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Spotlight on Vintage Book Reviews

The L.M. Montgomery Reader, Volume 3: A Legacy in Review

I’m pleased to let you all know that I’ve now returned to the publisher my corrected proofs of the third and final volume of The L.M. Montgomery Reader, subtitled A Legacy in Review. Proofreading this last volume took quite a bit of time, energy, and patience, partly because the manuscript was far too long (as was the case with the two preceding volumes!), and so the published volume includes 370 reviews in their entirety, as opposed to 410 as originally planned (as well as extracts from several hundred more). But also, proofreading the volume gave me one last chance to go through all my files and make sure I hadn’t left out something crucial. And when I saw that some of the PDFs had been on my hard drive since early 2009—before even the publication of The Blythes Are Quoted—and that some of my hard copies are from even earlier, it finally dawned on me how many years this project has been keeping me busy.

I’m not quite ready to let go of this project, though. In fact, in anticipation of the book’s publication early in January, I’m going to share a selection of book reviews from across Montgomery’s career: either an extract of a review included in the book or part of a review that was not included. Most of the material in the book has never been collected in book form before, so what it offers is a unique look at Montgomery’s critical reception during her lifetime and how that evolved thanks to twenty-four additional books published after her death.

I’ve found it quite astounding that reviewers saw immediately what we now see in Montgomery’s work: her sense of humour, her sense of place, and the relatability of her characters were all commented on in these reviews right from the start. A review of Rainbow Valley in the John O’Groats Journal in Scotland reveals a response to Montgomery’s work that no doubt still resonates with readers today:

There are few writers who get such a hold on their readers. The spontaneous humour and sunshiny philosophy of her books banish care for the moment, and, lightly written as her books seem to be, there is marked ability in always maintaining the interest of the story at its highest pitch. After all, it is difficult to write a story about young people which will appeal to the mature tastes of grown-ups. How this is done is Miss Montgomery’s secret. Anne of Green Gables was, on its first appearance, regarded with suspicion as being merely a girl’s book, but before two months had passed it was the treasured possession of countless grandfathers and grandmothers. . . . [Rainbow Valley] is a book that can be read with pleasure by young and old alike. Its mingling of pathos and humour, and its healthy contempt for undue sentimentality, mark it out from its fellows as something quite out of the common.

And so, I’m hopeful this last volume of The L.M. Montgomery Reader will give Montgomery’s readers of today a sense of continuity with her very first reviewers a century ago. There’s always something new to discover about Montgomery—her life, her work, her legacy. And that’s what makes it all worthwhile!

Anne of Green Gables (1908)

Anne of Green Gables is worth a thousand of the problem stories with which the bookshelves are crowded to-day, and we venture the opinion that this simple story of rural life in Canada will be read and reread when many of the more pretentious stories are all forgotten. There is not a dull page in the whole volume, and the comedy and tragedy are so deftly woven together that it is at times difficult to divide them. The story is told by an author who knows the Island of Prince Edward thoroughly, and who has carefully observed the human tide which flows through that Island, as it does over all places where human beings live. With the pen of an artiste she has painted that tide so that its deep tragedies are just lightly revealed, for she evidently prefers to show us the placid flow, with its steadiness, its sweetness, and witchery, until the reader stands still to watch the play of sunshine and shadow as it is deftly pictured by the hand of the author of Anne of Green Gables.”
Globe (Toronto)

“We have much pleasure in drawing attention to this novel, not only because it is, in our opinion, the most fascinating book of the season, but because its author, Miss Montgomery, is a resident of Prince Edward Island, where the scene of the story is laid, and is evidently a keen student of both nature and human nature. The fact that the volume was published quite recently, and is now in its second large edition, is a sufficient guarantee of its unusual merit; but it is almost impossible for readers to guess even vaguely the treat that awaits them in its perusal.”
—George Murray, Montreal Daily Star

Anne of Avonlea (1908)

