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

The Climate Is Changing and So Must We—Fiona Hill’s vision

At the Glasgow Climate Conference this past week, world leaders signed an agreement to cut back on the use of coal and other fossil fuels. Mining, manufacturing and even farming have been revolutionized over the past fifty years and more mines and factories will close as a result of these international agreements. Jobs that used to be central to every modern economy are disappearing. We know that jobs must change, the question is, how can we help people to change so that they can find security in the new economy.

Few people have been able to observe the effects of changing economies on the lives of everyday people as closely as Fiona Hill, the author of There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century.

Fiona Hill

Hill was born in 1965 and grew up in County Durham in Northern England in a community that had been devastated by the closure of coal mines during the decades following the second World War. Although Hill’s family had been miners for generations, both her father and mother were hospital workers during most of the years when they were raising their children. The title of Hill’s book, There Is Nothing for You Here, comes from the advice given to Fiona and her sister as their parents realized that education was the key to moving ahead in the modern world.

During the 1980s when Hill was growing up, education was easier to obtain in England than in the United States or in many other countries. Government support enabled children to move from local council (public) schools to university. Publicly funded stipends meant that poverty was not an insurmountable obstacle for many students, but Hill clearly shows the obstacles that stood in the way of young people who wanted to move ahead. Expenses that were ignored by the government, such as the insufficient supply of books in local libraries and schools, the cost of transportation to cities where scholarship tests were available, and the prejudice shown against students who did not fit into the middle-class mold of most university applicants made entry into the university system very difficult. Hill describes her interview for entry into Oxford as one of the worst experiences of her life.

Despite all the difficulties of moving ahead, Hill managed to acquire a university education at St. Andrew’s where she found mentors who helped her find opportunities for further study. Later, she was able to attend Harvard and earn a PhD. She also spent time in Russia where she could observe the results of the post-cold war economic turmoil on the lives of Russian students. This varied background has given her a wide range of experience about the ways in which different countries are meeting the challenges brought by changing economies.

When Hill moved to the United States, eventually becoming an American citizen, and marrying an American, she observed many similarities between the way working class families coped with change in the two countries. The American Midwest, where her husband grew up, faced the loss of manufacturing jobs just as County Durham had. Towns in the Rust Belt of the Midwest were experiencing the same difficult adjustments as towns in the UK, except that class differences in America are complicated by racial differences which also affect people’s education and job training.

There Is Nothing for You Here is a dense book, filled with the stories of various individuals who are adjusting to a new world. Hill became an expert in National Security and relations with Russia and worked in the White House during the early years of the Trump Administration. She became well known after she gave testimony during Trump’s First Impeachment Trial where the focus was on relations between the United States and Russia. Now she has given us a broader picture of growing up in a changing world. Her book raises questions about how countries can help individuals find a path to changing their lives.

While leaders sign proclamations and declare goals, Fiona Hill reminds us that it is individuals who will bear the brunt of fitting into the new world. There Is Nothing for You Here points the way to some of the changes that are needed.     

From trick or treat to jab or swab—UNICEF at 75

If you grew up during the last half of the 20th century, you probably remember  Halloween as being about more than pumpkins and parties. Thousands of children celebrated the holiday by going out to “trick or treat for UNICEF”. These days we no longer see children clutching those small boxes to collect nickels and dimes to help children around the world. UNICEF however, continues to work for children.

Halloween box

United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. (UNICEF) is 75 years old this year. It was started under the auspices of the United Nations in 1946 at the end of World War II. One of its strongest proponents was Eleanor Roosevelt, who was then serving as the Chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. In 1948, together with Alan S. Watt, an Australian Representative, she submitted a report to the UN outlining the goals and activities of UNICEF up until that time and set out future plans for the organization.

Eleanor Roosevelt

UNICEF is the world’s largest organization dedicated to children’s welfare, but like most charitable efforts, it has not been without controversy. During its earliest years, when its efforts were aimed primarily at European children who had suffered during the European war, there was almost universal support for its efforts. Now that UNICEF has focused most of its efforts on developing countries, there have been more issues raised.

