Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Beautiful stories out of the darkness

I finished reading the first volume of the Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery. This book begins in 1889 when she is 15, and ends in 1910, when she is 35 years old and has seen the success of her first two published novels in the "Anne" series.

Montgomery is very typical as a teenage girl. There is the youthful energy, the girlish dreams, and the stories of her social life with her friends. She seems to have enjoyed many friendships and is honest about their good and bad points. Her reflections at this age are amusing, and sometime a little shocking, especially some of her more blunt observations about her many suitors. It seems she was well-liked, and had an affinity for intellectual pursuits at an early age. There are problems, to be sure. Her grandparents, who are raising her, are old, strict, and inflexible. She often complains about not being able to bring any friends into the house. Her grandfather certainly had no use for her literary aspirations.

When Montgomery's grandfather died, she quit teaching to take care of her grandmother. This ushered a lengthy period where she battled depression. The winters were particularly hard. I cannot help but wonder if she suffered from S.A.D.D. She sounds quite desperate at times during the cold months, but when spring comes and she can be outdoors, she is optimistic and cheerful. It is if she has come to life again. Caring for her grandmother isolated her, and as she got older and her chances of marriage looked slim, she mentions more and more in her journal that she is lonely and desperate. Despite that, she often writes with beauty and eloquence, including many phrases and passages that are used in her books later. She loved beauty, and she loved Cavendish despite the isolated existence she lived.

Even after she was engaged to Ewan MacDonald, the man who became her husband (and had his own demons to fight with), and even after an overwhelmingly positive response to Anne of Green Gables, she talks regularly of her suffering and her despair over things she never names specifically. The biggest source of her melancholy seems to be the isolated life she lived while living with her grandmother.

On October 31, 1908, she says she has a feeling of "impending doom." She confesses, "I am too much alone." On November 10, 1908, she confesses that she has a "morbid horror" of seeing anyone and wants to hide when people do come. On October 23, 1908, she contemplates seeing a doctor, but is afraid to ask for help:
I ought to have medical advice; but I cannot consult any doctor here, for that would mean running the gauntlet of gossip and surmise; and it is difficult to consult one far away.
Later, in December, when she mentions medical attention again, she is not confident that the local doctor would not talk, making what she calls "smutty" comments. It's hard enough in 2014 to admit that we may have mental illness; I can't imagine how difficult it was back then to deal with it. So little was known and the stigma much greater.

Despite all of this, Montgomery's first novel, Anne of Green Gables was produced and warmly welcomed. One of the reviewers said it was a "book that radiates happiness and optimism." Montgomery reflects on the irony of this:
When I think of the conditions of worry and gloom and care under which it was written I wonder at this. Thank God, I can keep the shadows of my life out of my work. I would not wish to darken any other life -- I want instead to be a messenger of optimism and sunshine.
Her attitude is not common today. Now, it seems as if one becomes more successful the more dirt and angst they share with others.

In February, 1910, she recounts a month where she was particularly low. For an entire month she battled extreme anxiety:
I could not in a hundred pages detail all my sufferings during that awful time. I understand now what drives people to suicide.
I'm not sure what kind of medical help was available to her, but she did see a doctor eventually and treated for the insomnia at least.

The melancholia she experienced at this stage of her life, with her professional success just beginning, unfortunately returns later in her life. Reading her books over the years, I never would have imagined she lived in such darkness while producing such happy stories.