As you may have seen if you follow my Twitter account, I have been reeling from Mary Henley Rubio’s biography of L. M. Montgomery, Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings. And I quoted this story on Twitter, but you don’t really get the full effect, and I love it so much that I want to reproduce it here.
This is a footnote from the biography, where Rubio talks about giving a copy of LMM’s journals to Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro:
When I handed Alice Munro a gift copy of the first volume of The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery, Volume 1, at the Ginger Press Bookstore in Owen Sound, Ontario, in late 1985, she looked at it for only a second to see what it was, and then, without missing a beat or without making any identifying reference to Emily of New Moon, she responded by quoting the end of the novel: “I am going to write a diary that it may be published when I die.”
I had a moment of intense geeking out over this, especially as Rubio’s book traces the decline of Montgomery’s critical reputation in the later stage of her career. Modernism was on the rise and apparently Toronto was full of sexist asshole male critics. >:(
I haven’t traced LMM’s critical reputation particularly; it seems to have been restored somewhat, or at least her work was deemed to be worthy of serious academic attention, in the late 20th century. Two things seem to have contributed to this: the work of female academics (what a surprise), and the publication of LMM’s diaries showing that she was really depressed and had a hard life. The second thing seems so weird to me, like, what, an author’s work is only worthy of critical attention if their life doesn’t meet your preconceptions based on (your preconceptions of)* their work? But as I said, I don’t claim to have the full picture.
Anyway, I’ve always been a bit apologetic or, hmm, dismissive about my love for LMM’s work, but I think I will stop. Not saying her work is faultless at all (omg the racism in Kilmeny!), but why be apologetic for liking a hugely influential body of work by a female author who started publishing decades before Canada recognised women as legal persons? Because sexism!
On a tangent, I was thinking about what makes LMM’s work compelling to me, and to all the readers who continue to love it. It’s a bunch of things — the humour and characterisation; the depiction of a community that offers a reassuring stability, but is not idealised past the point of plausibility — but it’s also emotion. LMM loads everything with FEELINGS, up to and including the landscape, and it’s this, I think, that makes it so easy for her writing to be dismissed. (LMM herself argued that her work contained sentiment but was not sentimental; I think it does sometimes go over the line between the two, but would mostly agree. And people often confuse the two from the outside.**)
I think fear of that sort of dismissal — a subconscious fear of being too girly — is maybe why I am so wary of being explicit about sentiment in my own writing — to its detriment. (My agent literally went through my novel manuscript marking up points where I should put in more feelings.) So that’s a lesson to me! Why be afraid? I should only be so lucky as to produce work that is as enduring, universally appealing and commercially successful as LMM’s books.
*In a funny/sad bit of the biography, Rubio describes an essay by a male critic which starts off going on about what sentimental pap LMM’s work is, and then halfway through the essay he actually gets the books out of the library and reads them, and ends his essay saying, “But actually, her books do not suck! You should read them.”
**Now I am thinking of another female creator who was commercially successful, interested in domestic drama, and a pioneer in producing art about her community — Yasmin Ahmad, whose blog profile echoes LMM’s defence of her own works: “I am optimistic and sentimental to the point of being annoying, especially to people who think that being cynical and cold is cool.” Eh, how cool would a comparative study of their work be?