UNICEF has been criticized by some people for having a policy of helping to keep orphaned children in their birth countries to be raised by extended families or communities. Some groups that support international adoptions continue to oppose this policy. UNICEF has also lost some supporters because it encourages the use and distribution of contraceptives to control population growth and has supported safe abortions for women. These positions led the Vatican to stop its support of UNICEF.

Throughout its history, UNICEF has encouraged vaccinations for children. Now, during the Covid-19 pandemic it is working with the World Health Organization and with governments throughout the world to provide vaccinations in the developing world. It’s hard to think of a more worthy project.

2021 is the 75th anniversary of the founding of UNICEF and time to celebrate the immense amount of good the organization has done over these years. While the trick-or-treat for UNICEF boxes may have disappeared from our streets, this Halloween would be a good time to give a donation to the organization that has helped so many children throughout the world for almost a century.

The Stenographer Who Saved a Genius– Anna Grigoryevna Dostoevskaya

During the mid-nineteenth century, Russia was a part of Europe but felt very separate from it. During that time, Russian middle and upper classes, women were proud of having more rights than they would have in other European countries. The right to an education was particularly important and a strong feminist movement grew up. Women were encouraged to educate themselves and become self-supporting. Surprisingly enough, one of the most liberating career paths for women was learning stenography. This was the path chosen by Anna Grigoryeva Dostoevskaya, a woman who was destined to play an important role in Russian literature.

Anna was born in 1848 in St. Petersburg. Her family encouraged her to be independent and read widely. She graduated with high honors from high school and decided to become a stenographer, one of the few careers in which a woman could earn a living. It was a stroke of luck when one of her teachers recommended her for a job with Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who was already one of her favorite authors. He had published several articles and two novels during the 1840s, but his career had been interrupted when he was sentenced to five years of exile in Siberia.

At the time Dostoyevsky met Anna, he was struggling to rebuild his career. His first wife had died, leaving him with a stepson to raise, his reputation as a writer had faded, and he was struggling to fulfill his contract to complete a novel called The Gambler. He called upon a friend to help him find a stenographer and luckily the friend recommended Anna, who had been one of his students.

Eventually, with Anna’s patient help, Dostoyevsky completed his novel and was able to fulfill his contract. During the weeks they worked together, he also fell in love with his faithful helper  and proposed to her despite the twenty-year difference in their ages. During the years before meeting Anna, Dostoyevsky had drifted into a life of gambling, which led to debts that interfered with his writing career. No one could have predicted that a 19-year-old stenographer would save him from his gambling addiction and his precarious life, but that is what happened.

With the help of Anna’s mother, who agreed to pawn the girl’s dowry and give the money to the newly- weds, Fyodor and Anna were able to leave Russia and spend four years in other European countries. Anna’s example of hard work and willing sacrifice inspired Dostoyevsky to continue writing despite the pull of the ever-tempting gambling casinos. Anna tried hard to understand his addiction and even spent a secret day at the casino alone so that she could better understand how the insidious promise of quick riches could tempt almost anyone to continue playing.

Throughout the early years of their marriage, Anna helped her husband continue his writing. She understood his need to gamble and helped him through the difficult years until they were able to move back to St. Petersburg and pay off their debts. During the rest of Dostoyevsky’s life, Anna managed his writing career, even starting a publishing company to sell his books. When he died in 1881, Anna was only 35 years old, but she dedicated the rest of her life to preserving his books  and his memory.

For many years, Anna’s role in Dostoyevsky’s life has been downplayed in accounts of his life, but a recent biography has now presented a more balanced view of her importance. The Gambler Wife: A True Story of Love, Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoyevsky by Andrew Kaufman (Riverhead Books 2021) offers a fresh view of the creative partnership between these two remarkable people.

The departure of a world leader—Angela Merkel

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall, which had separated Russian dominated East Berlin from West Berlin for 28 years, was suddenly breached. Thousands of East Berliners rushed to push through the crumbling, graffiti-laden wall to see the glories of West Berlin. Most of these people hurried to the famous department stores to find the lavish goods that had long been unavailable to “Ossies” as East Berliners were called. But according to an article in the New Yorker, Angela Merkel, a young chemist in East Germany,  did not participate in the rush for luxury goods. She retained her quiet, unobtrusive habits—took one look at West Berlin and then went home.

