In an Age of Literary Groups, L.M. Montgomery was Alone (L.M. Montgomery Series)

I first saw the trend with the Oxford Inklings. Out of an informal Nordic literary society in the late 20s where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien first met, the Inklings began gathering in the early 30s. Although C.S. Lewis wasn’t the most important member of the club, his skill for spotting talent and pulling together books quickly combined with his fierce sense of friendship. These characteristics coalesced so that Lewis became the prime “resonator” of the Inklings, to use Diana Pavlac Glyer‘s terms. Over the years he spent a great deal of time encouraging authors by providing editorial support, criticism, and vision for their project. Everyone did this in the Oxford collective, but even Humphrey Carpenter, author of The Inklings, admits that Lewis shone in this role.

For instance, without Lewis, Tolkien may never have had the gumption to complete The Hobbit and see it through to completion. As The Hobbit was finally in the publisher’s hands, Lewis and Tolkien flipped a coin with the commitment that one should write a space fantasy and one a time travel piece. Lewis won the space side of the coin and wrote Out of the Silent Planet, beginning a weird, jumbled, wonderful science fiction cycle of uneven quality and enduring interest. After Charles Williams died, Lewis edited a volume of essays in honour of him, pulled together his unfinished Arthurian history, and provided a commentary for his obscure and evocative poetry. Inklings meetings were not just talks about literature, but in Lewis’ Magdalen College rooms or at the Eagle and Child pub, many books were read out loud, including The Lord of the Rings, The Problem of Pain including Dr. Robert Havard’s appendix, The Great Divorce, some of Warren Lewis’French history work, and short stories or poems by all members.

Each of the Oxford Inklings left his mark–and the central group were all “hims”–at least partly due to the energy of their literary set. The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia changed literature in their own way, and they were brought to fruition by bookish, cider-drinking friends.

This was a feature of the period in the authors I like to read. The Inklings were far from the most famous group in the first half of the century–though a 25-year almost unbroken history of weekly meetings is a bit unusual for any writing club. Is the Bloomsbury Set the most famous group, or is it the Paris Expats? I don’t know, but there are links between the groups and I like to think of the Bloomsbury Set as being, like the Inklings, the Group Proper and the authors in concentric circles around the group.

My interest in these groups caused me to pick up two books. One was Bill Goldstein’s The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and the Year That Changed Literature. This book narrows in on 1922, when Woolf finished Jacob’s Room and begins Mrs. Dalloway, Lawrence published Aaron’s Rod and work on Kangaroo, Forster completes his recovery book A Passage to India, and Eliot finally completed The Waste-land after years of prodding by friends, including Ezra Pound. It is an enjoyable book, though my real interest was Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot. What Goldstein’s worked confirmed for me was to what degree loneliness and friendship are competing forces in the building and destroying of a writer.

Another book that you absolutely have to find is Canadian Morley Callaghan’s 1963 memoir That Summer in Paris: Memories of Tangled Friendships with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Some Others. The book is very like the title, a winsome series of stories with none of the lurid sharpness that a telltale bio of the “greats” would normally have. Callaghan is a poet and storyteller, and through the eyes of a talent just emerging into his own voice we see the summer of 1929. Hemingway has proofs of A Farewell to Arms but spends his evenings boxing and drinking, Scott Fitzgerald is trying to make Tender Is the Night happen, and the whole literary scene is laid out in front of them. I don’t know what the sources for the unusually strong and poorly titled biopic Hemingway and Gellhorn were, but if Woody Allen didn’t use Callaghan’s book for his beautiful fantasy, Midnight in Paris, it is one of the great literary coincidences of history. The film, though, includes not just James Joyce, but Salvadore Dali and Gertrude Stein to fill out the Parisian literary set.

