At A Pilgrim in Narnia, we have an occasional feature called “Throwback Thursday.” By raiding either my own blog-hoard or someone else’s, I find a blog post from the past and throw it back out into the digital world. This might be an idea or book that is now relevant again, or a concept I’d like to think about more, or even “an oldie but a goodie” that I think needs a bit of spin time.
For today’s Throwback Thursday I return to a topic that continues to buzz in my imagination: the connections between C.S. Lewis and L.M. Montgomery. As I work in Inklings studies, there is an obvious and organic connection between Lewis and Tolkien. It isn’t often that I read something from or about one of these Oxbridge scholar/world-builders and fail to think in new ways about the other.
With Lewis and Montgomery, there is no situational reason to make any particular links. Montgomery is a generation older than Lewis, a Canadian regionalist writer working primarily in the modes of children’s and women’s realistic novels and short stories. Montgomery had a single global bestseller early in her career and yet driven in her life to think cleverly about the business of writing while spending much of her time maintaining a manse and working as a community leader. Lewis, by contrast, was an Anglo-Irish writer working in all kinds of different modes of writing, teaching in the elite centre of British culture. His fairy-tales were well-liked and he had a strong public profile, but his career was a slow build. Lewis lived as exclusively as he could–though had a fairly public life during WWII–and if he ever thought cleverly about the business of writing it was because his lawyer-friend Owen Barfield or his late-in-life wife Joy Davidman told him to.
They are definitely distinctive writers and public figures. And yet, there are synchronicities, which I explore in this post from the vault. I hope you enjoy!
I am the curator of A Pilgrim in Narnia and the host of the MaudCast, the official podcast of the L.M. Montgomery Institute. Because of how my work as a reader and scholar seems to be developing along two tracks, I thought I would spend some time thinking about C.S. Lewis and L.M. Montgomery together. It is not a natural fit, many would argue. Montgomery primarily published in women’s magazines with bright, buoyant, realistic stories of home life in Atlantic Canada, while Lewis was an Oxford academic who was known as an apologist, literary historian, and writer of fairy tales and dystopic sf. Despite these differences, I think there are some resonant moments between the two.
No one would deny that Clive Staples Lewis and Lucy Maud Montgomery were prolific writers. I have had the opportunity to read through all of Lewis’ writings, but have not had the chance to read all of Montgomery’s published works just yet, missing primarily some of the short stories and poems. Part of this has to do with the nature of her writing. Beyond the novels for which she is famous, Montgomery honed her craft by writing short stories and publishing poems in women’s magazines, children’s collections, newspapers, and literary journals. Like Lewis, she also published some public essays about religion, literature, and social issues. During her lifetime, she published 530 short stories, 500 poems, and 30 essays. By my count, only about half her short stories and poems are easy to find in print, so it takes some work to read all of Montgomery’s catalogue.
While Montgomery and Lewis have archives with about the same number of pages—I estimate them each at 20,000 or so pages of primary material—Lewis extended himself out with a diversity of kinds of works in a narrow range of publication spaces, while Montgomery scattered her work far and wide, endlessly hunting for print as she climbed “the Alpine Path” to literary note. And while Lewis ultimately rejected journal keeping and revealed himself best in his autobiographical work and letter-writing, Montgomery kept a steady diary through her writing life and published a relatively limited memoir, focusing on her craft and shaping her public image.
Lucy Maud and Clive Staples are each a library of works, not merely a shelf, and reading them would take years. Fortunately, in both cases, there are scholars, editors, archivists, librarians, publishers, and book collectors who have dedicated their lives to getting these masters into the hands of a grateful public. There are a number of CSL archives (listed here), and there are LMM archives at the Universities of Guelph and Prince Edward Island. The interest is warranted. After all, Lewis and Montgomery are two of the most prolific English authors of the first half of the 20th century, each with something like 100,000,000 or so books in circulation! It is difficult to overestimate how important these writers are to dedicated readers generations after they are dead.
Even counting the number of books that Montgomery has published is a bit tricky, as it is for Lewis. Narrowing in on novels, she published 20 novels in her lifetime, 19 of which are primarily set here in Prince Edward Island. During her life, she published 8 Anne books, 3 Emily books, 2 Story Girl books, 2 Pat novels, and 5 other novels. Within the Anne-Avonlea collection, though, there are two collections of short stories edited within her life (one authorized and one done without her permission). A final volume of Anne-Avonlea stories, The Blythes are Quoted, was completed by Montgomery and left with her publisher just before she died. Since her death, editors and scholars have pulled about half of her 500 stories and 500 poems in nice paperback collections, as well as letter-collections to two of Montgomery’s most important literary correspondents.
Categorizing Lewis’ books is also difficult. He has 7 Narnia chronicles, 3 sf books, two WWII-era theological novellas, and a work of long-form literary fiction. However, it’s a bit more complex. Lewis extends the Screwtape universe with a later “toast,” and makes connections between the Ransom sf books, including a long literary fragment of an incomplete novel, The Dark Tower. The allegorical Pilgrim’s Regress is also fiction, but so is the pre-Christian Dymer, though written in poetic form. And do we count Letters to Malcolm, which has only the thinnest fictional veneer? Beyond fiction, there are literary books, Christian books, and various collections of his 150+ essays and 3,800+ extent letters. Many of these, as for Montgomery, are posthumous, making it difficult to determine what we mean by a “book” for these two popular writers.
