While Lucy Maud Montgomery was a prodigious journal-keeper, leaving us thousands of pages of material to study in the decades after her death, she was far less dedicated as a memoirist. Thus, it is sometimes hard to know how to evaluate Montgomery’s self-portrait in the perky, breezy, and all-too-brief 1917 serial memoir that later became The Alpine Path. From what I can discern, though, there is truth in L.M. Montgomery‘s claims that The Story Girl is
“my own favourite among my books, the one that gave me the greatest pleasure to write, the one whose characters and landscape seem to me most real.”
A short story-centred coming-of-age tale told by one of the main characters reflecting back on his childhood, The Story Girl was Montgomery’s fourth book, written just a couple of years after Anne of Green Gables stunned the world–and Montgomery, no less–as a bestseller. As she writes The Story Girl and moves it toward publication, her grandmother passed away–the woman who had become Montgomery‘s charge and whose death finally sealed in Montgomery’s orphanhood. Within months, Montgomery would close up her childhood home with her writing nook under the gable window, marry, tour Scotland and England, and move to a small town in Ontario. The Story Girl sequel published in 1913, The Golden Road, was Montgomery’s sixth book, and she had completed nine books by the time she writes the story of her “career” for Everywoman’s World, later published as The Alpine Path (1974).
Written in the intensity of her life’s moments, The Story Girl had a second intimate connection for Montgomery:
“It was the last book I wrote in my old home by the gable window where I had spent so many happy hours of creation.”
Although the eight children at the centre of the tale were purely imaginary creations, the funny and frightening figure of Peg Bowen emerged from Montgomery’s history–
“a half-wined, gypsy-like personage who roamed at large for many years over the Island and was the terror of my childhood.”
The other character most clearly from Montgomery’s real history was the old “King Orchard”–a mental blend of the two orchards in the places she called home: her be-gabled grandparents’ home in Cavendish and the Park Corner home where she found her closest friend and where she was married (and, incidentally, the home becomes the fictional “Silver Bush” of the Pat books).
In opening my Seal Books edition of The Story Girl the other night–a few weeks behind in the L.M. Montgomery Readathon, though I’m catching up–I was struck once again by Montgomery’s imaginative wordplay, her exquisite natural description, and her intensely empathetic storytelling perspective. All of these features–and her capacity for evoking both “journey” and “home” without residual tension–is presented to us with remarkable literary simplicity. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon startles me every time I read it. Anne of Green Gables is a wondrous creation, and Anne’s House of Dreams is a moving novel of literary and philosophical depth. The Blue Castle and Jane of Lantern Hill are overlooked Canadian classics–and endlessly curious novels for the perceptive reader, though in quite different ways.
These are the “greats” of Montgomery’s writing desk and “go-to” books for many. But The Story Girl warrants its place as first among equals.
It is beyond my ken to know whether or not the local witches and wanderers of Prince Edward Island‘s history had the technical capacities for which they are variously famous and infamous. Otherwise, though, The Story Girl and The Golden Road are entirely realistic works of fiction, mimetic books of psychological insight and personal growth within the adventures and curiosities on the golden road of youth.
While presenting itself as a work of realism, however, there is something of magic about The Story Girl–something of rapture and fancy that stretches our imaginative sense of the possible.
In the opening pages of The Story Girl, Montgomery delicately introduces the fantastic possibilities. The memoir-writer, Beverly, is going with his brother Felix to their ancestral home in Prince Edward Island. With memory, movement, landscape, colour, taste, and fragrance, Montgomery draws us the reader into the King homestead of nostalgia and memory, which for the narrator is a return to home that is also a setting out.
Following train rides and family meetings and kinship at table, Felix and Bev awake at dawn to explore the countryside on their first morning in Prince Edward Island. Their first destination is the King Orchard–the re-creation of Montgomery’s childhood that has become for the King family a legend in the age. In an era of reading filled with faërie stories, narrative poetry, and pilgrim allegories, one must watch the garden gates, for they are the thresholds into other worlds of fancy, hope, and spirit. Stepping out the front door with a rare south breeze and swelling hearts, Bev and Felix find their way to the spruce hedge that borders the King Orchard:
“we had only to open that little whitewashed gate in the hedge and we might find ourselves in its storied domain.”
So close, and yet they do not yet enter that space of enchantment. For at that moment–in the domain of the wondrous wayfaring wizards the worlds over–Felix and Beverly are good-morninged by the Story Girl.
The reader’s charm in encountering the Story Girl is no less than Felix and Bev, who are enthralled by their cousin. More than bodily grace and a buoyant charismatic charm–but not less than these–the Story Girl weaves a spell in their meeting. We know this spell in other storied worlds, don’t we? The Story Girl beckons, names, and makes a fellowship with the adventurers on the way.
As Montgomery reveals the enthralling magic of the Story Girl’s spell, we can never forget how closely linked that older English word “spell” is to “story”–the story we are reading, the Story Girl herself, and the “storied domain” of the old King orchard. For the storytelling pilgrim’s hand was nearly at the garden gate when the Story Girl called, and now she leads them across the threshold:
“The latch of the gate clicked under the Story Girl’s hand, and the next moment we were in the King orchard.”
