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A Note on John Foster’s Thistle Harvest

I started writing this as a post in the L.M. Montgomery Readathon, where we’re currently reading and discussing chapter 3 of The Blue Castle, but since it’s rather on the long side for a post, I thought I’d turn it into a blog entry instead. Comments welcome, either here or on Facebook, but please – no spoilers!

Right in the first chapter of The Blue Castle, the narrator establishes the unique, almost undefinable appeal that the work of John Foster has for Valancy: “She could hardly say what it was – some tantalising lure of a mystery never revealed – some hint of a great secret just a little further on – some faint, elusive echo of lovely, forgotten things – John Foster’s magic was indefinable.” Although the librarian notes that John Foster’s books are popular with the library’s patrons, she doesn’t see the appeal of them herself, whereas Mrs. Frederick and Cousin Stickles consider all pleasure reading to be “idleness,” meaning that John Foster’s “magic” is not only indefinable but also not shared by everyone. In chapter three, Valancy “open[s] Thistle Harvest guiltily at random” when she’s supposed to be looking for her thimble, and the experience of rereading just one paragraph makes her feel “the strange exhilaration of spirit that always came momentarily to her when she dipped into one of John Foster’s books.” In other words, John Foster’s books are a form of bibliotherapy for Valancy: they centre her, calm her down, distract her from her problems, and make her feel as one with the world.

It may surprise you – and it may not – to learn that the source of this extract from John Foster’s Thistle Harvest is none other than L.M. Montgomery. As Elizabeth Rollins Epperly reveals in her 2007 book Through Lover’s Lane: L.M. Montgomery’s Photography and Visual Imagination, in creating these extracts from John Foster’s books Montgomery borrowed from a quartet of nature essays she’d published in The Canadian Magazine (Toronto) in 1911: “Spring in the Woods,” “The Woods in Summer,” “The Woods in Autumn,” and “The Woods in Winter.” Although the essays are not set anywhere explicitly, for Epperly they are “memory pictures of her favourite home in nature, Lover’s Lane.” And although Montgomery mentioned to one of her correspondents that she’d written these essays in mid-1909, they ended up being published in the midst of perhaps her most significant life transition: after her grandmother died in March 1911, she left her beloved home in Cavendish, spent three months with relatives in nearby Park Corner, married her longtime fiancé at the beginning of July, honeymooned with him in England and Scotland, moved with him to Leaskdale, Ontario, to start her new responsibilities as the wife of a Presbyterian minister in an entirely new community, and soon became pregnant with her first child, who would be born the following summer.

Here are the first two paragraphs from “Spring in the Woods,” which correspond almost exactly to the extract from Thistle Harvest included in chapter 3 of The Blue Castle:

The woods are so human that to know them we must live with them. An occasional saunter through them, keeping, it may be, to the well trodden paths, will never admit us to their intimacy. If we wish to be near friends we must seek them out and win them by frequent reverent visits at all hours, by morning, by noon, and by night, and at all seasons, in spring and in summer, in autumn and in winter. Otherwise, we can never really know them, and any pretence we can make to the contrary will never impose on them. They have their own effective way of keeping aliens at a distance and shutting their heart to mere casual sight-seers.

Believe me, it is of no use to seek the woods from any motive except sheer love of them; they will find us out at once and hide all their sweet, world-old secrets from us. But if they know we come to them because we love them they will be very kind to us and give us such treasure of beauty and delight as is not bought or sold in market nor even can be paid for in coin of earthly minting; for the woods when they give at all give unstintedly and hold nothing back from their true worshippers. We must go to them lovingly, humbly, patiently, watchfully, and we shall learn what poignant loveliness lurks in the wild places and silent intervals, lying under starshine and sunset, what cadences of unearthly music are harped on aged pine boughs or crooned in copses of fir, what delicate savours exhale from mosses and ferns in sunny corners or on damp brooklands, what dreams and myths and legends of an older time haunt them, what unsuspected tintings glimmer in their dark demesnes and glow in their al- luring by-ways; for it is the by-ways that lead to the heart of the woods, and we must not fail to follow them if we would know the forests and be known of them.

The last sentence from the corresponding extract from Thistle Harvest occurs several paragraphs later in this first “Woods” article:

This is where the immortal heart of the wood will beat against ours and its subtle life will steal into our veins and make us its own forever, so that no matter where we go or how wide we wander in the noisy ways of cities or over lone paths of sea, we shall yet be drawn back to the forest to find our most enduring kinship.

I blogged a few days ago about Montgomery’s “self-repetitions,” and of course this is yet another example of her doing so in a way that would have been difficult for readers at the time to pick up on, given that the “Woods” articles had been published in a periodical fifteen years before The Blue Castle and were not collected in book form until I included them in Volume 1 of The L.M. Montgomery Reader. But what I want to draw your attention to are two complications with this instance of self-repetition.