T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound are inextricably linked with one another and hang on the edges of these groups (with Eliot and Sayers even connecting loosely with the Inklings). But these aren’t the only literary groups. The New York magazine, The Smart Set, played the role of resonator like C.S. Lewis, Ezra Pound, or Leonard Woolf, giving an informal connection for rising voices. Dorothy L. Sayers was a key figure in a group with the self-deprecating name, Mutual Admiration Society–a group of Oxford women who were never household names like Sayers, but who I am told made their mark in significant ways. And of course there is The Detection Club, formed in 1930 as a ragtag group of UK mystery writers and still meeting today. Dorothy Sayers was one of the energizing forces, and G.K. Chesterton was the first president, but it included all the known detective authors, most famously Agatha Christie who would dominate the genre. With the energy of this group, mystery writers bullied their way into social acceptability, and Sayers herself went on to be a respected Dante scholar.

All these groups, all this energy, books that transformed the century. These sets gave space for creative imaginations to flourish in a variety of genres. Modernist, antimodernist, and postmodernist, fantastic and realistic, popular and literary–they are the writers that transformed a generation and had the support of friends and groups that orbited certain resonating figures.

Then there is Lucy Maud Montgomery, and she is almost entirely alone.

We shouldn’t underestimate her impact. J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Agatha Christie are in the 100 million club, a super-elite space for English writers. At 50 million copies, though, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables outsold Chesterton, Sayers, Hemingway, Lawrence, Forster, Pound, Eliot, Woolf, Fitzgerald, Williams or any of the figures mentioned here. I think the importance of Eliot, Woolf, and Hemingway on literature is undeniable, but Montgomery is not just Canada’s author–or the most famous of the “women’s magazine writers”–but a globally significant literary figure. Her Rilla of Ingleside is as important for WWI as Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms or Woolf’s To the Lighthouse–and it is critical disdain for children’s writing that limits vision. Montgomery was a great, but she was largely alone.

She could really have used a literary group. Montgomery was steeped in the greatest 19th-century novelist and the romantic poets. That finds its way into the work–anyone who has taught Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott” will have students admit they know it from the Anne of Green Gables films–but a great editor could have enhanced the literary quality of her books without losing the popular attraction. I think Montgomery approaches this in her Emily books, and she had no shortage of output. She produced a book nearly every year from her breakout Anne series in 1908, including 500 published poems and as many published short stories. Despite her popularity, because she was “a simple woman from Prince Edward Island,” she was railroaded by her big New York publisher and lost a decade of energy fighting it in court. She won, but the emotional toll was terrible.

Other things wore on Montgomery. Her mother died in early childhood, her father abandoned her, and she was raised by two old, strict, cheap, and unimaginative grandparents. She was an orphan, as were her literary heroines. Her father died when she was a young adult, followed by her grandfather, but she spent more than a decade taking care of her increasingly problematic grandmother (who wouldn’t die). Her commitments to family put off her marriage to a minister that she had come to love, making for a five-year engagement. When finally married and desperate for children in her late-30s, she lost one of her babies–see Anne’s battle in Anne’s House of Dreams–and WWI sat on her heavily. She lost her best friend to the flu, and as the battle with the publisher was heating up, her husband would occasionally descend into fits of religious mania and melancholy.

Rev. MacDonald’s mental illness, the legal battles, unwanted moves, and her feeling of being trapped in juvenile fiction wore on her. Over the decades, Montgomery’s journals become increasingly dark and punctuated with notes of despair. These notes increase in the 1930s as she is also rejected by the literary society of Ontario, set aside by the literary elite of a country finding its own voice. While she was not completely alone, and there were moments where her husband was lucid, she sank into her own depression. Listen to her in this 1935 entry:

“Today I re-read my old volume of short stories Chronicles of Avonlea and found myself crying over “Old Lady Lloyd” and “Each in his Own Tongue.” I remember some reviewer said when the book appeared that ‘Each in His Own Tongue’ was one of the most beautiful stories in the English language. I don’t think I could write like that now—I have lost something” (Selected Journals V:85).

