Full: My Experience of the L.M. Montgomery Institute Conference (L.M. Montgomery Series)

Note: This is a rewriting of my guest post at the L.M. Montgomery Institute blog.

I am full. And no doubt. We have just finished a packed four and a half days of conferencing and workshopping, speaking and listening, flipping pages, wandering halls, and exploring the shared imaginative space that L.M. Montgomery has donated to us. Growing up in Prince Edward Island, I have always experienced the richness of living in the “land of Anne.” That our local university hosts a world-class, globe-esteemed academic conference on Montgomery’s work is a blessing.

LMMI2018 Keynote Speakers: Dr. Emily Woster, Dr. Elizabeth Epperly, Dr. Catherine Sheldrick Ross, Dr. Margaret Mackey

From the very first moments, the quality of the L.M. Montgomery Institute Conference was clear. The first lecture, by past UPEI President Dr. Elizabeth Epperly, sent me reeling. Warmly called the “Betsy Talk,” Betsy Epperly’s mentorship of emerging scholars and her incisive scholarship are well known. Her talk was entitled “Reading Time: L.M. Montgomery and the ‘Alembic of Fiction.’” “Alembic” is a rich metaphor I haven’t considered, but it was the ambiguity of the title, “reading time,” that drew me in so completely. And in a way, I never recovered from this lecture. Not because Prof. Epperly’s talk dominated my mind to the exception of all else, but because talk after talk, paper after paper, experience after experience, I was challenged, drawn in, lifted up, and invited along by other readers of L.M. Montgomery.

And so the adventure continued through to the last morning of the conference. I was perhaps drawn most to conversations about intertextuality–how stories, books, and authors read other stories, books, and authors. There were parallels between Montgomery and Madeleine L’Engle (by Heidi Lawrence), Flora Klickmann (Jenny Litster), Olive Schreiner (Idette Noomé), Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Mary McCulley), Rebecca Solnit (Tara Parmiter), Japanese manga (Yukari Yoshihara, Chieko Osawa, and Keiko Karube), and Anne Shirley as a Female Quixote (Julie A. Sellars). Some of this intertextual exploration worked out in sophisticated ways in several papers about Anne in Scandinavia and Japan. And there were references to Jane Eyre and Middlemarch not just in specific paper presentations, but in references throughout the weekend.

Given the conference title, there is no surprise at the strength of projects on reading Montgomery (again, an ambiguous phrase). On Sunday morning, Catherine Ross, professor emerita at Western University, brought us a delightful and informative lecture, “L.M. Montgomery and the Paradox of the Reading Experience.” Using qualitative interviews of “good readers,” Dr. Ross pressed in on the themes that came from readers who have brought Montgomery into their lives. The relationships between reader and book are intimate, profound, and smack of something like serendipity (Montgomery might have called it “predestination”).

We moved from the keynote to the final plenary panel of the conference. Emily Katharina Mohabir turned to fanfiction and other digital responses to Anne. I am a hard win to fanfic, but my students consistently challenge me with engaging ideas from that world, so Mohabir’s paper, “Re(ad)-writing Anne: Participatory Internet Fan Activities as Textual Negotiation,” was informative for me. I think it makes a good dialogue with Bonnie Tulloch’s day three paper, “Canadian ‘Anne-girl[s]’: Literary Descendants of Montgomery’s Redheaded Heroine.” Tulloch is a PhD researcher who, like Mohabir, knows digital reading worlds—though her paper was focussed on books with Anne-like characters. The strength of Tulloch’s emerging scholarship was confirmed when she won the inaugural L.M. Montgomery Institute Award for Outstanding Early Career Paper—an award justly named for Prof. Epperly.

I think Rilla of Ingleside to be one of Montgomery’s most important works, so I listened eagerly to Daniela Janes’ paper, “‘A Course of Reading’: Reading and Self-Cultivation in Rilla of Ingleside.” James highlighted the formative effects of reading in Rilla, placed within an emerging attention to folklore and homefront experiences in WWI. The Ingleside women experience the war vicariously through reading, for war can be felt as real through the reading of it. Finally, fantasy writer Dr. Trinna S. Frever joined us by video, offering a clever and lively paper called, “Seeing Female Readers: Montgomery as Depictor and Creator of Scholars.” Her work on reading, meta-reading, meta-meta-reading, and myth was complex and literary. Intriguingly, Frever was the only presenter who wasn’t physically here and yet had the paper with the most audience participation. Her final challenge—to write Montgomery back—is still reverberating in me today.

There is so much to consider, so much to think about, and so much to bring into rereading Montgomery and the other books on my bedside shelf.

