As True a Picture
Reviewed by Cecily Devereux
To prepare Remembering Lucy Maud Montgomery Alexandra Heilbron—former editor of The Avonlea Traditions Chronicle, a P.E.I.-based magazine for readers of Montgomery’s fiction, and editor of the very large Lucy Maud Montgomery Album (2000)—interviewed thirty-two people who were related to, worked for, lived near, were taught in Sunday school by or had some contact with Montgomery. Their memories "offer one more piece of the puzzle that was Maud," supplementing the extraordinarily constructed life-narrative of the journals and the official reports allowed by Montgomery in interviews and articles in her own lifetime with some information about how she was actually perceived by others. Some of the accounts in this collection soften the rigid and self-conscious figure who dominates the journals: stories of Montgomery’s generosity, her humour, her politeness to fans who turned up at the door and her work as a sympathetic teacher in Sunday school classes present a much more likeable person than the Montgomery of the journals. Some accounts counter the mythology of Montgomery in other ways: for instance, those who have imputed to Montgomery her many characters’ opposition to corporal punishment for children will be surprised to learn that she carried a "black stick" for disciplining her two sons. The same might be said of the handful of accounts here that indicate something about the Macdonald home: one visitor to the house in Toronto describes a meal during which no one spoke to her; a former housekeeper notes that the entire family would pass a meal in silence, all reading at the table. Such information may not add to the understanding of Montgomery’s creative work, but it is nonetheless intriguing—although it could usefully be contextualized or balanced here by some well-positioned editorial commentary, which is somewhat skimpy.
While this book is clearly not intended to appeal to a tabloid fascination with the lives of the famous, it does occasionally threaten to move into this territory. Some of the questions seem weighty and intrusive. ("What was Maud like? Did she have you on her lap, hug you?"—in other words, was she affectionate or not? Did she yearn for a daughter, and compensate for that lack by "adopting" girls? These questions could be framed much more directly.) Some, such as those which ask people who were only children at the time what they remember of the relationship between Montgomery and her husband Ewan Macdonald, seem misdirected. Some questions seem rather unproductive: there is a series of questions about baking that seem to be designed to reveal the truth about Montgomery’s work in the kitchen, and several interviewees are asked how Montgomery dressed. Many of the remembrances here, moreover, do little service to her eldest son Chester or to her husband; without adequate editorial commentary and framing, it is not clear how these accounts function in the book as a whole, except to reinforce the representations assembled by Montgomery in her journals. The interviews occupy about two-thirds of the book. The final chapter presents ten early- to mid-twentieth century articles about Montgomery, mostly from English-Canadian newspapers and magazines. It is certainly useful to bring these pieces together (despite a certain repetitiveness in their accounts of Montgomery), but their relation to the interviews is rather tenuous, since they are not, for the most part, "remembrances." Indeed, perhaps only her correspondent Ephraim Weber’s 1942 piece from the Dalhousie Review falls into this category. It is difficult to say how this book might function as a resource for scholarly research into the life and work of Montgomery: like The Lucy Maud Montgomery Album, it is something of a hybrid, a collection based on research but directed largely at a non-academic readership. Nonetheless, Remembering Lucy Maud Montgomery is sometimes compelling reading, and the collection as a whole will certainly be of interest to any reader of Montgomery’s journals and her novels.
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- Regulated Anger by Coral Ann Howell
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- An Ultraliterary Life by L. M. Findlay
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MLA: Devereux, Cecily. As True a Picture. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #178 (Autumn 2003), Archives and History. (pg. 138 - 139)
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