Happy Books and a Sad Life—Lucy Maud Montgomery

Perhaps it is the gray skies of November that remind me of the dark lives that several of our most popular authors of cheerful books have led. Last year in November I wrote about Louisa May Alcott, born on November 29, 1832, whose Little Women books are still selling briskly, but whose own life was shadowed by family cares and disappointed dreams.

This year I want to remember the life of Lucy Maud Montgomery, born on November 30, 1874, whose book Anne of Green Gables has recently been revealed as the most frequently translated book in Canadian literature. Anne of Green Gables is the first of a series of books by Montgomery many of which are still in print and sell briskly around the globe. But the woman who wrote these cheerful stories led a life marred by deep depression, addiction to painkillers, and who died, quite possibly a suicide, at the age of 67.

Lucy Maud Montgomery

Besides being a popular author, Lucy Maud Montgomery can also be credited with being a driving force behind making Prince Edward Island, on the Eastern edge of Canada, a popular tourist spot. When Montgomery was born on the island, it was a quiet rural backwater populated mostly by descendants of Scottish immigrants. Montgomery’s parents both came from families that had lived on the island for generations and she had cousins and other relatives living close-by. Nonetheless, her childhood was a rather solitary one because her mother died when Maud was less than two years old and her father moved to Alberta and remarried when she was seven. Maud was raised mostly by her stern, elderly grandparents.

As soon as Maud started school, she was recognized as a bright and interested student. She loved reading began at a young age to tell stories and then to write them down. Her first story was published when she was a teenager. Despite her obvious intelligence and her success in school. Maud’s grandfather did not believe in educating women, so he would not pay for her to go to college. Despite, the lack of encouragement, Maud managed with the help of her grandmother,  to go to Prince of Wales College and then to Dalhousie University to get a teaching degree. She taught in several small, rural schools in Prince Edward’s Island, but she never lost her ambition to become a writer.

During the 1890s, when Maud was growing up, marriage was considered the only respectable career for a woman. Montgomery was attracted to several men and was engaged to at least one of them, but her ambition to be a writer never wavered. In 1908, she published her first book, Anne of Green Gables, which became an instant bestseller.

Maud’s troubles were not over, however, despite the popularity of her book. She had chosen to publish it with L.C. Page, an American publisher who took advantage of the young author by insisting on having her sign over rights to future books. These troubles continued for many years and Maud had to endure several lawsuits before she was finally able to win her cases against Page in 1928.

Meanwhile Maud struggled with her private life. She married a Presbyterian minister, Ewen MacDonald, and had three sons, one of whom died in infancy. MacDonald, like Maud herself was subject to periods of depression. During these times, his old-fashioned religious belief in predestination meant that he believed the entire family was doomed to go to hell. Both Maud and her sons must have found it difficult to live with such emotional pressures and as the boys grew up, they encountered both academic and personal problems in their careers and life plans.

For many years, Maud managed to conceal many of her problems. In public, she was able to function as a good speaker and appealing woman at social events. It was not until after her death that research by her biographer, Mary Rubio, revealed that both Maud and her husband suffered from drug addiction because of medications they took to control their depression. In 2020, Maclean’s Magazine published an article revealing the extent of their problems.  

During the 1920s and 1930s, Montgomery’s continued her successful career, but, like most women writers who attract a large audience, she was never accepted by the Canadian literary community as an important figure in the literary hierarchy.

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s life ended abruptly in 1942 when she died of an overdose of barbiturates. A note found by her bedside read: 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.

We cannot say for sure that  Maud Montgomery committed suicide, but her family believed that she had and Mary Rubio, the scholar who is the primary authority on her life, agrees with them. Perhaps we should honor Montgomery by reading not only  Anne of Green Gables, but also Mary Rubio’s biography Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings. Both books tell us a great deal about Canadian history and about a writer’s difficult life.

Canadian Provinces

3 thoughts on “Happy Books and a Sad Life—Lucy Maud Montgomery

  1. Adele, your post inspired me to find out why I keep seeing signs about LM Montgomery, whom I associated only with PEI, when I’m driving to and from our house north of Toronto. And now I know. Sad life, indeed, though it’s good that she got lots of recognition before she died. And there’s a sad parallel with Virginia Woolf, who also felt she was losing her mind again and couldn’t face another world war, so killed herself just over a year before Montgomery did.

    • I’m glad you were inspired to learn more about Maud Montgomery and the time she spent in Toronto. I hadn’t thought about the similarity with Virginia Woolf, but of course they did both die under similar circumstances and close together in time too. I think the outbreak of World War II was a terrible shock to both of them, which probably added to their bitter feelings.

  2. A sad life indeed! After reading the note she left behind at the time of her overdose death, I think it is indisputable she committed suicide. How else can that note be interpreted?

    Yet, tragic though her life was, I am glad that I was online when the notification of your latest post popped up, so that I was able to read it immediately. As always, you write with such sensitivity and insight about every subject you touch. Thank you!

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