For many years I was a literal card-carrying member of the former ‘Anne of Green Gables Society,’ which was based in the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island where ‘Maud’ (as the author was known to her friends) grew up and based all but one of her novels. Back then, being a member included the receipt of a regular paper publication called ‘Kindred Spirits Magazine,’ which had articles from the island, reflections of visitors, poetry and stories from members, and extracts from Maud’s twenty novels, five hundred poems, short stories and copious diary entries. It was a superb publication, and although printing costs led to a discontinuation of the previous format, you can still find the remaining commercial evolution of it today at http://www.annestore.ca
To my mind, L M Montgomery is one of the two greatest female authors of all time, along with Louisa May Alcott who wrote the four books in the ‘Little Women’ series.
Both writers had a phenomenal ability to deeply touch the souls of their readership, and evidenced a sensitivity, love of nature, beauty and social justice which speaks directly to the inner condition of their audience.
At a more personal level, I also find their works inspirational due to the author’s well-documented sensitivity and fearless portrayal of sensitive characters. And all this decades before the scientific studies and research on Sensory Processing Sensitivity took place.
Louisa May Alcott features two classic HSP characters in the ‘Little Women’ books, namely Jo and Beth March. Jo is a classic HSS (High Sensation Seeking) extravert HSP, and the tragic Beth, my personal favourite, a LSS (Low Sensation Seeking) introvert one.
When it comes to L M Montgomery and especially the Anne books, HSP’s abound. Perhaps most beautifully, male HSP’s also feature in a way that demonstrates the non-sensitive male cultural stereotype and bias and its effect on the male HSP’s of the story. Nowhere is this more beautifully demonstrated than in the last book, ‘Rilla of Ingleside’ which is seen largely through the eyes of Anne Shirley’s youngest daughter. One of Anne’s three sons, Walter, is already introduced as a sensitive child in the previous book, ‘Rainbow Valley.’ In this story the children are growing up. Then in the next comes the outbreak of the First World War and Canada’s involvement in that horrendous conflict. For a long time, Walter struggles with the idea of signing-up to fight, after his elder brother Jem joins the army. This is not because he is afraid, as is suspected, but because of his hatred of violence and ugliness born out of his sensitive nature. In a beautiful discussion with his adored youngest sister, Rilla, she nails his HSP nature in the most breath taking way:
‘Walter, one time I heard father say that the trouble with you was a sensitive nature and a vivid imagination. You feel things before they really come – feel them all alone when there isn’t anything to help you bear them – to take away from them. It isn’t anything to be ashamed of.’
Tragically he joins the fight after the sinking of the Lusitania, and is killed during the battle of Courcelette.
Those of a reflective and imaginative nature are referred to in the last four books as ‘the race of Joseph,’ which is a great label for folk who can relate to such experiences.
Maud was herself quite clearly an HSP, and often described as sensitive, highly-strung and with a rich and imaginative inner life. In the last of the Anne books, the ‘golden years’ of Prince Edward Island slowly yield to the introduction of the motor car and moving pictures. A profound sense of loss is felt, as with the inaugural ride in their first motor car, Anne, Gilbert and her family already get a sense of the world speeding up.
In a 1924 letter to G B Macmillan, Maud writes of one of her real-life return visits to Prince Edward Island:
‘We spent many afternoons on the sandshore. There’s nothing in all the world like that shore. But one poetry had vanished from the gulf forever. It is never now dotted with hundreds of white sails. The fishermen now have motor boats which chug-chug out in the morning and chug-chug back at night and are not on speaking terms with romance.’
It is a tragic fact that the phenomenal contribution of L M Montgomery to literature was not widely recognised until the latter half of the twentieth century, even though a 1947 poll, five years after her death at age 67, showed her to be regarded on a par with Charles Dickens as a treasured writer.
Maud had her fair share of tragedy in life, including the loss of her mother by the age of two, one stillborn child out of three sons, horrible legal battles with her publisher and nursing her church minister husband through severe bouts of depression while trying to preserve his good name in a world that really didn't understand what was often termed ‘Religious Melancholia.’
Despite a lifelong love of her native Prince Edward Island, Montgomery only managed to get back there for sporadic vacations after her marriage, instead living at various locations around Ontario where her husband ministered. As a minister’s wife, she had the unenviable job of breaking the news of bereavement to families in their parish during the First World War. By the time the Second World War commenced, the combined strain of all the afore-mentioned situations saw her suffer from a series of nervous breakdowns.
In October 1941, several months before her death, she wrote the following to her nephew James Campbell on PEI, fearing that he might be pressured to fight, and that she might lose her son Stuart to the conflict:
…I am very ill and will never see Park Corner again.
Don’t let them stampede you into going to war. You are needed at home. Park Corner would go forever if you went… You must not go to war. Tell them you are the only son at home and your mother would not live to see you come back. I can hardly write – my nerves are so terrible. Stuart is intern in hospital but I suppose they will take him too. I think my mind is going.
Rest from worry is what I need and I cannot get that anywhere. I am done.’
Broken of spirit, she died on April 24th, 1942 and was buried back on Prince Edward Island at a spot she had picked out at Cavendish Church, from where could be seen many of her favourite sites that inspired the fictitious and internationally loved village of Avonlea.
Thankfully a significant portion of the island, including Lover’s Lane, The Lake of Shining Waters, Silver Bush and Green Gables have been preserved as a national park, and attract millions of visitors every year.
Lucy Maud Montgomery created many beloved heroines in her works such as Pat, Emily and perhaps most famous of all the fiery, independent, red-haired Anne Shirley.
Her legacy is an inspiration. A window into her soul and a way to explore the depths of our own in a way no other literature can. It is writing that transcends writing.
For myself, as a sensitive man, children’s author and undoubtedly one of ‘The Race of Joseph,’ her work is a treasure and pearl beyond the greatest price that I will hold to my breast until the day I die.
I’m so glad I got to spend this month with Anne…