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L. M. Montgomery | Biography

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Maud with No e

Lucy Maud Montgomery made a point of telling people her middle name did not end in e. Her fictional heroine, Anne Shirley, insisted people not only end her name with an e but also imagine the e whenever they spoke her name. Many events in the Anne of Green Gables series were inspired by events in Montgomery's life, but the author's story lacked the happy ending she gave to Anne. In fact Montgomery's entire life was full of sad episodes that might have challenged even resilient Anne Shirley.

Born on November 30, 1874, on Prince Edward Island, Montgomery was 21 months old when her mother died of tuberculosis, a bacterial lung infection. Her bankrupt father passed the toddler along to her maternal grandparents, Alexander and Lucy Macneill, who lived in the town of Cavendish. Thereafter her father became an irregular, though beloved, presence in her life. He moved westward across Canada, finally settling in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

Montgomery's grandparents had six adult children. A large extended family lived in the area, including relatives across the road and next door. Montgomery's paternal grandparents lived nearby as well. The Macneill house also served as the district post office, so visitors came and went all day. Montgomery was not as lonely as she might have been without her parents, and growing up she had a distinct advantage for a would-be writer: she was able to read newspapers and magazines on their way to subscribers.

When Montgomery was 15, her paternal grandfather brought her to Prince Albert to meet her new stepmother, the idea being she would live with her father and his wife. But Montgomery found her new home unfriendly. She loved being with her father, but her stepmother treated her more like a babysitter for her young half-brother than a daughter of the house, often making her stay home from school to help with chores. Yet there were some pleasant distractions; her schoolteacher, Mr. Mustard, asked her to marry him. Montgomery also sold three poems, an essay, and a prose narrative to magazines. The prose narrative, "The Wreck of the Marco Polo," won a prize and appeared in the 1891 book Canadian Prize Stories.

Teaching Career

After a year Montgomery returned to Cavendish: her grandparents had found the money to pay for a year of teachers' training at Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown. For 12 months Montgomery studied for the entrance examinations and eventually was rewarded with fifth place out of the entire island. She completed the two-year course in one—her grandparents would not pay for more than that—and, like Anne Shirley, she read a prize-winning essay at graduation.

Because her grandfather disapproved of female teachers, he refused to drive Montgomery to distant schools for job interviews; therefore she could apply only to schools within walking distance of train stations. In the school year 1894–95, she taught at a one-room school in Biddeford, 66 miles from Cavendish. During this year she sold enough poetry and fiction to pay for half a year's tuition at a four-year university. Although her grandfather disapproved, her grandmother gave her the other half of the money needed, and Montgomery completed a year at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Again she did well and again made some money from her writing. But when the first year ended, she had to return home: her money had run out.

Engagements and Loss

In 1896 Montgomery agreed to marry Edwin Simpson, a third cousin. But almost immediately she wondered if she'd made a mistake; she appreciated her fiancé's intellect but was not attracted to him. Simpson helped her find a teaching job in the town of Lower Bedeque, where she boarded with a farming couple and fell in love with their son, Herman Leard. Montgomery was now trapped between two bad options: she could marry Simpson and have an interesting life with a man she didn't love, or she could marry the man she loved and be stuck living on a farm in a tiny town. Simpson further complicated things by refusing to believe she didn't love him. Two short stories she wrote during this difficult time were called "Which Dear Charmer?" and "A Strayed Allegiance."

Before Montgomery could settle the matter, her grandfather Macneill died in 1898. Her grandmother could not manage the Cavendish house alone, so Montgomery moved back. Leard died the following year, leaving Montgomery heartbroken. The year after that, her father died in Saskatoon. It was a dark time, but she continued writing—and broke off her engagement to Simpson. In 1902 Montgomery managed to sell 25 short stories.

In 1903 the Cavendish Presbyterian Church hired a new minister: Ewan Macdonald—33, handsome, and interesting. As the church organist, Montgomery saw him frequently and in 1906 agreed to marry him. The engagement was to be kept secret, however, until her grandmother died; Montgomery could not leave the woman who had given her a home.