The sadness is palpable, and she grows to feel like God is distant and that life is hopeless. Her books of the 30s and early 40s are not her strongest. The two known Anne books of the period are really a string of short stories with little plot where Anne is a hero that brings the community together by haphazardly and kindheartedly solving their problems. In her own darkness, she sought Anne’s light–and fans are glad to have the books. More intriguing is the book that was left with the publisher on the day she died. The Blythes are Quoted–hard to find and only recently published–is much more nuanced. Anne is still the hero linking the stories, and the device is over-played. But in the book we see resonant themes of death and illness, war and loss. Anne has continued to write poetry rather than merely disappearing into domestic life. It is an unusual book and an experiment of genre with short stories linked by “vignettes”–poems being read aloud and commented upon around the Blythe’s hearth.

Biographers don’t think that it is coincidental that her last manuscript landed at the publisher’s on the day she died. Montgomery ended a brilliant literary career and a beautiful mind, lost in illness in 1942. Her pain and loneliness, her husband’s ill health, and the fear that her sons would be caught up in another global, interminable war was too much for her.

With respect to her personal pain, as readers we are missing something that could have been there if Montgomery had had a “set.” We would not have the work of T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and J.R.R. Tolkien if it wasn’t for the people in their lives who saw the value of the work in the troubled genius’ hands and made sure the task was complete. All Montgomery had was a manic husband and publishers who just demanded more “books like Anne.”

Moreover, think of what was lost because Montgomery was not there to give a literary group the benefit of her wisdom and success, skill and mistakes. She tried but failed to make an impact that way and who knows how many other writers found themselves alone? Who knows what we lost? In an age of literary groups, Lucy Maud Montgomery was alone.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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25 Responses to In an Age of Literary Groups, L.M. Montgomery was Alone (L.M. Montgomery Series)

  1. Thank you for this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bookstooge says:

    Now, WHY was she alone? Was she shunned, or unfriendly, or was it location? Did she seek a group of other authors out and was rebuffed or did things just never coalesce like it seemed to for the Inklings?

    And that leads into, how much effort goes into starting a group and then keeping it together?

    Like

    • I don’t know precisely why she was alone. Personally, everyone she loved died, turned against her, or went mad. She kept a few literary correspondents at various points and lots of fan letters. But she lacked some deep deep commitment to another other than her husband. Her best friend/cousin who died at the close of the war … I don’t think she found anyone as close to her–and even then they were hours apart even by train.
      Starting a group… I don’t know personally. I am digitally connected but alone locally. I think if I invested in a writing group I could keep it together. But it requires an intense commitment that is also somehow casual, I think. I just heard today there is a “Winklings” meeting–a “W” town name + Inklings. That’s cool. I suspect there are 100 like it on the continent.
      Anyone know?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Bookstooge says:

        Thanks for the info.

        It’s interesting how things went so bad for her in the acquaintance department but as you said, if she lacked that commitment to anyone but her husband, that’ll kill a friendship pretty quick.

        I’m pretty much alone too, but that is as much by choice as anything. Outside
        of the Mrs and my brother and sis-n-law, there are a literal handful of people I communicate with on a regular basis. And regular means a month or 3 between, hahaha.
        Temperamentally suited to it I guess 🙂 I do believe I would have made a great hermit back in the day…

        Like

  3. L.A. Smith says:

    Ah, this is so sad. I’ve never thought about all the literary groups that had such an influence on each other, outside of the Inklings, but it’s true…so many of the “greats” had fellow writers to cheer them on and to sharpen their work. It’s so unfortunate that LMM did not have this support. The questions “why” is a good one. Probably a combination of being in a relatively obscure place in a relatively obscure country…and of course, she was a woman, writing “children’s” books. Not a lot of energy coalescing around any of those categories.. I suppose she could have started a “group” herself, but who would take part? And it’s not like she had nothing else to do, what with doing all her writing, the battles with the publisher, her family, and her caregiving of her husband. It’s amazing she was able to do as much as she could, with all that.