The first is that Valancy’s stated experience of reading John Foster’s work – seemingly straightforward nature writing that’s really so much more than that for readers who are willing to take these books seriously – is remarkably similar to the way innumerable readers of Montgomery’s books have described the impact that her work has had on their lives. This response to Montgomery’s work is hardly a new phenomenon – by 1926, she’d already received enough fan mail to have a clear sense of the impact her books were having on readers. So what is Montgomery doing here by describing Valancy as having a similarly “indefinable” reaction to John Foster’s work, but cloaking herself as the author of that work and attributing it within the book to a male author (or at least to a male pseudonym), especially given that the book in which John Foster’s work appears was written by an author with a gender-neutral name (“L.M. Montgomery”)?

The second complication is that, intrigued by Epperly’s discovery about the links between John Foster and these “Woods” articles and unable to shake the nagging feeling that the rest of the text of these four nature essays seemed strangely familiar, I took a closer look at these essays when I prepared them for republication and discovered that Montgomery reused extracts from them in nearly all of her Ontario novels, from The Golden Road (1913) to Anne of Ingleside (1939), making only minor changes. Here is part of page 90 of Volume 1 of The L.M. Montgomery Reader, with part of “The Woods in Winter” with some of the passages underlined.

Image of part of a book page with the following text, some of it underlined in different colours:
their twigs ... are beautiful pagan maidens who have never lost the Eden secret of being naked and unashamed.81
But the conebearers, stanch souls that they are, keep their secrets still. The firs and the pines and the spruces never reveal their mystery, never betray their long-guarded lore.82 See how beautiful is that thickly- growing copse of young firs, lightly powdered with the new-fallen snow, as if a veil of aerial lace had been tricksily flung over austere young druid priestesses forsworn to all such frivolities of vain adornment.83 Yet they wear it gracefully enough ... firs can do anything gracefully, even to wringing their hands in the grip of a storm. The deciduous trees are always anguished and writhen and piteous in storms; but there is something in the conebearers akin to the storm spirit ... something that leaps out to greet it and join with it in a wild, exultant revelry. After the first snowfall, however, the woods are at peace in their white loveliness.84 Today I paused at the entrance of a narrow path between upright ranks of beeches, and looked long adown it before I could commit what seemed the desecration of walking through it ... so taintless and wonderful it seemed, like a street of pearl in the New Jerusalem.85 Every twig and spray was outlined in snow. The undergrowth along its sides was a little fairy forest cut out of marble. The shadows cast by the honey-tinted win- ter sunshine were fine and spirit-like.86 Every step I took revealed new enchantments, as if some ambitious elfin artificer were striving to show just how much could be done with nothing but snow in the hands of somebody who knew how to make use of it. A snowfall such as this is the

The phrase beginning with “beautiful pagan maidens” appears in Rilla of Ingleside; the sentences beginning with “But the conebearers” and “See how beautiful” appear in two different chapters in Emily Climbs; the phrase “at peace in their white loveliness” appears in Mistress Pat, along with the sentences beginning with “Every step I took”; the phrase beginning with “so taintless and wonderful” is in The Golden Road; the sentences beginning with “Every twig and spray” are in The Blue Castle. Not only that, but immediately after the second extract in Emily Climbs, the narrator adds, “Emily decided she would write that sentence down in her Jimmy-book when she went back.” Presumably, Emily, too, would want to use it again.

In my introductory headnote to Montgomery’s four nature essays, which I included in my book under the collective title “[Seasons in the Woods],” I noted that “these borrowings reveal an attempt on [Montgomery’s] part to recapture [when living in Ontario] a delightful ‘spot’ that loved on in her memory.” Since writing those words, I’ve started to look at this a bit differently. Although she expressed ambivalence to her correspondent about the literary quality of these essays, she must have come to see them as authoritative depictions of Prince Edward Island scenery in order to turn to them again and again for several of the nature descriptions that appeared in most of her novels written in Ontario. In other words, these essays acted as a bridge between the Montgomery of Lover’s Lane and the Montgomery of Ontario who never recovered fully from leaving her beloved Cavendish behind.

In other words, Montgomery’s acts of self-repetition don’t need to be understood merely as a busy writer taking shortcuts or being strategic, although certainly that can be part of it too. Perhaps these essays became a form of bibliotherapy for Montgomery as well, as she sought to centre herself in the Cavendish woods that she had renamed Lover’s Lane and that she could access only in written form while writing in Ontario. To my mind, anyway, the complexity here is worth further consideration.

Bibliography

Epperly, Elizabeth Rollins. Through Lover’s Lane: L.M. Montgomery’s Photography and Visual Imagination. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

Lefebvre, Benjamin. Headnote to “[Seasons in the Woods].” In Lefebvre, The L.M. Montgomery Reader, 1: 73–74.