“Such delightful stories are much to be desired, both for their clean, wholesome influence and the fact that they are in utter contrast to the many silly, sentimental love stories of the day and the tiresome mystery and problem stories of exceedingly doubtful literary value. The reading public is surfeited with such stories. Let us hope to hear more of Anne in the not too far distant future—to say nothing of Gilbert.”
—Robert A. Turner, Des Moines News

“Any one who has to do with dogs knows that between their irresistible puppyhood, when humans of all ages love them, and their comradely maturity, when human grown-ups chum with them, there is an interval during which children avoid them, grown-ups lose patience with them and they would be quite neglected, did not idealistic youth lead them about with a string around their necks. So, at times, with books. Last year, we met “Anne of Green Gables,” an irresistible child-woman, and loved her. Some day—who knows?—we may meet her full grown and chum with her. But Anne of Avonlea, by L.M. Montgomery, is Anne betwixt and between—a book for girls.”
—J.B. Kerfoot, Life

Kilmeny of the Orchard (1910)

“As will be seen, the plot is not particularly novel, but the charm and beauty of the story rest in its descriptive passages and in the manner in which it is told. It is one of those tales of the outdoors that are especially pleasing in summer—and, as all summer reading should be, it is not too long—merely a well-told, simple narrative of a little known part of the world and some delightful people.”
Washington (DC) Herald

The Story Girl (1911)

“Not since Anne of Green Gables has Miss Montgomery written anything so charming as this new story. Indeed, it is likely that many of her admirers will declare that The Story Girl is superior to even the first great success scored by the author. Prince Edward Island is again made the scene of a story by this gifted writer, and although the principal characters are children the novel will be read with deep interest by adults, for the delightful heroine charms old and young alike with her magnetic personality and her wonderful stories. There is a rich vein of humor running through the book, but more noteworthy is the evidence that Miss Montgomery has made a thorough study of human nature and has put her knowledge to good use in the development of her new romance.”
Pittsburgh Chronicle Telegraph

“Among the popular new books is The Story Girl, by L.M. Montgomery. Like the author’s first success, Anne of Green Gables, it is a story of children for grown-ups. It makes pleasant reading.”
The Catholic World (New York)

“The average girl of from twelve to twenty years would read The Story Girl, Miss L.M. Montgomery’s latest story, with juvenile delight. Therefore to that extent at least the book is a noteworthy achievement. And if it has the magic that charms, even though the charmed be of tender years, it should be heralded as such and treated as an entertainment for the young.”
The Canadian Magazine (Toronto)

Chronicles of Avonlea (1912)

“In this volume the author establishes her right to be considered one of the best short story writers in our country.”
Oakland Tribune

“The author shows a wonderful knowledge of humanity, great insight and warm-heartedness in the manner in which some of the scenes are treated, and the sympathetic way the gentle peculiarities of the characters are brought out.”
Boston Globe

“To say that the Chronicles of Avonlea is a better book than Miss Montgomery’s other books is in the nature of trying to gild refined gold. But as impossible as the feat may seem, this delightful Canadian woman is improving as her pen becomes more practiced.”
Rochester Herald

“To say that one sketch was better than another would be to insinuate that the latter was not just as good as it possibly could be. Which would be insinuating something utterly untrue.”
Mail and Empire (Toronto)

“It is to be hoped . . . that there will be another ‘Anne’ story. There are other interesting people in Avonlea, but there is only one Anne.”
Boston Evening Transcript

The Watchman and Other Poems (1916)

“Miss Montgomery has an extraordinary gift of imagery. Like so many of the big people of her craft she has a sensuous instinct for color, and she displays her skill in this direction in almost every line. The piece which gives the title to the volume is a powerful account of the Resurrection, told in verse that swings along like music; with a wealth of description that makes it like a poem painted in rich colors; and with a dignity and a restrained tenderness that scarcely fail in a single line.”
Montreal News

Anne’s House of Dreams (1917)

“The story is a genuine romance of matrimony, a household idyl, and there is in it humor, pathos and a rich humanity. It is a healthy, homely, unpretentious novel told in a simple, spontaneous style. In many respects it is the best thing Miss Montgomery has written.”
Rochester Post Express

