I am pleased to announce that my essay, “Befriending the Darkness, L.M. Montgomery’s Lived Theodicy in Anne’s House of Dreams,” has been recently published in the Journal of L.M. Montgomery Studies! Here is a bit of my story about how this paper came about.
It started first as a proposal as an academic conference paper. Since the early 1990s, the L.M. Montgomery Institute (LMMI) has encouraged researchers from around the world to share their work at its biennial interdisciplinary conferences here in Prince Edward Island. In 2020, our theme was “L.M. Montgomery and “Vision,” and in my research, I had been thinking about themes of image, colour, light, and distance–particularly in the trio of “Four Winds” books Montgomery wrote during and after WWI. After months of research, I felt like I had found something worth talking about.
In reading and rereading the story of Anne’s early married life in Four Winds Harbour, Anne’s House of Dreams, I began to discern within the story a rather sophisticated approach to darkness and trouble. Written in one of Montgomery’s most intense moments of worry and loss, Anne’s House of Dreams seems to have the most sophisticated mix of lovely and terrible moments, of light and darkness, of hope and horror–at least of the Anne novels. And yet, Montgomery never seems to negate either the value of good, beautiful things or of the heart-rending difficult moments of suffering. Because Epperly’s Fragrance of Sweet-Grass is such an influential text, I wanted to dialogue with her thesis about Anne’s House of Dreams, where she argues that “all things harmonize” in this text. Her metaphor of “harmony” works well as a tool for analysis, but I wanted to trouble it a little bit. Can light and darkness ever really harmonize? Or is something going on in the core experiences of the characters and Montgomery’s consideration of how such pain and suffering can exist in a providential world?
This paper was my attempt to play with these questions.
The biennial LMMI conferences have a rigorous review process, and I pitched a paper for the June 2020 conference in the summer of 2019. This was all happening just as my first Montgomery paper was being published, “C.S. Lewis’s Theory of Sehnsucht as a Tool for Theorizing L.M. Montgomery’s Experience of ‘The Flash”–a paper I presented at the 2018 Frances White Ewbank Colloquium on C.S. Lewis & Friends at Taylor University and published by Joe Ricke and Ashley Chu in The Faithful Imagination (Winged Lion Press, 2019). My next piece, “Rainbow Valley as Embodied Heaven: Initial Explorations into L.M. Montgomery’s Spirituality in Fiction,” was a paper I presented at the 2018 conference and had been recently accepted for the Journal of L.M. Montgomery Studies (and has since been published, see here).
I was been feeling positive about my Montgomery work and making plans for the future.
My paper was accepted for the 2020 conference, but even assure futures are notoriously difficult things to predict.
In the spring of 2020, COVID-19 sent everything into disarray, and the Montgomery and Vision conference decided to go virtual. LMMI leaders used that L.M. Montgomery and Vision Forum to highlight some key moments of research and artistry (which you can find archived here), and we used the Forum to launch the MaudCast, the official podcast of the L.M. Montgomery Institute, which I am pleased to host. When the conference went virtual, I pivoted my work to MaudCast interviews. But scholars in graduate school or just completing a PhD–I defended my thesis just two weeks after submitting my paper proposal–were invited to write their papers as full essays and submit them to the 2020 Elizabeth R. Epperly Award for Outstanding Early Career Paper.
Dr. Elizabeth R. Epperly is a leading L.M. Montgomery and Victorian literature scholar. She was critical to the founding of the L.M. Montgomery Institute, and continues to serve the Montgomery community as a mentor and scholar. Her monograph, The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass: L.M. Montgomery’s Heroines and the Pursuit of Romance (1992; 2014), is a foundational text, probably the first literary-critical monograph on Montgomery and essential to the development of the discipline of Montgomery studies. I consider Betsy Epperly to be a mentor, and would hope one day to have a book that, like her Frangrance of Sweet-Grass, is both beautifully written and thoughtful literary criticism.
Feeling like my idea had merit, I took a four-day writing retreat in June 2020 to write the essay and spent much of summer 2020 revising it. When the award deadline came, I was able to submit “Making Friends with the Darkness: L.M. Montgomery’s Popular Theodicy in Anne’s House of Dreams”–a bit tentatively, as it was a difficult and complex work, but feeling like I was ready for some feedback. One phrase, in particular, continued to resonate in me. I was reflecting upon how a main character, the lighthouse keeper Captain Jim, acts morally when confronted with evil–standing up against that wrong action and working to rectify it. But he also tells the story of the encounter, and I came to see that Montgomery was using storytelling in the novel as a practical response to evil in a world we cannot always understand. I concluded one section of the piece with these words.
“For the story is important to tell as a way of concluding a moral action; telling stories is one of the things we do in the face of evil we cannot understand.”
In fall 2020, a panel of LMMI judges met, adjudicating strong papers from six countries on three continents (check out the details here). Ultimately, I was thrilled to hear that my paper on light, darkness, and storytelling won the 2020 Elizabeth R. Epperly Award for Outstanding Early Career Paper for my paper. While the award is prestigious–a major award, one might imagine–I was most deeply encouraged by the comments, which included these sorts of notes:
- “This paper related to the theme of vision through its exploration of the significance of darkness and light in Montgomery’s Anne’s House of Dreams. The author made a notable effort to engage with a substantial corpus of Montgomery scholarship and positioned the essay in dialogue with Elizabeth Epperly’s ideas in particular.”