Anne Is Published

By this time Montgomery had been working on Anne of Green Gables for about a year. In 1907 an American company agreed to publish it as well as a sequel. While waiting for the first Anne book to be published, Montgomery wrote the second: Anne of Avonlea (1909).

The New York Times reviewer didn't like Anne of Green Gables. Anne, he said, was "altogether too queer." However, the public disagreed: the book sold 19,000 copies in its first five months of publication and would go on to sell more than 50 million copies in 36 languages. This was welcome news, of course, and the death of her grandmother in 1911 freed Montgomery to marry.

A Minister's Wife

As soon as she and Ewan Macdonald were married, Montgomery decided she had made another mistake. "Something that did not acknowledge him as master rose up in one frantic protest against the fetters which bound me," she wrote in her journal. But there was barely time to ponder how she felt. Montgomery and Macdonald settled in Leaskdale, Ontario, where she threw herself into being a minister's wife and writing the third Anne book: Chronicles of Avonlea. Within a few months she was pregnant. In June 1912 Chronicles of Avonlea was published; in July her son Chester was born. The pregnancy had been easy, but after a difficult second pregnancy, Montgomery gave birth to a stillborn son in August 1914, only a few days after World War I (1914–18) began. Neither tragedy stopped Montgomery from writing; it seemed nothing could stop that. Anne of the Island was published in July 1915. In October 1915 Montgomery gave birth to a second healthy son, Ewan Stuart (called Stuart).

Legal Battles and Hardship

At around the same time Montgomery began a 10-year court battle with her American publisher, L.C. Page of Boston. At one point Montgomery gave Page the rights to the Anne books they had already published. As payment she accepted $18,000. Almost immediately Page sold the Anne of Green Gables movie rights for $40,000. Montgomery's decision meant she missed out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in rights and royalties.

As if this weren't enough, Montgomery's husband was gradually falling prey to a mental illness that never fully left him. Under the stress of caring for him—and keeping his illness secret from his parish—Montgomery developed what would become a 20-year dependence on sleeping medication. After a second legal battle with her former publishers, Montgomery returned from the trial in Boston to learn her husband had suffered a relapse. He recovered only to face his own lawsuit; he had hit a man with his car, and the man sued for damages.

Through these hardships, Montgomery continued writing: six more Anne novels; other children's books, including the Emily of New Moon (1923-on) series; some less successful women's fiction; and a journal that eventually ran to millions of words. She went on speaking tours as well. Whenever her husband was ill, Montgomery ran the parish, hiring substitute preachers and attending to office duties.

In 1925 Montgomery's 13-year-old son, Chester, went to boarding school after struggling in primary school for years. In 1928 Montgomery wrote in her journal "something nasty and worrying that embittered life for many days" was going on with Chester. She didn't specify, but his classmates' calling him Rat likely indicates how they felt about him. Indeed her younger son so despised his older brother he moved out of their bedroom into a tent in the yard.

In the 1930s a neighbor of Montgomery's—Isabel Anderson—began stalking her. Montgomery was not only afraid of the young woman but feared the bad publicity that might result if Isabel made her obsession public. Isabel took to dropping by without notice and suggested moving in with the Macdonalds. As a minister's wife Montgomery could not bring herself to ignore this situation.

Chester was expelled from college. Jobless, he returned home, where he stole from his parents, his brother, guests, and even the maids. His life went steadily downhill, as did the lives of his parents. Montgomery's husband, dependent on drugs, needed regular stays in mental institutions. The Great Depression (1929–39) wiped out most of Montgomery's investments. Stuart failed his second year of medical school and had to repeat it.

A Sad Ending

The variety of Montgomery's troubles was as striking as their quantity. Not surprisingly, Montgomery's own health began to fail in the 1930s. In 1941 her income from royalties was the lowest it had been in 34 years, and she was addicted to sleeping medications. On April 24, 1942, one of her doctors came by the house to visit and found Montgomery dead in her bed. Abundant evidence suggested suicide, which the family later confirmed.

Anne of Green Gables had been written before Montgomery's serious problems began. A brilliantly optimistic book for the most part, Avonlea stayed sunny. Perhaps in creating a life she wished she could have led Montgomery brought into the world one of fiction's most lovable heroines.

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