Rainbow Valley (1919)

“Beneath the elusiveness and the atmospheric charm of the Montgomery tales there is a wonderful firmness of character-drawing. She never repeats herself; every adult and every youngster whom she introduces is sketched before the reader’s mind in a few lines, by little character-revealing actions and utterances, and every one is distinct and separate and consistent. Every novelist knows how difficult it is to make children stand out as human individuals, but in these three hundred pages or so Miss Montgomery does this for ten or a dozen of the most lovable and scandalous youngsters who ever got together in one volume. They elbow into the background a bunch of adults who would be interesting enough if the youngsters were not so much more so; and they leave us with a determination to get a sequel out of their author by hook or by crook, so that we may find out what becomes of them after they grow up and the Great War has come to darken their young lives.”
The Canadian Bookman (Ste. Anne de Bellevue, QC)

Rilla of Ingleside (1921)

“As a record of the war years, as seen from Glen St. Mary, the author has presented a faithful and worthy picture, spiced by realistic conversation and records of sentiment, and often illuminated by poetic touches in describing the charm of life in that island garden.”
Globe (Toronto)

“A hundred years hence, Rilla of Ingleside will be useful to historians for a picture of Canadian home life during the Great War. Every great event of the conflict is traced with its effects on Ingleside, and Walter, the shy, sensitive boy, the poet of the family, takes his leave—but, why spoil the story?”
Manitoba Free Press (Winnipeg)

Emily’s Quest (1927)

“In spite of its title, [Emily’s Quest] is a clean, invigorating contribution to Mrs. Montgomery’s literary family. It abounds in human interest and appeal and will be gratefully received by the many who still like to be refreshed by romances that show such a sympathetic understanding of young people who think and act rightly.”
San Antonio Jewish Record

Magic for Marigold (1929)

“It would be too bad if anyone should think of this as a children’s book and so miss it, for while it is that, it is much more. It has character analysis, accurate genetic psychology, poetic quality, and a style. Also it makes you laugh, makes you cry; the spirit of it is contagious.”
—Mary Hinkley, Chicago Evening Post

A Tangled Web (1931)

A Tangled Web is a decided change from L.M. Montgomery’s usual style of romance so much beloved by her large Canadian public. Though the action takes place in the usual delightful surroundings of small town life in lovely Prince Edward Island, the author has given us in flowing language a robust and versatile clan saga in which a vast number of Darks and Penhallows mingle in a kaleidoscopic mixture of colors and variety. . . . Tragedies, romances, quarrels, comic incidents and ridiculous situations jostle thick and fast in the many pages of the book, and the author is to be congratulated on the skill with which she differentiates the individual characters. Prince Edward Island lies before us in all the beauty of color, sound and surging shores, and the wealth of local color and the quaint personalities of village life are a charm alike to sophisticated and simple readers. The book should prove a popular addition to every bookshelf.”
Toronto Telegram

Jane of Lantern Hill (1937)

“[Montgomery] has the knack of making the reader instantly at home with the characters and the places—all so affectionately described, in such vivid, simple atmosphere, with such apt descriptions and animated natural dialogue. Jane’s escape from the repressive grandeur of 60 Gay St. and her adventures on the Island are the focus of the story; but the old grandmother is quite as fascinating as Jane.”
Toronto Daily Star

“This book may rate as a juvenile, but older people will perhaps appreciate its sentiment more than their juniors.”
Springfield (MA) Sunday Union and Republican

“[The novel] reveals a remarkable understanding of human emotions, joys and sorrows.”
Dudley Herald (UK)

“As in Miss Montgomery’s other novels, there is a freshness, a naturalness and a charm about this that, with its humour, makes it delightful to read.”
Auckland Star (New Zealand)

Conclusion

The samples above should indicate that Montgomery’s books received overwhelmingly positive reviews throughout her lifetime, but reviewers were not quite unanimous in their praise. In fact, one of the first known reviews of Anne of Green Gables, appearing in The New York Times Saturday Review, suggests that the unidentified reviewer is more than a little taken aback by Anne, referred to here as “one of the most extraordinary girls that ever came out of an ink pot”:

The author undoubtedly meant her to be queer, but she is altogether too queer. She was only 11 years old when she reached the house in Prince Edward Island that was to be her home, but, in spite of her tender years, and in spite of the fact that, excepting for four months spent in the asylum, she had passed all her life with illiterate folks, and had had almost no schooling, she talked to the farmer and his sister as though she had borrowed Bernard Shaw’s vocabulary, Alfred Austin’s sentimentality, and the reasoning powers of a Justice of the Supreme Court. She knew so much that she spoiled the author’s plan at the very outset and greatly marred a story that had in it quaint and charming possibilities.

This approach to Montgomery’s first book hardly set the stage for the reviews that followed, however: as she explained in a letter to her pen pal Ephraim Weber (included in The Green Gables Letters from L.M. Montgomery to Ephraim Weber, 1905–1909, published in 1960) concerning the sixty reviews she had received within three months of the book’s publication, “two were harsh, one contemptuous, two mixed praise and blame and the remaining fifty-five were kind and flattering beyond my highest expectations. So I feel satisfied as far as that goes.” She then copied out some extracts, and while her list includes one for “N.Y. Times,” it reads somewhat differently in this version: “A mawkish, tiresome impossible heroine, combining the sentimentality of an Alfred Austin with the vocabulary of Bernard Shaw. Anne is a bore.”

Whether they were “kind and flattering” or “harsh” or anything in between, Montgomery kept copies of these reviews in a number of scrapbooks as a unique record of her career. Both positive and negative reviews reveal so much to twenty-first-century readers in terms of literary trends or what Montgomery referred to as “the public taste.” And that’s one reason why studying a representative sample of reviews of an author’s work reveals so much about how her first readers interpreted her books alongside those of all of her contemporaries.

Bibliography

Auckland Star (New Zealand). Review of Jane of Lantern Hill, by L.M. Montgomery. 18 December 1937, Week-End Pictorial, 12.

Boston Evening Transcript. Review of Chronicles of Avonlea, by L.M. Montgomery. 17 July 1912, 18. Scrapbook of Reviews, 34. Also as “[Middle-Aged Love Stories of Unusual Type]” in Lefebvre, The L.M. Montgomery Reader, 3: 121.

Boston Globe. “Book of Smiles and Tears.” Review of Chronicles of Avonlea, by L.M. Montgomery. 8 June 1912, 11. Also in Lefebvre, The L.M. Montgomery Reader, 3: 116–17.

The Canadian Bookman (Ste. Anne de Bellevue, QC). “Four Clever Women Novelists.” Review of Rainbow Valley, by L.M. Montgomery; Mist of Morning, by Isabel Ecclestone Mackay; Janet of Kootenay, by Evah McKowan; Joan at Halfway, by Grace McLeod Rogers. October 1919, 59–60. Scrapbook of Reviews, 161–62. Excerpted as “[A Clever Woman Novelist]” in Lefebvre, The L.M. Montgomery Reader, 3: 207–9.

The Canadian Magazine (Toronto). Review of The Story Girl, by L.M. Montgomery. November 1911, 92. Scrapbook of Reviews, 5. Also as “[An Entertainment for the Young]” in Lefebvre, The L.M. Montgomery Reader, 3: 107–8.

The Catholic World (New York). Review of The Story Girl, by L.M. Montgomery. October 1911, 116. Also as “[A Story of Children for Grown-Ups]” in Lefebvre, The L.M. Montgomery Reader, 3: 106.

Dudley Herald (UK). “An Unwanted Child.” Review of Jane of Lantern Hill, by L.M. Montgomery. 3 November 1937. Scrapbook of Reviews, loose pages.

Globe (Toronto). Review of Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery. 15 August 1908, Saturday Magazine Section, 5. Also as “[A Story So Pure and Sweet]” in Lefebvre, The L.M. Montgomery Reader, 3: 56–57.