Notably, taking Montgomery’s books to the screen has worked very well with films that have interesting dialogue with the texts, while the Narnian films have been big budget films that were flat in a lot of ways.
The new Niki Caro Anne with an E series on CBC/Netflix has caused quite a stir. It is a well-written, character-driven loose adaptation that restores parts of the text and transforms other parts. The three Kevin Sullivan miniseries were strongly resonant of Montgomery’s original work, and Road to Avonlea—the serialization of the Story Girl books—is still in broad circulation globally. I was not caught by the Emily of New Moon TV series, partly because the creators misunderstood or ignored Montgomery’s worldview in the way the producers of the Narnian films did of Lewis. But as a low budget series, Emily of New Moon has some endearing qualities, while the only Narnian film worth watching twice is the 2005 feature film of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—though I have heard there is a cult following to that crazy 1980s BBC series. There is hope for Narnia on the screen as Anne has been adapted every couple of decades, in 1919, 1934, and 1956 before Kevin Sullivan succeeded. And while I love Martin Sheen, the 2016 Harrison Anne film was a stinker.
Intriguingly, both Lewis and Montgomery work well on stage. Anne of Green Gables: The Musical has shown every summer in PEI since 1965 (a Guinness World Record–at least until the pandemic broke the spell), and though I’m going on the experience of others, word is that the various adaptations of Screwtape and The Great Divorce on stage have been engaging, and that the Perelandra concert opera in 1998 was moving.
Though they were both popular and prodigious authors, they had unique approaches to publication.
As we’ve already seen, Lewis’ broad output was in a variety of projects of varying audience impact, while Montgomery’s broad output was focussed in places and ways she could get her work to print. In this Montgomery was much more clever about publication. Lewis was not terribly good at naming books, sometimes made errors in his proofs, and largely followed the advice of his publishers—offering most of his own opinions in cover design and adaptations. By contrast, once Montgomery had made enough errors in her early years, she found her way. After her initial successes that were largely owned by the tyrannous L.C. Page & Co. in New York, she took control of her destiny, even launching a decade-long high-dollar lawsuit when it was clear that Page was just going to run her over as a naïve woman author. She very carefully shaped her public persona, and she carefully prepared her journals for publication, cultivating the image that she wanted to emerge from them.
Though Lewis was moderately successful as an author and it looked like Narnia was growing in interest, it wasn’t until Lewis was married that he started to see the potential of his work as someone who provided not just ideas and stories but books as products for the world. He largely allowed the publication world to go on as it would, at one point getting into financial trouble because he gave all his royalties away.
Montgomery and Lewis both felt the sting of early rejection. For Lewis, his first two books of poetry were far from literary successes, and his 1926 Dymer, which he had worked on for the better part of a decade, had almost no response. In 1930, he wrote to his best friend, remembering
“the evening when the MS of Dymer came back from Heinemanns [Lewis’ previous publisher] rejected without a word of criticism or encouragement: and I remembered that after a very miserable night I sat down to assume the worst…” (18 Aug 1930 letter to Arthur Greeves).
In that letter, Lewis goes on to recognize that the sheer pleasure of seeing a book in print was a kind of delusion for him. He wanted readers, and wanted to be known as a poet. As he moved to a more spiritual perspective, he came to terms with the fact that he would not be a “poet” in the sense he imagined, and his publishing career came slowly—beginning in academics, then moving to SF and apologetics work, then extending out from there.
After leaving Prince of Wales College I taught school for a year in Bideford, Prince Edward Island. I wrote a good deal and learned a good deal, but still my stuff came back, except from two periodicals the editors of which evidently thought that literature was its own reward, and quite independent of monetary considerations. I often wonder that I did not give up in utter discouragement. At first I used to feel dreadfully hurt when a story or poem over which I had laboured and agonized came back, with one of those icy little rejection slips. Tears of disappointment would come in spite of myself, as I crept away to hide the poor, crimpled manuscript in the depths of my trunk. But after a while I got hardened to it and did not mind. I only set my teeth and said “I will succeed.” I believed in myself and I struggled on alone, in secrecy and silence. I never told my ambitions and efforts and failures to any one. Down, deep down, under all discouragement and rebuff, I knew I would “arrive” some day (The Alpine Path).
Arrive she did, in spectacular fashion with a bestseller, Anne of Green Gables. But this classic struggled to its first publication. Montgomery had a rule for publication expectations: “Nine out of ten manuscripts came back to me,” Montgomery wrote, “But I sent them out over and over again, and eventually they found resting places” (The Alpine Path). This trend of rejection continued when she had succeeded in writing a novel—a long-time dream of hers. After shopping her manuscript of Anne of Green Gables around to a handful of publishers, she “put Anne away in an old hat-box in the clothes room” (The Alpine Path). She bumped into it again while rummaging—something that Lewis admitted happened in his own writing, and may have been the provenance of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—and decided to give it another try. Anne with an “e” and Lucy of Narnia remain two of the most endearing and enduring characters of the 20th century, each born out of a long process of authors finding their way to print.