No one at this time would have predicted that she would become the most successful European politician of this century. All the important German politicians before her had been large, dominating white men. How could an unprepossessing, quiet woman ever replace them? But replace them she did.

Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel has always been very different from most politicians. She grew up in East Germany and rather than participating in social actions, she studied science. Eventually, she earned a PhD in chemistry at Leipzig University. It was not until the reunification of Germany that she became active in public life. Slowly and usually unnoticed, she became a major force in Germany and then in the European Union.

Merkel became overwhelmingly popular in Germany and throughout Europe. But when the migrant crisis occurred in 2013, she sacrificed some of her popularity when she welcomed migrants into Germany. Despite intense pressure from both the radicals and conservatives, she stuck to her guns. Eventually the crisis eased and Europe grew more prosperous and more united. Although many problems remain, we should acknowledge how much she accomplished and how much the world has suffered from not allowing women to take their place as leaders.   

As Margaret Thatcher once said: “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman”. So let’s give a cheer for the quiet politician who kept the EU going through some of its most difficult days—Angela Merkel.

The Good She Did Should Live On—Marie Stopes

A lot of attention has been paid in recent weeks to the anti-abortion law passed in Texas. This is the law that enables an individual to profit by denouncing anyone they believe is helping someone to obtain an abortion. Legislators claim this will cut down on the number of abortions performed in Texas, yet research and experience have shown that the best way to reduce the number of abortions is to provide information about contraception. But Texas, according to a National Institutes of Health report, is not one of the 20 states that the requires schools to offer information about contraception. You have to wonder whether the Texas legislators are seriously interested in reducing abortions at all.

As we hear about the ways in which some conservatives are trying to do away with the knowledge and services that help people control their fertility, we should remember how difficult it was to start making that information available to anyone. The use of contraception makes it possible for women to play a variety of roles in the world. Yet, over the years, many people in public positions tried to withhold information instead of sharing it with those who need it. It’s about time to start honoring the women (and some men) who finally started to tell people how they could manage their sexuality and live more fulfilling lives.

Marie Stopes was an unlikely figure to play a role in this field, but in fact she played an important role. Born in Scotland in 1880, and educated in England, she was a paleobotanist. What is a paleobotanist? Someone who studies the way plants have evolved and developed through the centuries. She became the youngest person in Britain to receive a Doctor of Science degree in 1904 and became one of the first women to be elected a fellow of the Linnean Society of London.

Marie Stopes

During the first years of her career, Stopes devoted herself to science, but her interests expanded a she grew older. In 1918, she published a book called Married Love, which was one of the first books to give men and women frank and explicit details about sex. The book was a great success and sold widely throughout Britain and all of Europe.

Marie Stopes opposed abortion and strongly advocated that an expanded knowledge about contraception would eliminate the need for abortions. She founded the first birth control clinic in Britain and edited the newsletter Birth Control News. Few people have done so much to benefit women’s health and progress.

Despite all the good work she did for many people, Marie Stopes is often left unmentioned in histories of birth control. She was not a perfect person. At times, she advocated eugenics, a belief that society would be improved if people of low physical and mental health did not have children. Although she herself was not a racist, many people who advocated eugenics did believe that the white race was somehow better than other races. Today these beliefs have been rejected by scientists and social leaders, but Marie Stopes’ reputation has been permanently damaged.

Even though Stopes was not always right, I still believe we can honor the good work she did at a time when very few other people were willing to educate the public about birth control. We ought to acknowledge the good that she did and try to forgive her mistakes.   

Labor Day 2021—to Buy or to Boycott?

Another Labor Day has rolled around. The online world is filled with enticing invitations to buy clothes, cars, electronics and whatever else might catch your eye. It’s hard to remember that Labor Day was originally meant to honor the workers who made all the stuff that’s now for sale. Instead the day has become just part of a long holiday weekend to mark the end of summer and the beginning of the school year.