—. Review of Rilla of Ingleside, by L.M. Montgomery. 1 October 1921, 19. Scrapbook of Reviews, 183–84. Also as “[A Faithful and Worthy Picture]” in Lefebvre, The L.M. Montgomery Reader, 3: 229–30.

Hinkley, Mary. “Successor to Anne of Green Gables.” Review of Magic for Marigold, by L.M. Montgomery. Chicago Evening Post, 11 October 1929, 9.

Journal (John O’Groats, UK). Review of Rainbow Valley, by L.M. Montgomery. Ca. 1919. Scrapbook of Reviews, 154.

Kerfoot, J.B. Review of Anne of Avonlea, by L.M. Montgomery. Life (New York), 25 November 1909, 746.

Lefebvre, Benjamin, ed. The L.M. Montgomery Reader, Volume 3: A Legacy in Review. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.

Mail and Empire (Toronto). Review of Chronicles of Avonlea, by L.M. Montgomery. Ca. 1912. Scrapbook of Reviews, 46.

Manitoba Free Press (Winnipeg). Review of Rilla of Ingleside, by L.M. Montgomery. 3 December 1921, Christmas Books Section, 2. Scrapbook of Reviews, 194. Also as “[Useful to Historians]” in Lefebvre, The L.M. Montgomery Reader, 3: 236.

Montgomery, L.M. The Green Gables Letters from L.M. Montgomery to Ephraim Weber, 1905–1909. Edited by Wilfrid Eggleston. Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1960.

Montreal News. Review of The Watchman and Other Poems, by L.M. Montgomery. 27 November 1916. Scrapbook of Reviews, 92.

Murray, George. Review of Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery. Montreal Daily Star, 8 August 1908, 2.

New York Times Saturday Review. “A Heroine from an Asylum.” Review of Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery. 18 July 1908, 404. Also in Lefebvre, The L.M. Montgomery Reader, 3: 52–53.

Oakland Tribune. Review of Chronicles of Avonlea, by L.M. Montgomery. 30 June 1912, 10.

Pittsburgh Chronicle Telegraph. Review of The Story Girl, by L.M. Montgomery. Ca. June 1911. Scrapbook of Reviews, 5. Also as “[A Magnetic Personality]” in Lefebvre, The L.M. Montgomery Reader, 3: 96.

Rochester Post Express. Review of Anne’s House of Dreams, by L.M. Montgomery. 5 October 1917. Scrapbook of Reviews, 103.

Rochester Herald. Review of Chronicles of Avonlea, by L.M. Montgomery. Undated clipping, ca. 1912. Scrapbook of Reviews, 44. Also as “[Stories of Real People]” in Lefebvre, The L.M. Montgomery Reader, 3: 131.

San Antonio Jewish Record. Review of Emily’s Quest, by L.M. Montgomery. 23 December 1927. Scrapbook of Reviews, 288.

Springfield (MA) Sunday Union and Republican. “On Lantern Hill.” Review of Jane of Lantern Hill, by L.M. Montgomery. 12 September 1937, 7E.

Toronto Daily Star. “Fine Woman’s Story Has Toronto Setting.” Review of Jane of Lantern Hill, by L.M. Montgomery. 16 October 1937, 36. Also in Lefebvre, The L.M. Montgomery Reader, 3: 342.

Toronto Telegram. Review of A Tangled Web, by L.M. Montgomery. 17 October 1931, 45. Scrapbook of Reviews, 358. Also as “[A Robust and Versatile Clan Saga]” in Lefebvre, The L.M. Montgomery Reader, 3: 313–14.

Turner, Robert A. Review of Anne of Avonlea, by L.M. Montgomery. Des Moines News, 12 March 1910, 5.

Washington (DC) Herald. Review of Kilmeny of the Orchard, by L.M. Montgomery. 23 June 1910, 6. Also as “[Some Delightful People]” in Lefebvre, The L.M. Montgomery Reader, 3: 87–88.