The chapter that follows, chapter three, is “Legends of the Old Orchard.” And so the story begins. But the spell itself is already in place. So I leave for you this delicately entwined enchantment of Montgomery’s imagination, the old King Orchard and the Story Girl.
Then we opened the front door and stepped out, rapture swelling in our bosoms. There was a rare breeze from the south blowing to meet us; the shadows of the spruces were long and clear-cut; the exquisite skies of early morning, blue and wind-winnowed, were over us; away to the west, beyond the brook field, was a long valley and a hill purple with firs and laced with still leafless beeches and maples.
Behind the house was a grove of fir and spruce, a dim, cool place where the winds were fond of purring and where there was always a resinous, woodsy odour. On the further side of it was a thick plantation of slender silver birches and whispering poplars; and beyond it was Uncle Roger’s house.
Right before us, girt about with its trim spruce hedge, was the famous King orchard, the history of which was woven into our earliest recollections. We knew all about it, from father’s descriptions, and in fancy we had roamed in it many a time and oft.
It was now nearly sixty years since it had had its beginning, when Grandfather King brought his bride home. Before the wedding he had fenced off the big south meadow that sloped to the sun; it was the finest, most fertile field on the farm, and the neighbours told young Abraham King that he would raise many a fine crop of wheat in that meadow. Abraham King smiled and, being a man of few words, said nothing; but in his mind he had a vision of the years to be, and in that vision he saw, not rippling acres of harvest gold, but great, leafy avenues of wide-spreading trees laden with fruit to gladden the eyes of children and grandchildren yet unborn.
It was a vision to develop slowly into fulfilment. Grandfather King was in no hurry. He did not set his whole orchard out at once, for he wished it to grow with his life and history, and be bound up with all of good and joy that should come to his household. So the morning after he had brought his young wife home they went together to the south meadow and planted their bridal trees. These trees were no longer living; but they had been when father was a boy, and every spring bedecked themselves in blossom as delicately tinted as Elizabeth King’s face when she walked through the old south meadow in the morn of her life and love.
When a son was born to Abraham and Elizabeth a tree was planted in the orchard for him. They had fourteen children in all, and each child had its “birth tree.” Every family festival was commemorated in like fashion, and every beloved visitor who spent a night under their roof was expected to plant a tree in the orchard. So it came to pass that every tree in it was a fair green monument to some love or delight of the vanished years. And each grandchild had its tree, there, also, set out by grandfather when the tidings of its birth reached him; not always an apple tree—perhaps it was a plum, or cherry or pear. But it was always known by the name of the person for whom, or by whom, it was planted; and Felix and I knew as much about “Aunt Felicity’s pears,” and “Aunt Julia’s cherries,” and “Uncle Alec’s apples,” and the “Rev. Mr. Scott’s plums,” as if we had been born and bred among them.
And now we had come to the orchard; it was before us; we had only to open that little whitewashed gate in the hedge and we might find ourselves in its storied domain. But before we reached the gate we glanced to our left, along the grassy, spruce-bordered lane which led over to Uncle Roger’s; and at the entrance of that lane we saw a girl standing, with a gray cat at her feet. She lifted her hand and beckoned blithely to us; and, the orchard forgotten, we followed her summons. For we knew that this must be the Story Girl; and in that gay and graceful gesture was an allurement not to be gainsaid or denied.
We looked at her as we drew near with such interest that we forgot to feel shy. No, she was not pretty. She was tall for her fourteen years, slim and straight; around her long, white face—rather too long and too white—fell sleek, dark-brown curls, tied above either ear with rosettes of scarlet ribbon. Her large, curving mouth was as red as a poppy, and she had brilliant, almond-shaped, hazel eyes; but we did not think her pretty.
Then she spoke; she said,
Never had we heard a voice like hers. Never, in all my life since, have I heard such a voice. I cannot describe it. I might say it was clear; I might say it was sweet; I might say it was vibrant and far-reaching and bell-like; all this would be true, but it would give you no real idea of the peculiar quality which made the Story Girl’s voice what it was.
If voices had colour, hers would have been like a rainbow. It made words live. Whatever she said became a breathing entity, not a mere verbal statement or utterance. Felix and I were too young to understand or analyze the impression it made upon us; but we instantly felt at her greeting that it was a good morning—a surpassingly good morning—the very best morning that had ever happened in this most excellent of worlds.
“You are Felix and Beverley,” she went on, shaking our hands with an air of frank comradeship, which was very different from the shy, feminine advances of Felicity and Cecily. From that moment we were as good friends as if we had known each other for a hundred years.
Another stimulating contribution to the critical assessment of L.M. Montgomery! Congratulations, Brenton?
You mention, in passing, “The Blue Castle”, as an overlooked Canadian classic. I bought a rather clumsy A4 reprint of this for my wife (and myself) a few years ago, and we both felt it was pleasant, but predictable. Maybe, as non-Canadians, we are missing something. I would be interested, Brenton, if you have time and interest, to have some commentary on “The Blue Castle” that could redirect our attention and enrich our appreciation.
Keep up the excellent work!
Perhaps my reading and rereading of The Blue Castle has wound me to it, but I like the humour of it and the deeply inappropriate conversations and images (for what Montgomery would be expected to write).
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