But 56 years ago, on September 8, 1965, an important movement that would change agricultural workers’ lives forever, was started in California—the Delano Grape Strike. At that time, most agricultural workers in California were either Filipino or Hispanic immigrants. Their wages were below the federal minimum wage of $1.20 an hour and working conditions were abysmal. Hours were long and there were no required breaks. Often water was unavailable despite the heat; housing was inadequate with many workers forced to sleep in barren shacks without beds or toilet facilities.

A group of Filipino workers were the first to revolt and demand better conditions. Soon they joined with Hispanic leaders. The two groups worked together to begin one of the biggest and most effective labor movements in the United States. This led eventually to the founding of the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW) and grew into one of America’s most important labor unions.  

Labor Day is a good time to remember some of the people who made that change possible. And to remember that change occurred only because of shoppers across the country who were willing to boycott California grapes.

The two co-founders of the National Farm Workers Association were Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Today I would like to pay tribute to Dolores Huerta, who is still alive at the age of 91 and still continues her work.

Huerta was born in New Mexico in 1930 and grew up mostly in Stockton, California. During her high school years, she felt discriminated against by teachers because of her Hispanic background. After she went to college and became a teacher, she noticed that many children in her class were suffering from hunger and poverty. She decided that activism was more important than teaching, so she co-founded  Stockton’s Community Service Organization

It was through her work as an activist that Huerta met Cesar Chavez and began working with him. She worked with him to organize the 1965 Delano strike of 5,000 grape workers. When the strike finally ended after five long years, she was the lead negotiator as the workers’ contract was finally written and signed. 

Dolores Huerta

In 1973, Huerta led another consumer boycott of grapes that resulted in the ground-breaking California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which allowed farm workers to form unions and bargain for better wages and conditions. This change revolutionized the lives of farm workers in California and other states.

Labor organizing is not easy work and in 1988, Huerta was badly beaten by police during a peaceful demonstration in San Francisco. Nonetheless, her activism continued. In 2002 she founded the Dolores Huerta Foundation which has continued the work to which she has devoted her life. The list of honors she has received is too long to include here, but you can find them in the Wikipedia article about her life.

Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez, and the other activists who fought to make life better for workers would not have succeeded without the support of everyday shoppers who refused to buy grapes during the strike. Enough people supported the effort to ensure that change happened. That’s something to remember as we move into another Labor Day. Perhaps as we browse through the enticing ads for ways to spend money, we should give some thought to the workers who produce those products. Ethical shopping—supporting the fair treatment of workers around the world is well worth considering. Boycotts work. They have made life better for many workers. Think before you click that “buy” button.  

Leaving Afghanistan—one more time

For the past week American TV screens have been crowded with views of people trying to leave Afghanistan.  Crowds scramble to board the departing planes at the Kabul Airport. The pictures are harrowing. The panic of terrified people fleeing from the incoming Taliban fighters can be felt by viewers thousands of miles away.

This isn’t the first time that foreigners have been ousted from the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. Almost two hundred years ago the British invaded the country. They too were chased out, and the ordeal of their leaving was recorded by a brave British Army wife, Florentia Sale. Last year I wrote an account of her ordeal in this blog. Perhaps we can learn something about the folly of foreign wars by revisiting her experience.

As wise men have reminded us ‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’

Maria Montessori–a Teacher for the World

During these waning weeks of summer, thousands of children are returning to school. Many parents struggle with questions about how the distance learning experience of last year has affected them. Will the re-entry into school go well? This is a good time to remember the words of Maria Montessori who wrote: One test of the correctness of educational procedure is the happiness of the child.

Who was Maria Montessori? She was a woman who influenced early education throughout the world. But her path to education and to becoming the founder of a worldwide network of schools was an unexpected one.

Doctor Maria Montessori

Born in 1870 in Chiaravalle, Italy, Montessori entered a technical school as a teenager, intending to become an engineer. After graduating from that program, she decided that she would prefer to be a physician and entered medical school in Rome. Both of these careers were unlikely choices for a woman in Italy at that time, but Montessori never seemed to consider the more usual female path of giving up her career to become a wife and mother.

