There’s a general idea about artists and pain. Well, I should say there is a general idea about REVERED artists and pain. The books we study in school, the music that gets the best reviews, the movies that win all the awards; they tend to come from a place of great pain. We read Charlotte Bronte and lament how a woman who wrote about passionate love didn’t experience that type of love herself. We listen to Adele sing “Someone Like You” and we feel that intense pain of knowing a person we really loved has moved on most likely permanently. We see the movie Schindler’s List and know that it’s going to win a bunch of Oscars. There is this idea that the tortured artist produces the most worthy art, and that the art produced is as dark as the artist herself is. I wanted to write today about someone who experienced immense pain all of her life, and yet chose in her art to write about the happiness she had such a hard time experiencing. This woman is the author Lucy Maud Montgomery.
Lucy Maud Montgomery (called Maud) is probably best known for writing the Anne of Green Gables series, but she was incredibly prolific outside of that series. In fact she wrote 20 novels, 2 books of poetry, and over 500 short stories. While she died at the age of 67, the era she lived was an era of vast change. She was born in 1874 and died in 1942. She was born in a time when the horse and buggy was the main form of travel, kerosene lamps were the main source of light, but died in the midst of WWII. She is one of my favorite authors and has been since I was very young. Her writing can repeat the same tropes and themes over and over again, but this doesn’t make it any less charming and lovely. Besides her fiction Montgomery was also a prolific journal writer. She kept a journal all of her life and wrote in it so much that it took 5 volumes to publish them all. I have been working my way slowly through the first two journal volumes as well as an extensive biography about her called Lucy Maud Montgomery: A gift of Wings. What I find so inspiring about her is her ability to write some of the most beautiful and heartfelt literature while dealing with incredible depression.
When Montgomery died in 1942 it was said to be from natural causes. Only a few years ago her family came out with the truth; that she had actually killed herself by overdosing on pills. Her grand daughter Kate MacDonald revealed the real cause of death with the blessing of the rest of the family. She wrote “I have come to feel very strongly that the stigma surrounding mental illness will be forever upon us as a society until we sweep away the misconception that depression happens to other people, not us – and most certainly not to our heroes and icons.” In 1942 not only would Montgomery’s literary career been forever tarnished if her real cause of death was known, but the family she left behind would have dealt with tremendous ostracizing themselves. Maud struggled with depression her entire life and it finally got the better of her after many years of struggle.
What is the point of this story? Well, I am constantly hearing artists being praised for revealing the deep sadness within their soul in their work. But I found myself wondering if this is really as impressive as it seems? Isn’t it easy to write about pain and sadness if that is what you are feeling? I know that I have no trouble complaining, but when it comes time to express out loud or in writing happy things, I balk a little. This brings me back to L.M. Montgomery. I find it so uplifting that a woman who suffered intense pain most of her life managed to write things only full of happiness and life. In early 1900 she was working on Anne of Green Gables (which would not be published until 1908). In her journal entry for December 22, 1900 she writes
“When the dim wintry twilight comes down there is nothing to do but drop my work with a little sigh of weariness and creep away into a dark corner to nurse a bit of a heartache. If it were summer I could get away outside under the trees and the stars and my soul would be so filled with their beauty that pain would have no place…I walked around the square and then my resolution gave out and I came in. It was too deadly still and lonesome outside-I wanted to scream out to break the awful silence.”
Her depression hit her the hardest in the winter. In reading her journals one can see her slide from happiness to utter despair just by the changing of the months from warmer to colder. But what I find amazing is that the woman who felt this so deeply was having the main character of her first novel say things like this
“Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive–it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we know all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?
“It was November–the month of crimson sunsets, parting birds, deep, sad hymns of the sea, passionate wind-songs in the pines. Anne roamed through the pineland alleys in the park and, as she said, let that great sweeping wind blow the fogs out of her soul.”
There is a strength in being able to put aside the fears and troubles of your own life and write uplifting and happy things. L. M. Montgomery had tremendous strength. She took a life that was full of pain and loneliness and wrote novels that focused on joy and community. Maud’s mother died when she was very young and her father left her with her grandparents while he moved to western Canada. Her grandparents were very old and not very nurturing. Maud wrote in her one of her journals that in her whole life her grandmother never once told her she loved her.
And yet, when Maud wrote about an orphan named Anne coming to live with an older couple, she wrote about an older couple that is changed for the better by the presence of the strange and precocious girl. Is part of this wish fulfillment on the author’s part? Probably. I’m convinced that in being able to “right the wrongs” she perceived in her own life by her writing, Maud prolonged her life. She married a man she thought would take care of her and love her, but instead he ended up being a depressed person who was convinced he was eternally damned. (Lovely right?) So instead, all of the women in her novels that marry find men who are kind and strong in mind as well as body.
I stand behind my theory that her writing is what saved Maud from succumbing to her depression, because according to the last of her journals, near the end of her life she was struggling to put pen to paper. This had never happened before, and I am convinced this is what made her give up. If she couldn’t write to escape her depression, suicide was now the only way to escape it in her mind. Her granddaughter says that while she was never allowed to see the note Maud left she has been told that in it “she did ask for forgiveness” That line breaks my heart.
Lucy Maud Montgomery was not the most well known author of her age. She was not the best writer of her age either. What she was, was incredibly brave and strong. She took a life full of sadness and turned it into happiness for hundreds of readers. The lesson I take from her is to not take the easy way out. I don’t mean this in regards to her suicide, but rather creatively. In my writing it may be easier to focus on the negative. But to grow in my craft maybe I need to start taking my negatives and turn them into something positive. I will always love Lucy Maud Montgomery. Not just for writing some of my favorite books, but for being someone who was isolated, sad and filled with worry and dread for much of her life, but still managed to end her first novel with Anne Shirley saying these words:
“Dear old world’, she murmured, ‘you are very lovely, and I am glad to be alive in you.”
That’s a beautiful legacy to leave as an author. And it’s the goal of my writing ambitions; to bring a little sunshine and light into what is mostly a very dark and scary world.