Skip to main content

One of the foremost experts on the life and literature of Lucy Maud Montgomery says she has "a totally different interpretation" of the death of the creator of Anne of Green Gables, one that does not necessarily point to Montgomery having committed suicide in her Toronto home in late April, 1942.

Mary Henley Rubio, professor emeritus of English at Ontario's University of Guelph, said in an e-mail interview that a note found on Montgomery's bedside table the afternoon she was found dead doesn't conclusively demonstrate that Montgomery willfully killed herself at 67 with a drug overdose.

Dr. Rubio, 68, said that there's "a much wider context for understanding that final 'note,'" which she believes she provides in her much anticipated biography of Montgomery, more than 30 years in preparation, to be released by Doubleday Canada next month, the 100th anniversary of the publication of Anne of Green Gables.

The scholar, famous for co-editing Montgomery's multi-volume journals posthumously published between 1985 and 2004, stressed that her views shouldn't be seen as contradicting those of Kate Macdonald Butler, one of Montgomery's grandchildren. In an article in last Saturday's Globe Focus section, Ms. Butler wrote: "What has never been revealed is that L.M. Montgomery took her own life . . . through a drug overdose."

Until last weekend, Montgomery's end was generally believed to be what her physician, Richard Lane, described in the death certificate: "coronary thrombosis" as a result of "arteriosclerosis and a very high degree of neurasthenia" (the last is a general, quasi-psychoanalytic term to describe a neurotic disorder characterized by chronic weakness and fatigue).

Ms. Butler, a principal of Heirs of L.M. Montgomery Inc., which controls much of the author's legacy, said in her article that she "wasn't told the details of what happened" the day her grandmother was found dead in her bedroom in west Toronto. Ms. Butler was born several years after her grandmother's death, and said she never saw the note that her father, StuartMacdonald, the youngest of Montgomery's two sons, a medical doctor, pocketed from the author's bedside the afternoon of April 24, 1942.

Dr. Rubio, however, has seen the note, which runs to 10 sentences and 148 words. Before his death in 1982, Dr. Macdonald suggested Dr. Rubio undertake his mother's biography and provided her with many important contacts and documents. The full text of the note is in the coming biography, Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings, and is reprinted in today's Globe and Mail.

Dr. Rubio, whose biography of almost 700 pages has not received the "authorized" stamp of Montgomery's surviving relatives, said in an e-mail interview earlier this week that "Kate [Macdonald Butler]is totally right that her dad believed his mother had committed suicide. She is right that it was a dark secret to carry all his life. She is right to show how the stigma associated with mental illness damages lives as much as mental illness itself. I am glad that the family has chosen to speak out through Kate."

At the same time, she said she did not know that Ms. Butler was preparing an article about her grandmother's death before her book's publication, nor had Ms. Butler seen Dr. Rubio's finished biography when she drafted her Globe and Mail article.

There's no question that Montgomery was "suffering unbearable psychological pain" at the time of her death, Dr. Rubio writes in her biography. One month before her death she'd even declared: "I shall be driven to end my life."

The wellsprings of her despair were largely twofold. Her husband of 31 years, Ewan Macdonald, a Presbyterian minister, was himself in a state of complete mental and physical collapse at this time and had been a burden on Montgomery for almost the duration of their dismal marriage. Moreover, her unemployed oldest son, Chester, 29, was living in the basement of their large house at 210A Riverside Dr. Described variously as messy, abusive, disrespectful and lazy, Chester was a deep source of disappointment to his mother, not least because he had separated from his wife Luella (whom he'd impregnated out of wedlock in 1932) and because he'd lost his partnership with a law firm in Aurora, Ont.

Add to this Montgomery's chronic dependency on a cocktail of bromides and barbiturates, including Nembutal, Barbital, Medinal and Luminal, and it's plausible that the author, fuzzy-headed and weak from weight loss, could have died even if she believed she was taking only "a small amount" of medication.

Whatever Montgomery's motivation, Dr. Rubio argues in her book that the note Dr. Lane and Montgomery's son found on her bedside table "was not . . . specifically a suicide note." It had, in fact, been written two days before her death, on the back of a 1939 royalty statement, clearly dated as such and with the number "176" at the top.

Dr. Rubio contends that the note very likely was the final page of a 176-page account of the years 1939-1942 that Montgomery expected one day to transcribe in more writerly fashion into her official journals. This had long been Montgomery's methodology - write something on scraps of available paper, then at some point - sometimes years later - copy it into her journals.

In folding the note into his pocket on April 24, 1942, Montgomery's son "would not have known" that 175 other pages were somewhere in the house, which Montgomery prophetically called "Journey's End" when she bought it in 1935. Rather, he "interpreted this page as a single stand-alone note written solely to explain her final despondency, and it is easy to see why he did."

Dr. Rubio notes that the other 175 pages have never been found and, among several scenarios, suggests that Chester Macdonald "very likely" discovered them after the removal of her mother's body, and destroyed or hid them. Mr. Macdonald, who died at 51 in 1964, had unimpeded access to all parts of the house. He knew his mother's writing habits and "he had good reason to think" whatever she had written "would contain much about him," very likely highly negative.

Dr. Rubio does not entirely dismiss the suicide theory, but yesterday she declined to say whether she believes it rests more solidly on other evidence besides the note. In the biography, she observes that a week before Montgomery's death, the author had been visited by a friend from Leaksdale, Ont., where Ewan Macdonald had been a minister for many years. "At the end of the visit, [the friend]told Maud that she would drop back in a week. Maud responded that she had doubts that she would still be there in a week. [The friend]did not understand what she meant, and left puzzled over the comment."

Writes Dr. Rubio: "Maud's comment to [the friend]. . . tips the evidence in the direction of a premeditated death by someone who was in the grip of a major depressive episode, and may or may not have understood that she was dependent on drugs that were killing her."

"Whatever the case," Dr. Rubio concludes, "death would have been welcome."

Dr. Mary Rubio delivers the Sybille Pantazzi Memorial Lecture on writing the life of Lucy Maud Montgomery Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books, 239 College St., Toronto.

Interact with The Globe