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.