Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings by Mary Henley Rubio
An unhappy marriage. A troubled life. A lonely death. This is the story of the woman behind Anne of Green Gables.
L. M. Montgomery has fascinated me since I was nine years old. As a child, her books made me aware of my own desire to be a writer, an ambition that had been bubbling away at the back of my brain for some time. When I read the information about her at the back of my paperback copy of Emily of New Moon, I was surprised to see it reference her feelings of depression and loneliness. Although much of her work is light and hopeful, with happy endings (and happy marriages) all but assured for her heroines, Montgomery’s private life was riddled with financial woes, legal troubles, family tensions, and struggles with mental illness and addiction. This compelling biography, which chronicles Montgomery’s life and development as a writer, is a direct contradiction to her public image as a wholesome remnant of a bygone age.
Mary Henley Rubio spent more than two decades collecting material for this book, and the result paints a picture of a deeply passionate and deeply unhappy woman constrained by her time and by herself. Her life and her work are both a curious blend of the passionate and the Puritan, the desire to live freely at war with fear of gossip, censure, and judgement. Contrasting the author’s work through the years against the realities of her life, Rubio uses the progression of Montgomery’s body of work to explore the psychology of her subject. Montgomery used her fiction both to escape her troubles and to work through them in public, giving voice to her innermost thoughts and feelings in a way she never could outside of her books. Through Anne Shirley, Emily Starr, Sara Stanley, and others, she gave voice to her own feelings of alienation, oppression, anger, and fear. Her protagonists are both conventional in their fates and unconventional in their desires. When Emily declares “I am important to myself,” we hear Montgomery’s own indignation in the line.
The first time I read this book, I wolfed it down in the space of a day or two, eager to immerse myself in the private life of a woman whose work I have long admired. This time, rereading it, I moved at a slower pace, taking the entirety of a life in page by page. I read it outside as often as I could, immersing myself in nature just as Montgomery so often did to soothe herself. The story it tells of a vibrant woman frustrated at every turn by disappointments, slowly becoming mired in her own feelings of anxiety and depression, was easier to take in the sunshine.
Elliott Gish is a writer and librarian from Nova Scotia. Her work has been published in the Baltimore Review, Grain Magazine, Wigleaf, and others. She lives in Halifax with her partner.