My rating: 7.5/10.
A slender little biography which hits most of the high points of L.M. Montgomery’s life and career. Perhaps better as an overview or an introduction versus a definitive exploration of this Canadian literary figure.
A good addition to the many works about this iconic writer. Already familiar with the story of Montgomery’s life, I must say that the most interesting bits, to me, were where the author (Urquhart) writes about Montgomery’s influence on her own development as a writer.
Even if you have read other L.M. Montgomery biographies, Urquhart’s covers the same material in a very readable way, with a dash of creative flair.
In the green master bedroom of a mock-Tudor house in the west end of the grey city of Toronto, a woman in late middle age lies dying, her pale arms almost as white as the sheet on which they are resting. It is April 24, 1942. Her failing body seems to her increasingly heavy, as if pulled by a great weight deeper and deeper into the flesh of the mattress. Outside, the air itself is weighted, saturated with the moisture of seasonal rain. Seeping into the room is the faintly discernible sound of the swollen river as it follows the path of the Humber Valley. The trees beyond the leaded windows have only just begun to show signs of spring.
In spite of what is about to happen, nothing in this room suggests struggle or discomfort: every cell of the woman’s body seems not so much in rebellion against life as dissolving into death, the way the rain outside her door is willingly dissolving into the earth…
The author almost lost me with her opening paragraphs. Urquhart’s biography of Lucy Maud Montgomery had received high praise when it was released several years ago as part of Penguin Canada’s 18-volume Extraordinary Canadians series, but this decidedly fictional opening shook me. Was this merely another “creative biography”? How on earth could Jane Urquhart have known any of these details, unless there somewhere exists a hyper-accurate account of Montgomery’s deathbed? There are no footnotes or references provided to suggest that this is the case.
The account of the expiration of Montgomery, and of her thoughts as she lies dying – the scene goes on for 9 pages – is purely speculative. Beautifully written, of course – it is Urquhart – but fiction.
Though the deathbed passages were pure fabrication, things improved considerably a bit further in. Though she never completely abandoned her occasional creative interpretations of Montgomery’s inner thoughts, those references became increasingly more plausible as Urquhart tells us of her reading of Montgomery’s diaries; we can more easily believe that the actual voice of Montgomery influenced Urquhart.
As I continued reading the biography, I appreciated the difficult task the author of it had taken on, to sort out the facts from the fictions of the life of this complicated, deeply troubled, rather tragically fated woman.
Urquhart cites Montgomery’s loss of her mother as a toddler, her cheerless upbringing by stoic grandparents, a dismal marriage to mentally disturbed husband, and beloved but disappointing children as reasons for her (Montgomery’s) continual efforts at reinvention of her own self through her personal writing. Montgomery’s diaries are known to have been continually edited and rewritten by the author as she progressed through her own life, which, though by no means devoid of joyful occurrences, close friends, and other good things, was so much less rosy than the fictional lives she created for her heroines.
Urquhart is a positively biassed – if occasionally “creative” – biographer in that she obviously admires her subject, and sympathizes with her, and seeks to understand what made her tick.
In spite of countless romantic references to moonlight and starlight in her fiction, and to rooms warmly lit by lamplight and by candlelight, it was shadow, not radiance, that most often claimed her once the sun had set. Her seeming addiction to detailing sunsets and twilights in her writing, if it sprang from anything at all beyond a poetic convention, may have come from a desire to hold on to the fading light. After the sunset came total, wide-awake darkness.
After my shaky initial start, I settled comfortably into reading the book, mentally sorting out the plums of fact from the lovely fictional bits and the author’s very interesting personal anecdotes. It was an enjoyable combination, but I would hesitate to rely on it as my only source of information on L.M. Montgomery’s life. It seems that Urquhart frequently assumes that the reader is already familiar with Montgomery’s body of work beyond the iconic Anne of Green Gables and its array of sequels; it assumes we are familiar with the era and the atmosphere in which the author lived and worked.
Keeping all of these things in mind, I would cheerfully recommend the book for those curious about L.M. Montgomery, and where she was “coming from” when she was crafting her overwhelmingly optimistic stories and novels. Montgomery’s truth, it turns out, is much darker and more compelling than her many fictions.