Monday, November 30, 2009

Happy Birthday, LMM

135 years ago today, a little girl was born in a small town called Clifton. She would one day become a world-famous author.

Her mother died when she was only 22 months old. The little girl's only memory of her mother is at the funeral, of her mother lying in her casket, looking asleep, and the girl wondering why everyone was crying and giving her sympathetic looks. That memory would one day show up in a book called Emily of New Moon, about a young girl who aspires to be a writer. The Emily trilogy is the most autobiographical of anything she ever published.

Her father remarried and moved out west, and she stayed behind to be raised by her rather strict grandparents. She did spend a year or so with her father during her adolescence, but it was a miserable time, and she longed to be home with her cousins and friends, so she went back to live with her grandparents.

Later on, she went to college and at one point became a school teacher, sleeping in a room so cold in the winter that her wash water and ink bottle would freeze overnight.

Even so, she had aspirations to be a writer, so she got up early before school, lit a fire, got the ink workable, and hand-wrote short stories and poetry. Some of that work she published in magazines, which helped to keep her finances afloat.

Later, she worked at a newspaper proofing copy as articles flew down a chute at her. She no longer had the luxury of quiet time to write, but she found a way to write with the loud noises of the printer banging around her and in the snippets between the times articles shot down the chute. She had more acceptances during this period. (Good luck making excuses like, "Oh, I can't write if it's not totally silent.")

Eventually, however, she had to return home to care for her ailing grandmother, who had raised her. At this point, she managed to sell dozens of short stories, and she kept sending them off, something easy to do since the family ran the local post office. (In fact, that's how she sent off her first submission and many others without anyone ever knowing about it.)

During a particularly harsh winter, she had a deep depression and nervous breakdown, and the local minister, named Ewan, a bachelor, became a dear friend who helped her through that time. He proposed, and she accepted, on the condition that she couldn't marry until her grandmother had passed away. He agreed, but his ministry called him away a year or so later, and they had a long-distance engagement for several years. (Note: Many documents spell his name Ewen, but she uses Ewan in her journals.)

She admitted in her journal that she was never in love with him, but she did love him dearly as a friend and couldn't imagine her life without him, but at her age, that was the best she could hope for.

During this time, she decided to try her hand at a novel instead of short stories. She flipped through her idea notebook, where she always jotted down random ideas that came to her, and she came across one that seemed like a fun one to explore: a couple who wants to adopt a boy and accidentally gets sent a girl.

That book was rejected a few times, but eventually it found a home. Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908 and became a break-out success.

In the last 101 years, it has since been translated into dozens of languages, made into several movies and a musical, and continues to be a beloved classic. Her readers demanded many sequels. Her life as a famous novelist began.

When her grandmother died, Ewan returned, and they married. She was 36.

Right away, they left what was her home and moved far away, to the Toronto area. She would never live there again, only visit it, but she most of her future writing would be focused on her old stomping grounds of Prince Edward Island, and the world would love her for it.

She had three children, all boys. The second was stillborn due to a knot in the umbilical chord. She named him after her father, Hugh. She never quite got over losing him, even giving a similar loss to Anne in one of her later books.

In spite of the happy, almost magical, tone of her books, she led a sad life filled with depression, largely due to her husband's mental illness and tendency toward being a hypochondriac. Her eldest son, Chester, gave her much grief, failing in college, having an extra-marital affair, becoming a liar and a cheat, and so forththings that made her completely heartsick.

She and her husband both had chronic depression and were dependent on prescription medications. She was generous, almost to a fault, with readers and fans, and frequently loaned money to family (which she often never got back). When her husband became too ill to work as a minister (and keep a congregation happy), she became the primary breadwinner of the family.

This was particularly difficult during the Depression, when buying books became a luxury for most people, and her income suffered dramatically as a result.

She kept a journal from the time she was a young girl almost until the end of her life. She nearly stopped writing in it during her final years. Quite often she wrote entries on other pieces of paper or in notebooks and later transcribed them into her journal.

The last one in the published version of her journals is supposedly such a note, written about a month before her death, but it was found on a table next to her body, and some people believe it to be a suicide note. We'll never know conclusively whether she died of natural causes or if she had a hand in it, as an autopsy was never performed.

She wrote:
Since then my life has been hell, hell, hell. My mind is goneeverything in the world I lived for has gonethe world has gone mad. I shall be driven to end my life. Oh God, forgive me. Nobody dreams what my awful position is.