—, ed. The L.M. Montgomery Reader, Volume 1: A Life in Print. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013.

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.

—. “[Seasons in the Woods].” In Lefebvre, The L.M. Montgomery Reader, 1: 73–97.

—. “Spring in the Woods.” The Canadian Magazine (Toronto), May 1911, 59–62.

—. “The Woods in Autumn.” The Canadian Magazine (Toronto), October 1911, 574–77.

—. “The Woods in Summer.” The Canadian Magazine (Toronto), September 1911, 399–402.

—. “The Woods in Winter.” The Canadian Magazine (Toronto), December 1911, 162–64.

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10 Comments

    • Benjamin Lefebvre

      Thanks for your comment, Susan! Yes, I was pretty surprised when I started searching for matches between these articles and Montgomery’s books. But this kind of self-repetition would have been difficult to detect prior to the digital age: although the John Foster extracts are extensive, most of the remaining examples have to do with description rather than plot, and I never would have been able to figure all this out if I didn’t have digital, text-searchable copies of her books. Similarly, when I put together a new edition of Montgomery’s 25,000-word celebrity memoir “The Alpine Path: The Story of My Career” for my edition of her selected writings, I was amazed at how much of that text had been pulled straight out of her journals—with some strategic revisions and omissions, of course. This is one of the reasons I’ve spent so much of my academic career devoted to Montgomery—there’s always something new to learn about her!

  1. janesandell

    This is fascinating stuff Ben. It makes me wish even more that I had been able to spend time studying LM Montgomery’s work. I’ve always known that it’s nuanced and layered and I’ve spent my professional life promoting and defending her but only as an enthusiastic reader. I’m a generation too old for the study of (so-called) children’s literature to be something that happened in Scottish universities. The closest I ever got was using excerpts in my Stylistics, and Meaning, Form and Style classes in English Language. That was fun but was based on my personal responses rather then research or teaching. I’m loving being part of the Readathon and benefitting from insights like these. Thank you.

    • Benjamin Lefebvre

      Thanks, Jane! This is one reason why I’ve devoted so much of my professional life on Montgomery’s work—because there’s always something new to discover about it. And the Readathon has been a great opportunity to meet new people and learn from their perspectives and observations. I’m so glad you’re enjoying it.

  2. Sarah Uthoff - Trundlebed Tales

    That is a great find that the sections came from previously published pieces of Montgomery’s. I assumed she wrote them, but that they were coming from another context, closer to the “John Foster” idea is really fascinating. It’s probably not of interest to anybody else, but when I pictured John Foster’s books I didn’t really picture them as in Montgomery’s style. What the descriptions and quotes drew in my head were the books by Gene Stratton-Porter. Her lesser books have modern issues, but “Laddie: A True Blue Story,” “Girl of the Limberlost,” and “Freckles” made me think of such a book. Or even her non-fiction books. The three I listed are novels, but just drenched in descriptions and imagery of the woodlands and the Indiana swamp she lived by. I wondered if anybody else connected the two.

  3. Lisa Leblanc

    What wonderful research. Thank you for sharing. Many have wondered of the origins of John Foster’s works. I did assume the quotations belonged to Montgomery herself, but I never dreamed that they had been from previously published works, or that she also reused them liberally. I have read The Blythes and know that all the poetry Montgomery attributes to Walter or Anne was her own, but something about the way John Foster is presented, lends itself well to readers believing there is this author in the world. I also think that the fact that we could believe that John Foster was a “real” author speaks to the magic of his/her words and the spell they cast on Valancy, and us. She really could weave a picture of a dreamy place with words so beautifully, so it isn’t any wonder that she reused the same words. It’s all so very interesting.

    • Benjamin Lefebvre

      Thanks very much for your comment, Lisa. Yes, most of the poems in The Blythes Are Quoted were previously published under Montgomery’s name, the earliest in 1919. But what’s fascinating is that although Montgomery’s writing style did evolve over time, often these borrowings would be pretty close to identical no matter how much time had elapsed between versions. In other words, because she always continued evolving as a writer, the “woods” articles would have been in an older style by the time she reworked those extracts fifteen years later into The Blue Castle. So while those extracts would have the polish of published work, their style would not have been so identical to the style of the rest of the book that it wouldn’t have been so obvious that it was the same person writing. In other words, using published work that was sufficiently distanced from the author gave these extracts a veneer of authenticity but made it sound like they came from an external source—which they did—instead of having been invented for inclusion in the book. Wouldn’t this help create the illusion that John Foster was a “real” author, as you say?

      • Lisa LeBlanc

        Yes, it would beautifully explain the excerpts. LMM’s revealed talents continue to astound me. I love delving deeper into her life and works. Thank you for helping us learn more about the way she weaves her literary webs.

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