was unlike anything she had ever submitted to her long time publisher. It was a mixture of short stories and poems – some of which had been published in magazines across the English speaking world. But many were unpublished and written with a darker cast then her readers would recognize as the style of the creator of the ever optimistic Anne Shirley. These stories dealt with long delayed revenge, old hurts, illegitimacy, murder, spousal abuse, despair, loneliness, aging and death not raspberry cordial and ice cream.
An old lady trudges to the bedside of a dying man to confront him with the wrong he did her beloved sister and comes away with the knowledge of her own guilt; unaware of either the golden moments of her life or a horrid truth that she holds secret a family sits resentful death watch for a maiden aunt who has always been a burden; two old women sit in the back pew of a church gossiping about the young people about to be married; by the terms of a hateful uncle’s will an unloved orphan boy is shunted from one greedy relative to another. Though in the later story goodness does prevail more often the stories end on a melancholy note – even those that would seem to be cast in the early optimistic, sunny Montgomery style.
The fifteen short stories are framed by some forty poems purportedly written by Anne and her son Walter and read to the family by Anne in the sitting room at Ingleside. The poems are commented on by various of the Blythes and their faithful housekeeper Susan Baker. Sometimes the “quotes” are dialogue but often the poems give rise to unspoken thoughts. Thoughts of times past as recorded in previous books and thoughts of the future after the end of the Great War**. The two parts of the book are divided into life before and life after the 1914-19 conflict and two “war” poems by Walter, a promising young poet who died on the battlefield, serve as bookends to the whole. “The Piper”, the first of the poems, is referred to in Rilla of Ingleside but never actually quoted and LMM wrote it for her final book. It is a rather pale endorsement of glories of King and Country but the poem “Aftermath” that ends the book is a agonizing piece in the style of Sassoon and Owen. It and much of the dialogue in the Blythe episodes of the second part are a scorching indictment of the First World War and its unfulfilled promises of a better future.
Perhaps it was this anti-war sentiment at the height of the Second World War as well as the dark nature of many of the stories that led to the decision at McLelland and Stewart not to publish the last work of one of their most successful authors. It was not until 1974 that McGaw Hill Ryerson released The Road to Yesterday a much edited version with the Blythe episodes and all but one of the poems excised and the short stories rearranged. In 1999 Benjamin Lefebvre began researching the Montgomery fonds at the University of Guelph and three earlier versions were unearthed and the form that LMM intended her final work to take revealed. In 2009, sixty-seven years after her death, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s The Blythes are Quoted was finally published by Viking Press. It is proof that as an author LMM was never the sunny, one-note writer that modern literary criticism branded her.
*A note was found at her bedside that has cause some suspicion of suicide; it read, in part, “I have lost my mind by spells and I do not dare think what I may do in those spells. 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.”
**In an early manuscript LMM refers to it as The Great War but crossed it out and replaced it with The First World War – an indication of her change of heart towards the earlier conflict.
On this day in 1343: After the execution of her husband, Jeanne de Clisson sells her estates and raises a force of men with which to attack French shipping and ports.