My own work was about the suggestive imaginative spirituality that we receive as readers of her fiction, and sits as a companion to my paper on “The Flash” at the C.S. Lewis and Friends conference. We can see this in L.M. Montgomery’s character sketches: Rachel Lynde the legalistic Calvinist, Davy the conscience-ridden rebel, Dora the unimaginative and obedient soul, the Allans with their robust and generous ministry, Abel Blair’s authentic hypocrisy, and cautious Marilla, whose headaches occur most frequently on Sunday and who receives an “education” in the spirit through Anne. These sketches are options of how to live the spiritual life. In giving them to us, Montgomery invites the reader to walk with Anne along various pathways of personal faith. Anne chooses to navigate between these Christian perspectives, creating for herself a spirituality of Joy brought together from two canonical sources: the broad Protestant Christian tradition and the fantastic world of faërie and adventure.

I focussed my presentation on a close reading of Rainbow Valley, showing how it teaches us about “Living, living fully and well”–Eugene Peterson‘s definition of spirituality (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places 29). I decided to take some risks in my presentation. First, out of my much longer paper, I chose to focus on a book that hadn’t been highlighted yet at the conference. Second, I trusted that the conference was filled with strong readers, so there were moments that we could glance at the material instead of diving in. I invited them to make the links in their minds, and I believe they did. Finally, I presented the paper not in a standard academic form but as someone leading a group in a pilgrimage into fairyland. Montgomery claimed to have “a passport to the geography of fairyland” (The Alpine Path 47): I trusted Montgomery and used her books as “faithful old key to the gates of fairyland” (Selected Journals 1 262). Following her breadcrumb trail into elfin woods, we experienced the lecture as wayfarers rather than as merely speakers and listeners.

I think it worked, mostly. I was overwhelmed by the response of other scholars and conference attendees. The anxiety I expressed last week about being a kind of stranger at the conference was entirely unwarranted.

So I am full.

My mind is full. I know that Lucy Maud Montgomery is set aside critically because she is just a juvenile writer, just another genre fiction hack who understood what girls wanted to read. If I needed confirmation that this approach to Montgomery’s work was balderdash (and I didn’t), the academic work at the LMMI conference will dispel high-brow critics of their fiction. Each of the keynote addresses set my mind on the road. My journal is filled with arrows and stars and heavy underlining, moments of inspiration for my own work and a huge list of things I need to do when I get home. Invariably, the scholarly papers also teased something out for me, sometimes filling in backgrounds I was missing, sometimes challenging my assumptions. I am intellectually tired, and will need the rest period after the conference to bring all these thoughts into full consideration.

And my heart is full. It is not just intellectual rigour but intellectual generosity that fills me with gratitude. I have been to quite a few academic conferences that are filled with readers and fans. I quite prefer these conferences to “pure” academical discussions. I think everyday readers ground academic thinking and shape our writing in helpful ways. At most of my conferences, though, the “geek’ culture works itself out by admonitions for attendees to leave their light sabres and bejewelled swords at the door. Fans gather in little circles, conjugating verbs in an Elfin language or sketching out Narnian chronicles that Lewis should have written or practicing J.K. Rowling’s peculiar brand of magical Latin. At this conference it is different. When a speaker shares a favourite quote—or even a lovely line with a resonant image—the audience oohs and ahs. There is a warm glow at this Montgomery conference that I have never encountered before.

It may be, as someone suggested, that 95% of the attendees are women. But I think it is more than that. Anne’s search for “kindred spirits” continues here at the L.M. Montgomery Institute. Scholarship and readership is framed around Montgomery’s ideas of friendship, heightening it “With a fellowship splendid, a gladness impassioned and deep!” (Montgomery, “A Day in the Open”). As a result, the scholarship is very Anne-like: spunky, critically intelligent, driven by curiosity, filled with a bit of romantic longing, and committed to deep friendship. Whatever intellectual rigour the leading scholars in the field left us, they have also left us this kindred spirit-tradition of scholarship.

My heart and my mind are full. This is the genius of the LMMI conference: it brings together knowledge and imagination, prose and poetry, as good readers of L.M. Montgomery should.

I used the word “donation” above to describe Montgomery’s work. I mean this word in the slightly older sense, the royal sense. Milton speaks in Paradise Lost of

                    That right we hold
By his donation
(Book XII, lines 68-69).

Here Milton is speaking of how God has made all creation for the caretaking of humanity. This world we live in is Milton’s God’s donation to humanity; Montgomery’s fictional worlds are her subcreative gift to us. I think the L.M. Montgomery Institute Conference is an ideal place to enhance the caretaking of Montgomery’s worlds.

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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12 Responses to Full: My Experience of the L.M. Montgomery Institute Conference (L.M. Montgomery Series)

  1. Hannah says:

    The conference sounds great!! ao how in Montgomery brought together the broad Protestant Christian tradition and the fantastic world of faërie and adventure in Anne’s spirituality of Joy.
    Is that what she had in common with Lewis?
    Great that the conference “brought together knowledge and imagination, prose and poetry” …


  2. Hannah says:

    Could you give examples of how they did brought them together? Lewis’s ‘reason as the natural organ of truth, but imagination as the organ of meaning’?


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