CSL:LMM, Other Connections
There are other connection points between Montgomery and Lewis. Both are genre fiction writers, Lewis working in fantasy and science fiction while Montgomery excelled at women’s writing and romance. Both are noted writers of youth fiction who largely succeeded by not really writing to kids, but writing stories they found to be worthwhile—and juvenile readers agreed. Both are interesting poets with imaginative verse and a good metrical sense, but whose prose outshines their poetry. There are pretty complete collections of their poetry now. Lewis is commemorated in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, while Montgomery was the first Canadian woman to be named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in England. Although they began their publishing careers as poets, however, they are remembered today for prose, not poetry.
CLS:LMM and War
As I will suggest in more detail later in the series, both Montgomery and Lewis were profoundly affected by WWI. There is little doubt that their work is shaped by war.
While Lewis was preparing to head to the trenches in France, Montgomery was working as a pro-war activist in Ontario, giving speeches and writing essays. Both the Ransom Cycle and Narnia are linked in various ways to WWII—a link that is particularly intimate in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Screwtape Letters, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, as well as The Great Divorce—and war is a thematic concern in Prince Caspian, The Horse and His Boy, The Magician’s Nephew, and Till We Have Faces.
While writing romantic books that feature girls as their heroes, it is clear that the great war had its impact on Montgomery. The war haunts behind Rainbow Valley, and it comes to fruition in Rilla of Ingleside—the book that I think may be Montgomery’s greatest literary achievement (though Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon are brilliant). The Rilla story, I will argue, should be one of our canonical war books, at least in Canada, and I don’t think the impact of the clash of civilization ever left Montgomery. Montgomery died during WWII with two boys at fighting age; we shouldn’t be surprised that she died the week before a referendum on Canadian conscription for war service.
CSL:LMM as Christian Writers
It should be obvious, but isn’t always so, that both Lewis and Montgomery were Christian writers—each of whom in their own way rejected the literary modernism that dominated their formative years and that we see in writers like the Bloomsbury Group, the Paris expats of the 20s, and other smart sets of the time. Each of them were rooted in the romantic tradition, and each revelled in humour. Though there is darkness in the work, it lacks the sour tang of modernism, and rejects the dialectical roots and the relentless hunt for newness. While rocked by WWI, their work does not spin sideways because of it.
There are critical differences, but Lewis as a Christian public intellectual and Montgomery as a minister’s wife each found ways to speak their faith into poetry and story in overt and subtle ways. While each of them published in religious venues, their main work was published for the mainstream community. The flavour of that Christian-informed writing, though, is quite different. Montgomery is writing for a much broader Christian audience in pre-WWII North America—a community that is experiencing an uptick in personal Christian commitment—while Lewis is writing to a British public that is steadily setting religion aside, despite some return to faith during WWII.
What difference that difference makes I will have to explore at a later time!
And, of course, L.M. Montgomery and C.S. Lewis are both Islanders. You’d be surprised how much of a difference this makes to one’s perspective. At UPEI we have an entire MA program dedicated to the question of “Islandness,” but it certainly shapes the worldview of these and other authors.
Though Great Britain—and Lewis lived his whole life on two of the British isles—is a tiny cluster of islands off the coast of a powerful continent, they felt it their mission to take over the entire world one way or another (through conquest, religion, allied war, political diplomacy, and the spread of democracy, language, and culture). Here in Prince Edward Island we haven’t quite managed the same feat. But we imagine that we could do so, and we generally view the world along two lines: people from here, and people from away. Don’t underestimate the Islandness in Island works.
These wandering thoughts are just some of the connections I have made, and perhaps you could add some more. Montgomery is a second string on my bow, complimenting my work in Lewis studies. And in that, the conversation between the two has been rich. Feel free to add comments to help others see the CSL:LMM links that are no doubt there.
 The Wikipedia page for “Bestselling Books” has Narnia at 120,000,000 books; not including pirated books and out of copyright distribution, we could guess that the total of Lewis’ sales come in around 150,000,000 copies. Montgomery is undoubtedly Canada’s bestselling author, ahead of Margaret Atwood (whose annual sales are 500,000 to 1,000,000) and Robert Munsch. It is estimated that Anne of Green Gables has sold 50,000,000 copies, so I am probably not wrong in suggesting that Montgomery’s global sales are narrowing in on 100,000,000.
 The Blythes are Quoted is hard to get, and is the only Anne-Avonlea book I have not reread after the first reading (I do reread the poetry). A new edition was supposed to be released on the 76th anniversary of her death and the day the publisher received a copy of the book (24 Apr 1942), but Penguin didn’t get it ready in time. I am grateful to an aunt who gave me a copy of this unusual book, featuring short stories, poems, and vignettes and covering the WWI through WWII periods.