- “Beautifully written, scholarly informed reflection on Anne’s House of Dreams drawing on a tension central to Montgomery between darkness and light.”
- “The argument flows nicely…asking pertinent and engaging questions along the way.”
- “Beautifully argued, a unique reading of Anne’s House of Dreams with a nicely contextualized final argument/conclusions that invite comment and conversation going forward – just what an essay like this should do!”
Besides getting thoughtful feedback–and for those who don’t know, quality feedback for scholars and writers is all too rare–winning the Epperly Award also gave me a pathway toward publication in the Journal of L.M. Montgomery Studies—not only the leading journal of the field, but one that is both open-sourced and editorially effective.
What began was a series of rewrites and revisions that–while harrowing in the midst of the process, as I admit here–resulted in a stronger essay than I could have imagined. I was attempting a complex experiment in theology and literature. I wanted to take a non-academic, popular writer and demonstrate that her intensely personal novel reveals a sophisticated use of imagery that provides a philosophically satisfying response to one of life’s most difficult questions.
In reading this experimental piece, the peer reviewers and committee members provided overwhelmingly helpful encouragement, guidance, and critique. I have already noted the award committee feedback, but I was surprised by how helpful the peer review critiques were, pushing me to define my terms more clearly and to work harder at drawing the reader into the conversation. At each stage, journal editors Lesley Clement and Tara K. Parmiter provided insightful comments and incisive critiques, allowing each draft to be stronger and clearer than the one before. Even the copy editor, Jane Ledwell, did more than simply perfect the grammar, but as a Montgomery reader, artist, and scholar, also provided topic-sensitive clarifications at critical points. Each of these readers provided an unusual amount of critique to make what is, I think, a far stronger essay.
And now it is available free globally on the Journal website as “Befriending the Darkness: L.M. Montgomery’s Lived Theodicy in Anne’s House of Dreams.” Here is a longer abstract of the paper for those interested:
Abstract: Upon completing Anne’s House of Dreams in 1916, Montgomery recorded in her journal that she had never written “amid so much strain of mind and body” (193). Caught between the pressures of life, Montgomery admitted that WWI was “slowly killing” her (185)—a war bound up for Montgomery with the agony of the loss of her second son. What Elizabeth Epperly calls Montgomery’s “most unselfconsciously philosophic” novel (The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass 75), Anne’s House of Dreams delves into painful issues of loss, suicide, bad marriages, ill-timed love, poverty, and the beautiful-terrible consequences of duty. The result is a complex and nuanced consideration of life faithfully lived as it excels in the “effects of light and shadow,” allowing for both “joy and sorrow” (Anne’s House of Dreams 84, 93).
As a novel filled with biblical and poetic references to the nature of life, and as a story unwilling to look away from difficult themes, readers are left with the assurance that “Everything works together for good” (Anne’s House of Dreams 16; see Rom 8:28). In dialogue with Epperly’s treatment—both accepting the basic argument but interrogating the metaphor of “harmony” in order to generate new analysis—this paper considers Anne’s House of Dreams as a lived theodicy. “There’s something in the world amiss,” Anne admits, quoting Tennyson, but it is unclear whether it will be fully “unriddled by and by” (162). Instead, with Leslie, there is some beauty to “the struggle—and the crash—and the noise” of life (64). Montgomery offers a complex and conflicted defence of goodness, which is a lived theodicy where readers are invited to make friends with the darkness in order to see the light.
My paper is the second publication for the L.M. Montgomery & Vision collection that came out of our 2020 virtual conference, and I look forward to seeing a series of projects emerge on this theme. For those who also want to think more dynamically about the paper and the process of writing, I am still thinking about how I would like to create some sort of visual invitation to the piece. I find film work to be a long and fruitful process, but one that requires a lot of creative mental space (which I don’t have right now!). Perhaps that will come in the weeks ahead.
However, at the close of Season 1 of the MaudCast, I had the chance to sit down with Bonnie Tulloch, a Canadian PhD researcher. Bonnie won the 2018 Epperly award for her paper “Canadian “Anne-Girl[s]”: Literary Descendents of Montgomery’s Redheaded Heroine.” What was intended to be a conversation primarily about Bonnie’s work soon became something else. We did have a great chat about the “Anne-girl” figure in Canadian literature, as well as other cool literary topics. However, in collusion with the LMMI, Bonnie soon “flipped the microphone,” taking over the podcast to interview me about my paper. I think it is a conversation that readers would enjoy.
Once again, I would like to give my thanks to all involved: Lesley and Tara as tireless editors, Jane for life-giving precision, the anonymous peer-reviewers for committing time to make this a better piece, Bonnie for the conversation and encouragement along the way, and Betsy Epperly, Emily Woster, and Kate Scarth as adjudicators with Bonnie. As the L.M. Montgomery Chair at UPEI, Kate has also provided ceaseless encouragement and support, for which I am grateful. Behind the scenes at the Journal and the LMMI are dozens of committed volunteers, supporters, and student workers who make all of this possible. Thank you to the Becks for providing me a space to write a difficult piece in the perfect place: right next to Prince Edward Island’s stormy shoreline. And, as always, to Kerry who teaches me so much.