The Heroine’s Audience

Originally published in 1992, invigorating both academic approaches as well as readers’ receptions, The Fragrance of Sweet Grass has been reissued with a new preface by the author. Now regarded as a cornerstone of contemporary Montgomery scholarship, Epperly’s study helped to situate an undervalued and misapprehended Canadian woman novelist within the changing attitudes of both university studies and a national imagination reevaluating its own literary canon in the early nineties. Indeed, Epperly’s notes on Adrienne Clarkson’s positive relationship to the Anne novels are particularly telling of how Montgomery’s legacy is one of Canadian self-recognition beyond literary figure. So by specifically directing our attention to the genre conventions of Romance, and Montgomery’s feminist confrontations with their limitations and inhibitions, Epperly argues that “Montgomery’s novels call into question and play the concepts that continue to shape the female of the 1990s as much as the female of the turn of the century.”

Heroine has important thematic import in Epperly’s repositioning of Montgomery’s major characters not as passive vignettes, caught up in the moody happenstances of romance, but instead as women of agency, self-awareness, and with a capacity for voice. In its time, Epperly’s assessments helped to revive Anne and Emily, among others of Montgomery’s female protagonists, not as sentimental props in need of rescue but rather as complex personalities negotiating the tensions between psychology, sexism, and irrepressible individuality.

The newly written preface for this reprint offers us Epperly’s own informative self-reflections, as both a reader and scholar of Montgomery for decades, as she contemplates what has changed in the cultural and intellectual interpretation of Montgomery in the time since she began her research. Epperly notes that Montgomery studies continue to expand, rather than collapse into rehearsed interpretations, especially on the relationship between gender and genre. As Epperly invites, “there are always new contexts and new questions to explore”; and she surveys admiringly the critical productivity of the last two decades in what has been a transformation in Montgomery studies, with both literary implications and political ramifications.

Given how much archival material has appeared since 1992—the preface begins with a wry observation on the dearth of publications she had to work with back then—Epperly credits a great number of researchers for making available Montgomery’s private material, such as her diaries, and the insight and information they might provide. Anthologies of critical essays have been a major force in opening up critical discussion, absolutely, but so has been the release of accessible versions of Montgomery’s private papers.

Along with the publication of the journals, Benjamin Lefebvre’s comprehensive three-volume set of The L. M. Montgomery Reader is a crucial scholarly intervention of this sort. His work here concludes with the third volume, entitled A Legacy in Review: a compendium of popular criticism, commentary, and reviews—collected from over eight countries—that reveal the contradicting and changing reception of Montgomery’s work. Lefebvre’s overall achievement in this Reader series is a masterful compilation of archival adeptness and exquisite editing that addresses, through collation, crucial source materials for specialists in Canadian literature and history, through the iconic personage of Montgomery, as she saw herself and as others saw her work.

Lefebvre brings an annotated focus on the “coverage Montgomery’s books received in these reviews in the context of ads, notices, and best seller lists” which Lefebvre informatively addresses within the pragmatics of print media and bookselling. Lefebvre’s selections depict ways of engagement and influence with the broader reading public in the fashioning of taste and opinion in regards to Montgomery’s target audience and how her works were positioned for reception. That Montgomery herself kept a scrapbook of clippings from many of her reviews over her career—“on occasion she also recorded in these scrapbooks moments of resistance in ink”—is part of the interesting authorial reconsiderations she reveals through her own self-indexing as evidenced in this collection. Amidst legal woes, personal problems, and an expanding readership built on expectations of previous novels, Montgomery’s ambivalence about literary fame and popularity are quite apparent. As Lefebvre reminds us, Montgomery herself noted, “I gave up trying to fathom the mentality of reviewers years ago.” And Lefebvre reveals, chronologically and geographically, that there never really was unanimity in Montgomery’s expected niche in the marketplace of female authorship.

As one reads these reviews—“simple life in a fascinating land” or “harmless and easy reading”—many of Epperly’s observations about the nostalgia of opinion in regards to Montgomery’s “legacy” become apparent. To look back upon both author and readership is to analyze a relationship of sorts, one in which reception itself is a kind of romance, a kindred thrill at discovered emotional resonances with Montgomery as a writer.

This review “The Heroine’s Audience” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 226 (Autumn 2015): 134-35.

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