Collecting the Unknown Montgomery

Reviewed by Ceilidh Hart

The first two volumes of the L. M. Montgomery Library, edited by Benjamin Lefebvre, A Name for Herself: Selected Writings, 1891-1917 and A World of Songs: Selected Poems, 1894-1921, make two important and connected contributions to Montgomery studies: first, they make available more of her writing, showing her diversity and prolificacy; and, second, they balance the overwhelming critical attention (still) paid to her fiction:

The attention given to [Anne of Green Gables] and to her book-length fiction more broadly obscures the more than one thousand items that Montgomery published in periodicals over a period of half a century, from 1890 to her death in 1942: these include five hundred short stories, five hundred poems, and a range of texts that the compilers of Lucy Maud Montgomery: A Preliminary Bibliography (1986) refer to as “Miscellaneous Pieces.”

The point Lefebvre makes is clear: “[A] significant proportion of her literary output remains largely unknown.” In seeking to redress this problem, these volumes collect much of that periodical work, largely not collected elsewhere, and in his framing material, Lefebvre addresses the multiple reasons for its relative obscurity, including complications of gender, genre, and the literary marketplace.

The first volume, A Name for Herself: Selected Writings, 1891-1917, presents a remarkable number of diverse pieces of writing that are, as Lefebvre explains, “[n]ot [s]hort [s]tories and [n]ot [p]oems” (xvi). The volume is divided into three parts, and its organization, along with the supporting preface and afterword, trace Montgomery’s development as a writer, exploring the choices she made with regard to what she wrote and how she presented herself, including how she reflected publicly on the trajectory of her career and her creative methods. The pieces here range from an early, award-winning school assignment, to a playlet she contributed to her college student newspaper, to items from her “Around the Table” column in the Halifax Daily Echo. The final section ends with a new edition of her memoir The Alpine Path which Lefebvre explains “returns to the original magazine text and restores the twenty photographs and first-person captions that Montgomery included in that text.” Readers will find this volume a treasure trove.

The second volume, A World of Songs: Selected Poems, 1894-1921, contains fifty poems, most never previously collected. It is, Lefebvre suggests, “a first step in a major reconsideration” of her poetry, and significant given that Montgomery apparently found this genre the “most creatively satisfying.” Because she published close to five hundred poems throughout her career, I would have appreciated more insight from Lefebvre in terms of his editorial choices here, especially considering that a Collected Poems is set to come out as part of the Library series. Nevertheless, the poems he includes show Montgomery’s surprising range and speak nicely to the issues he raises. The focus in this book is more firmly on material concerns: the money she made from her poetry compared with her other work (Lefebvre shows her careful accounting of income), and how financial considerations likely shaped her choices. And in this volume, Lefebvre tackles the question of literary value more explicitly than he does in the first. In his afterword, he seeks to complicate the picture of Montgomery the poet—who has widely been considered “minor” to this point—by re-centring the discussion on the particular demands of the literary marketplace at the time and on the complex trajectory of her poetry writing, including her keen (if not overt) attention to assessing her own work. Taken together, both volumes explore the fascinating tension between Montgomery’s private and professional selves. Drawing on her journals in introducing and situating the texts he collects, and without detracting from the creative work the library is meant to showcase, Lefebvre provocatively opens up the discussion about literary celebrity and author branding.

Throughout, Lefebvre shows careful and meticulous research (I enjoyed reading about his archival adventures as he sought to connect Montgomery to the pseudonym J. C. Neville). And while his expertise is on display, he generously identifies the considerable work that remains to be done exploring the richness of Montgomery’s oeuvre: he speaks not just of the first step he takes here in reconsidering her work, but also of the likelihood of new work being uncovered.

Lefebvre’s work on these volumes, to say nothing of his other Montgomery-related projects, demonstrates an intellectual curiosity and a commitment to scholarship in early Canadian literature that will guide students and scholars of Montgomery’s work for years to come.

This review “Collecting the Unknown Montgomery” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 26 Aug. 2020. Web.

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