Medical school was difficult for her because she was a woman and was therefore not allowed to view a naked body in the same room as male students. She had to do her studies in the laboratory by herself after other students had left. During medical school, Montessori specialized in the treatment of children with physical and mental disabilities that made it difficult for them to benefit from conventional education. After she completed her degree, she continued to work with these children and to study treatments available.

Maria Montessori’s only child, a son, was born two years after she graduated from medical school. If she and her partner had married, she would have had to resign from her professional work, so the two of them agreed to remain unmarried but to be faithful to each other. Unfortunately, her partner was pressured into marriage by his family, so Montessori was left with the full responsibility of raising their son. She was forced to allow the child to be raised by other people and was not in contact with him until he became an adolescent. In later life he worked with her in setting up her schools and promoting her educational ideas.

As Montessori studied children and how they learned, she came to realize that methods devised to teach children with mental disabilities would be beneficial to all children. She devised teaching materials and set up learning environments so that children could work on their own and learn from one another. Montessori also continued lecturing and writing and her work became well-known in Europe and beyond. Many of her suggestions are couched as “rules” for adults working with children:

Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.

The greatest sign of success for a teacher… is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.

Although not many children across the world attend Montessori schools, the ideas and practices that Maria Montessori pioneered have affected education for many of us.

Frances Trollope—a Troublesome Visitor

We often hear stories of immigrants who came to America hoping to find a country superior to the one they left. Many settled in the new land and became enthusiastic American patriots. Some histories, however, tell the stories of immigrants who came for practical reasons and some who discovered that America did not live up to their expectations. Frances Trollope was one of these disillusioned immigrants. She came, observed, and then went back home. Worse than that, she wrote about her experiences in a book that outraged many Americans.

Frances Trollope, born Frances Milton in 1779, was a well-educated Englishwoman, daughter of a minister, wife of a barrister, and the mother of five young children. Her husband was not a wealthy man, and when Frances heard about a new idealistic community being set up in America, she decided that she could educate her sons inexpensively there and live a comfortable life. In 1827, she packed up several of her children and headed off for the new country. The plan was for her husband to follow later with their younger children.

Frances Trollope

Trollope’s idea had grown out of her friendship with Fanny Wright, a radical reformer who planned to build a new settlement in Tennessee where enslaved Americans could earn money to buy their freedom. The hope was that slavery would disappear and that slaveowners would not suffer any great loss of income.

When Frances Trollope arrived in America, she had learned enough about slavery to be a strong abolitionist. What she did not know, however, was that she would be surprised and shocked by the everyday habits of many Americans. She observed, took notes, and later wrote about what she had seen. Several years later, she published her first book: Domestic Manners of the Americans, which became both a best seller and one of the most hated books of the time. Her comments on the dining habits of the men she met on a river boat journey were often quoted by both friends and critics:

…the voracious rapidity with which the viands were seized and devoured …the loathsome spitting, from the contamination of which it was absolutely impossible to protect our dresses; the frightful manner of feeding with their knives, till the whole blade seemed to enter into the mouth; and the still more frightful manner of cleaning the teeth afterwards with a pocket knife…

None of Trollope’s plans for life in America worked out as she had hoped. Fanny Wright’s community in Nashoba, Tennessee, was a failure and Trollope was not able to settle there with her family. She took her sons to Cincinnati, Ohio and tried to earn a living by writing and lecturing but was not successful. She was not sympathetic to the American culture and offended many people by noting the discrepancies between American ideals and the behavior she observed.  

In 1831, Trollope moved back to England and lived the rest of her life in Europe. She traveled around the continent and wrote travel books about Belgium, France, and Germany. She also began writing novels and by the time she died in 1863, had published 100 books.  Her books were very popular, and during her lifetime she was considered one of the outstanding novelists of the 19th century. Modern critics, however, have been critical of her work, and most of her books have become unavailable except in specialized collections.

Two of Frances Trollope’s sons became writers. Thomas Adolphus Trollope was a well-known historian and respected in his time, but Anthony Trollope, the younger son, outshone him. He was the author of several series of books that have been turned into BBC drama series. His Barchester Chronicles and The Pallisers have made him the most famous Trollope of them all.