    It’s very hard for a writer to go it alone. I struggle with finding a group, too. You have to have the right combination of talent level and commitment to make it work. There’s no doubt a strong writer’s group can make such a difference, but it’s really hard to make those connections, I find.

    Like

    • Yes, and you are tugging at the edges of my knowledge. I know that in latter years she reached out to the literary community but got some kind of rejection. I’m afraid I don’t have every bolt tightened on her intimate biography just yet.
      I’m glad that you saw this post as a bit of a prod for folk like me and you who probably should be connecting like this locally, but have hesitated or failed to find a group. Some problems aren’t fixable, but I do think finding 1) a resonator, and 2) a group can be helpful–a kind of lifelong sustenance.

      Like

  4. L.A. Smith says:

    P.S. Midnight in Paris is one of my all-time favourite movies….if I could manage the same thing as the writer in that movie it would be “Midnight in London”, and I would be stepping back to eavesdrop on the Inklings…. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    For the collection: the Wikipedia “Edward Thomas” article includes, “Frost’s most famous poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’, was inspired by walks with Thomas and Thomas’s indecisiveness about which route to take.

    “By August 1914, the village of Dymock in Gloucestershire had become the residence of a number of literary figures, including Lascelles Abercrombie, Wilfrid Gibson and Robert Frost. Edward Thomas was a visitor at this time.”

    But this is all very surprising, not only after that relationship you gave us a glimpse of in the first Emily book, but in that my sense of the Anne books is that they are full of groups, especially of classmate friends in Avonlea, at Redmond College, though will distinctions of more literary/imaginative special friends among them, starting with Diana. . . But that helps get me wondering, did LMM have other, non-literary, local, church, friends and friendly acquaintances, other ‘circles’?

    Like

    • Yes, the first few Anne books are pretty clubby. I thought of linking it in but one of the features of the Anne CBC/Netflix show is that Anne and her friend have the writing club where they write bad romances. I’m not sure LMM ever had that….
      I heard that it was Frost who got Ezra Pound out fo the insane asylum. Truth?

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        My Pound biographical reading is very rusty… It may well be that Frost helped, given the range of support noted in Pound’s Wikipedia article, which accents another American poet’s help, including, “In 1958 [Archibald] MacLeish hired Thurman Arnold, a prestigious lawyer who ended up charging no fee, to file a motion to dismiss the 1945 indictment. Overholser, the hospital’s superintendent, supported the application with an affidavit saying Pound was permanently and incurably insane, and that confinement served no therapeutic purpose.The motion was heard on 18 April 1958 by the judge who had committed Pound to St Elizabeths. The Department of Justice did not oppose the motion, and Pound was free.”

        Their Frost article leads by a link to the discovery of a whole Wikip. article devoted to the “Dymock poets” (q.v.)! (Of that group, both Gibson and Abercrombie have chapters in Williams’s Poetry at Present (1930), scanned in the Internet Archive.)

        Liked by 1 person

  6. L. Palmer says:

    Those are a lot of challenges to overcome. L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books and her short stories are a major influence on my own writing. I wish she could have seen the hope and brightness her words brought to the world.

    Liked by 1 person

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  8. Ocean Bream says:

    This was a riveting read. I knew some of the background of Montgomery, and her books are so very dear to my heart, but this price gave them some extra meaning. It’s no wonder Anne sunk deeper and deeper into the background in her later novels – perhaps Anne was the character of Montgomery, flourishing in her writing, and as she became more and more depressed, Anne became subdued and receded from the limelight? The thing that stands out about Montgomery’s books, however, is that they are simply bursting at the seams with life. There is no loneliness there, only people coming together to overcome it. Could it be, as one commenter mentioned above, that her life was equally as filled with people?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for this nice note! I am now in a circle of L.M. Montgomery geeks, lovers of the literature and playing with the books. So I might find out what others think. But I think she became increasingly isolated and sad and sick. Her last to Anne novels have Anne back at centre stage, but a bubbly, superstar Anne without much plot. Not the best, though Anne lovers might like to see her return.

      Liked by 1 person

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