Skip to main content
from saturday's books section

Jane Urquhart

Jane Urquhart's L.M. Montgomery appears in the Extraordinary Canadians series alongside Stephen Leacock, by Margaret MacMillan, Nellie McClung, by Charlotte Gray, Big Bear, by Rudy Wiebe, and others. As series editor John Ralston Saul writes in the book's introduction: "The authors I have chosen for each subject are not the obvious experts. They are imaginative, questioning minds from among our leading writers and activists. They have, each one of them, a powerful connection to their subject."

Urquhart, the acclaimed author of A Map of Glass (2005), Away (1993) and The Whirlpool (1986), has a spiritual kinship with Lucy Maud Montgomery, whose beloved Anne and Emily series prefigure the assortment of "eccentricities and frailties" that are found in Urquhart's own fiction. In The Whirlpool, for example, Fleda is, like Emily and Montgomery, an addictive journal writer who takes to the woods, while the undertaker's widow, whose name, coincidentally, is also Maud, compulsively collects the personal possessions of people drowned in Niagara Falls, also like Montgomery, who collected all and sundry in her scrapbooks, down to the hair from her various cats.

The book's somewhat surreal cover illustration by Anita Kuntz depicts the author of Anne of Green Gables literally with her head in the clouds, wearing Green Gables like a hat or a crown, her gaze fixed into the distance. The long hands, holding a long-stemmed thorny red rose, are stylized in the manner of Christian icons depicting Jesus Christ after the resurrection, with his hand pointing to the wound on his chest. Just so, Urquhart suggests, Montgomery was a kind of saint in her devotion to art, not in a corny, sentimental way, but embracing art as a vocation that filled her with a quasi-religious ecstasy.

In this, Urquhart reads Montgomery through her writer-heroine Emily Byrd Starr (who proclaims in the 1925 novel Emily Climbs : "I shall be wedded to my art"). In fact, the autobiographical Emily trilogy was highly influential for Urquhart's own development as a writer. As she reports in the 1989 afterword to Emily Climbs, she had read and reread the novels when she was 12 and 13, kept diaries like Emily and responded fiercely to the beauty of the landscape.

In L.M. Montgomery, Urquhart writes about her subject's literary influence more generally: "Essentially, she gave permission to succeeding generations of Canadian writers to mythologize their dusty small towns and marginal farms, their daily lives and those of their seemingly unexceptional neighbours."

In her biographical account of Jane Austen, Carol Shields writes that "the point of literary biography is to throw light on a writer's works, rather than combing the works to re-create the author." Urquhart elegantly evokes Montgomery's work and working conditions by situating her among her contemporaries, such as Edith Wharton, whose upper-class background gave her substantially more freedom than Montgomery enjoyed (even freedom to divorce her husband); or the young Willa Cather, author of O Pioneers! (1913), whose rural upbringing in Nebraska shares similarities with Maud's, yet whose involvement in lesbian relationships "followed a route very different from that taken by a bright young heterosexual woman interested in literature yet wanting acceptance in the sphere of ordinary domesticity."

Biography is a genre that thrives on the accumulation of fine details, descriptive anecdotes and luscious detours afforded by long-time sleuthing. Given the sheer volume of source material, including comprehensive biographies and monographs, in addition to Montgomery's journals and letters, the challenge to compress into 150 pages a life as voluminous as L.M. Montgomery's might daunt a lesser writer. Urquhart, however, gracefully advances chronology by focusing each chapter on a relevant theme of Montgomery's life: Orphan, Love, In a Man's World, Sorrow, Places, The Work, Madness, and Sleep.

We travel to Cavendish and Park Corner on Prince Edward Island for Maud's childhood to adulthood and professional success, before accompanying the married woman to Leaskdale and Norval in Ontario and into the final years of decline in Toronto. With its brevity, the book is a rich tour de force of Montgomery's life.

Yet occasionally, devotees may stumble over a tension between the non-fiction and the fiction writer. For example, Anne of Green Gables was published not in May, as stated in the book, but in June - on June 13, 1908, to be exact. For the fiction writer, the difference may not be important, since both May and June connote spring; but there is a world of difference for the biographer hungry for accuracy.

Moreover, while Urquhart shows a healthy skepticism in questioning the reliability of Montgomery's journals, why would Montgomery's photographs (also shaped and manipulated as aesthetic products) convey more authentic truths than the journals, as Urquhart suggests?

Still, Urquhart's fierce admiration of Montgomery, evident throughout the book, ultimately carries the day. In the final chapter, entitled Her Reader, she dramatizes the powerful intimacy Montgomery was able to cultivate with her reader. Relaying the fascinating story of her mother Marian at 11, growing up in the farming country in Northumberland County, Ontario, Urquhart writes: "She will never forget her shock of recognition after opening a brownish-green book with a lovely young woman's profile on the cover."

After reading Anne in July, Marian spent August reading Emily of New Moon. Through Marian, and her gifted daughter's literary pen, we experience the power of reading Montgomery's tales of friendship and bonding. As Urquhart writes, "The Anne books and the Emily books have electrified her own life, added meaning and intensity even to the most ordinary of its attributes."

Urquhart's own words about her mother most certainly apply to herself. L.M. Montgomery always wished she had had a daughter, and it appears that she received her wish in the generations of female authors in Canada who trace their literary lineage to Montgomery, showing similar preoccupations with landscape, with rural settings, with diary writing, with asserting the female self. With this contribution to the Extraordinary Canadians series, Jane Urquhart has proclaimed herself L.M. Montgomery's daughter.

Irene Gammel holds the Canada Research Chair in Modern Literature and Culture at Ryerson University in Toronto. She is the author of Looking for Anne: How Lucy Maud Montgomery Dreamed Up a Literary Classic, a book that uncovers the mystery of how Anne was born.