This morning’s keynote address by Margaret Anne Doody was wonderful. Anyone who has read Lucy Maud Montgomery’s journals, particularly the later ones, knows that she was not all sweetness and light. The journals reveal the many difficult, sometimes tragic, events that she endured over the course of her life. They also reveal some disquieting attitudes that she held and disturbing behaviour that she engaged in. When I saw that the title of Doody’s address was “Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Darker Side” I expected a biographical angle.
Not so. Doody focused squarely on Montgomery’s fiction. It’s true that Montgomery created the terminally optimistic Anne, that she was given to rapturous descriptions of nature, and that she acceded to the romantic convention of a happy ending every time. But there is much more going on in her books, not just under the surface but right out in the open. Doody pointed out that Montgomery’s books are rife with murder, suicide, alcoholism, poverty, child abuse, and psychological torment. Montgomery’s characters commonly exhibit malice, cruelty, jealousy, and obsession. “Emotional incest” is one of her key themes. Doody provided many choice quotations to back up these assertions and we all nodded (and sometimes laughed — plenty of black humour in Montgomery) in recognition.
Why then is Montgomery persistently dismissed as a writer who viewed the world “through rose-coloured glasses”? It’s quite clear from the foregoing that she held few illusions about the ills of the world and that she generally did not shield her characters from them. Perhaps it’s the readers who are wearing the rose-coloured glasses, particularly if our impressions of Montgomery’s work are mediated by nostalgia about our childhood reading or by sanitized television and movie versions of her heroines. I recommend taking off the rose-coloured glasses and giving her fiction another look.