Whatever happened at the end of her life, I hope she's a happier woman now on the other side and has found some semblance of peace, particularly since she brought so much joyand continues to bring joyto the millions who read her books every year.

I can honestly say that of all writers out there, L. M. Montgomery has had the most profound impact on me as a writer. That could be because of the age I was when I discovered her work or the friends I had who also loved her stories. As I've said before, I'm not just an Anne fan.

In fact, while I love Anne, she's not in my top three of LMM characters: 

Rather, I am fascinated by L. M. Montgomery the mother, the wife, the writer, the woman. 

I can point to elements in my own work that have been directly impacted by hers. Today I'm remembering her and honoring her. 

Happy birthday, Maud.*
May you truly rest in peace.

*Not Lucy. She hated her first name. 


Melanie Jacobson said...

I think I first stumbled across Anne of Green Gables when I was 12 and I've reread the series countless times since. I felt like Anne was my kindred spirit. True story: I'm pregnant with a girl but I really wanted all boys. One of the very first things that started me looking forward to a daughter was the realization that I could share the Anne books with her.

annie valentine said...

What a heartbreaking life, makes me feel pretty darn lucky.

(And I think the name Chester is kind of cute.)

Happy Mom said...

I have four much younger sisters and since my own children were too young to read the books to, I had each of my sisters spend an Ann of Green Gables week at my home when they turned twelve. Where we read the first book out loud and then watched the first movie.

Reading your post from 2007 has peaked my interest! I'm going to go read her other books!

Keep posting girl!

Kristina P. said...

It seems like so many female authors of her time and before her lived such tragic lives.

Anonymous said...

I love Anne of Green Gables. There is something about it that is deeply charming. And as someone who has pretty severe depression, it's so motivating to me to know that in a big way, she conquered it by giving the world such fine books. I, too, hope that on the other side, she's found peace and joy.

Carina said...

I love ALL of LMM's books. She was an amazing writer with a gift of storytelling (and that is rare.)

Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

Honouring indeed - what a fabulous tribute!

Rebecca Irvine said...

LM Montgomery is also one of my faorites. 'Anne of Green Gables' was the first book I read that really captured my imagination. I owe much to Maud!

wendy said...

WOW that was so cool to read that. Did you know Anne of Green Gables is one of my FAVORITE BOOKS. I bought it in hard cover so I'd be able to put it out. I try and read it every other year.
what a sad life this author had, I had no idea.

Helena said...

We tried to read Jane of Lantern Hill for book club recently, but realized that we would have trouble finding enough copies. I was baffled. I remember it being reprinted back when I was in high school.

We got to spend a couple of days in PEI on our way back from Newfoundland. That was very cool. I have some red dirt that I scooped up in a film canister.


Cynthia said...

How ironic that I read this post tonight! I just got back from the Library an hour ago with my 4th grader, a copy of "Anne of Green Gables" in hand. We had to have a moment of silence in the library to honor the occasion. She thought I was weird but I told her I've anticipated passing on a love of Anne to her for YEARS. Today was that day.

Cheryl said...

Thanks for writing this. LMM has been my favorite author since I was eight and read Anne for the first time. I now own all her books and re read them often. We've traveled to PEI and visited her homes and grave twice now and I just feel such a connection to her.
I wish she had experienced a happier life but I think all that heartbreak did find a way into her books and made them so real.

Amanda D said...

Great post, Annette. I didn't know much of what you wrote. Very fascinating.

That Girl said...

No kidding. She's one of my favorite authors and I had no idea about almost any of this.

What makes me most sad is that she was never in love. I can't imagine such a life ...

It's like, if she were Emily, she would have married DEAN?!?!?!

Annette Lyon said...

One interesting note: LMM did know what it was like to be in love--she had a couple of really big experiences with it, and one in particular was huge. But she didn't marry any of them. (The big one was beneath her class-wise, and that would have been a no-no.)

She didn't marry for love, but she knew what it felt like, and that's why she could write about it so well.

Jewel Allen said...

Great post, Annette. My daughter just discovered the Anne books and loves them.

Btw, are you the Annette Lyon that wrote the "invisible mother" essay for "Funds"? If so, congratulations!! Can't wait to read it.

Sherrie said...

Wow thanks for sharing. I had no idea about any of this. What a great post!

Luisa Perkins said...

This is a lovely tribute to one of my favorite writers. I share your hope.

Sher said...

Ah, I read all of the Anne of Green Gables books growing up. I loved them. Thanks for this tribute.


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