Like most Canadian women, I was an early and avid fan of L.M. Montgomery, and re-reading a couple of her books during the process of writing my current novel assured me that her work does stand the test of time. I’d only read a few excerpts from her journals, though, and I wanted to read at least the first volume because Montgomery attended Dalhousie University, just as her character Anne does in Anne of the Island, and as one of my characters in That Forgetful Shore does at about the same era. When I reread Anne of the Island I complained in my review that Montgomery didn’t include nearly enough details about college life in that era to please me, but there are plenty more in her journal, even though she was only there a year, so it was a valuable resource.
But it’s so much more than that. For a lover of Montgomery’s novels, the journals provide a great glimpse into the mind of their creator. So many things about Anne and Emily and her other heroines are obviously drawn from life — many of her turns of phrase, her love for nature descriptions, even complete sentences and paragraphs — are lifted straight from the novels and placed in the mouths of various characters. As the first volume of the journal continues past Montgomery’s girlhood and into her young womanhood, the tone becomes more sombre and the mood is definitely more Emily than Anne — those long and difficult years at home that occupy so much of Emily’s Quest are very obviously drawn from life. But where Emily’s fictional story ends triumphantly with marriage to her childhood sweetheart Teddy, the first volume of the journal ends far less romantically, though also with marriage on the horizon. Anyone familiar with Montgomery’s biography knows that her marriage did not bring much happiness into her life, and it’s almost heartbreaking to leave the journal at this point, with some of the future troubles already foreshadowed (Montgomery was clearly well aware that her future husband was not the love of her life, and moreover she already knew he was subject to even more severe bouts of depression than she was herself, so that even if you don’t know the rest of the story you can guess this is not going to be happily-ever-after).
One thing I found interesting is that the theme of falling in love with a childhood friend — someone whose value you don’t perhaps fully realize till you’re an adult — is a persistent motif in Montgomery’s novels, and there were at least two young men in her own girlhood who could easily have served as models for Gilbert Blythe, Teddy Kent or Hilary “Jingle” Gordon. One wonders if she wrote those kinds of romances (where the childhood friend is often chosen over the tall, dark, romantic stranger) because she regretted not having ended up with one of those young men from her past. It’s a theme that might well come up in the later journals, but so far I haven’t gotten around to them — probably because I think there will be a lot less of the lighter moments and far more of the darker ones in later volumes. These journals are a wonderful read for anyone interested in Montgomery’s writing and anyone interested in a social history of Canadian women in the early 1900s.