KITCHENER, Ont. — A rediscovered work of fiction by L.M. Montgomery, handed to the publisher on the day she died in 1942, could change the way Canadians think about the famous author of Anne of Green Gables and her writing.
Set for release on Tuesday, The Blythes Are Quoted reveals an author who no longer had the energy to sustain the romantic plots for which she was known, literary scholar Benjamin Lefebvre says.
Lefebvre, 32, is an academic from Waterloo, Ont., who found and edited the volume, Montgomery’s final book.
Its tone and content made it a challenge to find a publisher (that process took more than five years), but the collection of short stories, poems and dialogue, was eventually accepted by Penguin Canada.
The Blythes Are Quoted is the last book in a series that began with Anne of Green Gables, set in Prince Edward Island and first published in 1908. It takes the story of Anne and Gilbert Blythe, and their six children and housekeeper Susan Baker 20 years beyond anything previously published.
The intriguing book is divided into two sections, set before the First World War and after.
It’s full of surprises.
Adultery, illegitimacy, despair, misogyny, murder, revenge, bitterness, hatred, aging and death: these are the themes Lefebvre found in the volume.
“These aren’t usually the first terms associated with L.M. Montgomery,” Penguin says in a press release. “But in The Blythes Are Quoted, completed shortly before her death, Montgomery brought these topics to the forefront in what she intended to be the ninth volume in her bestselling series featuring her beloved heroine Anne.”
Lefebvre, whose home base is Waterloo, is an expert on L.M. Montgomery.
He is a visiting scholar at the L.M. Montgomery Institute at the University of Prince Edward Island and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Alberta where he studied and wrote about the “cultural capital” of Montgomery.
Lefebvre became curious when he learned that a previously published version, The Road To Yesterday in 1974, didn’t contain the whole work submitted by Montgomery.
He discovered “buried treasure” when he pored over typescripts in the University of Guelph’s archives. U of G is home to the largest collection of Montgomery memorabilia in Canada, including her handwritten journals, scrapbooks and some of her original typescripts.
For one thing, it’s a rather “weird” book, Lefebvre said in a telephone interview from England. With its mixture of poetry, prose and dialogue, “it’s very experimental. She’s still taking chances. It’s kind of avant-garde.”
It’s also possible publishers in 1942 didn’t want to publish a work that criticized war, as this one does, Montgomery scholar Elizabeth Rollins Epperly writes in the foreword to The Blythes are Quoted.
The anti-war sentiment is especially evident in a poem and dialogue at the end of the book in which Anne and her son, Jem, are remembering Walter Blythe, son, brother and the family poet. The book’s second half tells the reader that Walter was killed at Courcelette during the First World War.
Lefebvre re-read Montgomery’s earlier books — works that he’d first read as a teen. Even then, he’d felt he was missing something when he didn’t see the romance that appealed to the female audience.
“I’ve never been sucked into the romance. I don’t find it believable. That’s why I went to grad school . . . to figure out L.M. Montgomery.”
At U of G, Lefebvre found Montgomery gave the “happy story,” but would later undercut it.
“She’s been building up to this,” Lefebvre said. “She’s trying very hard to maintain the familiar and it’s not working anymore.”
Some of the stories in the final volume, like one called Retribution in which a woman with a long-simmering hatred sets out to avenge her sister, do not match what some readers would expect from the author of Anne of Green Gables, Lefebvre said.
Part of the challenge is that many people regard Montgomery as solely a children’s writer.
In fact, her work is for a general audience, including children, Lefebvre said, though “a child may not have the life knowledge to read between the lines.”
He said he hopes the book will make readers look back at Montgomery’s earlier books in the series with a new perspective.
“I hope this book will show there’s more to Montgomery than we think. This book doesn’t match our perception of Montgomery. Most of her work doesn’t match that perception. Our perception is too narrow.
“I hope people will reconsider the way they put Montgomery in this little box and then re-read her.”
While writing “The Blythes are Quoted,” Montgomery stayed within the patterns to which she and her readers were accustomed, themes such as orphans yearning for healthy homes, but the outcomes no longer fit, Lefebvre writes in his afterword to the volume.
There are stories focused on characters whose actions are driven by decades of bitterness, only to have the tables turned on them. There are elaborate deathbed scenes and there are plots that explore the ways in which the death of an adult can manipulate the lives of younger people, Lefebvre writes.
There are romantic prospects and responsible guardians, he notes, but there are also characters who are brutish, controlling, selfish and abusive.
It has been evident for many years now that Montgomery was not a happy person. Her own journals revealed her misery.
Her marriage was a “disaster” and she suffered from bouts of depression and despair throughout her adult life, Lefebvre said.
“Her journals helped more people go back to the books and see there is more.” Readers of her fiction could see “shades of the cracks.”
In September 2008, a granddaughter of Montgomery made public her belief that the author’s death on April 24, 1942, was the result of a drug overdose that may have been deliberate.
Montgomery’s newspaper obituary “offers a tantalizing hint about the new book’s relationship to the end of her life,” Lefebvre said.
It says that Montgomery had compiled a collection of magazine stories written years ago and that they had been placed in the hands of a publisher on the day she died, Lefebvre said.
That supports the theory that her death was suicide, Lefebvre said, adding that anyone who’d read Montgomery’s journals was not likely shocked by the notion that the author killed herself. However, “we’ll never know for sure,” he added.
Lefebvre said he is curious to know how readers will react to “The Blythes Are Quoted.” He said he encourages his own students to “dig deeper” when it comes to Montgomery’s books. Even so, he said, he has been accused “of ruining people’s childhoods” by making them re-read her books.
“Reading something critically is not about ruining it.” It’s about appreciating it in more detail and understanding what the book is doing, he said.
“My hope is that whatever their reaction, they’ll re-read Montgomery. She is, I find, the most compelling case study in Canadian literature.”