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This Saturday: Round Table on The Blue Castle

Early cover art for /The Blue Castle/, by L.M. Montgomery

Just a reminder that the first event in the new Conversations about L.M. Montgomery initiative, a round table discussion of frequent Montgomery fan favourite The Blue Castle, will take place over Zoom on Saturday, 17 October 2020, at 2:00 p.m. (EST). I wanted to take this opportunity to introduce the three speakers, who will be talking about the novel in terms of the environment, romance, and the figure of the “bad girl.”

Caroline E. Jones has been reading L.M. Montgomery’s work since she was a preteen, and her love for the author sent her after a PhD in English studies, with a focus on children’s literature. She has presented at six of the L.M. Montgomery Institute’s biennial conferences, and her Montgomery research focuses on issues of motherhood and girlhood. Caroline has published four book chapters on Montgomery’s work, most recently “Idylls of Play: L.M. Montgomery’s Child-Worlds,” in Children’s Play in Literature: Investigating the Strengths and the Subversions of the Playing Child (2019).

Rachel McMillan is the author of the Herringford and Watts mysteries, the Van Buren and DeLuca mysteries, and the Three Quarter Time series of contemporary Viennese romances. Her newest releases include Dream, Plan and GoA Travel Guide to Inspire Independent AdventureA Very Merry Holiday Movie Guide, and The London Restoration. Rachel is a long-time enthusiast of The Blue Castle, has lectured on L.M. Montgomery’s ties to Muskoka, and curated an international readalong of The Blue Castle that dug deep into the historical and social tenets of the book.

Tara K. Parmiter received her B.A. in English from Cornell University and her Ph.D. from New York University, where she teaches in the expository writing program and is the assistant director of the writing centre. Her article on village improvement societies in Anne of Avonlea appeared in CREArTA, and her article on nature study in the Anne books appeared in L.M. Montgomery and the Matter of Nature(s) (2018). She has also published on summer vacationing in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, journey narratives in the Muppet movies, and the green gothic landscapes of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga.

Registration is now open for this event. If you’re unable to join us for the event, a recording will be available after the fact on YouTube. First-time readers of the book are warned that the discussion will contain plot spoilers. Be sure to subscribe to this blog via email to get all the latest updates about this exciting new initiative.

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Starting Soon: Conversations about L.M. Montgomery

When Andrea McKenzie told me last March about her idea to start a Rilla of Ingleside Readathon, she mentioned that she wanted to find new ways to connect with fellow L.M. Montgomery readers using the tools of the digital age (in this case, Facebook). After all, it’s been well documented that Montgomery’s novels have the power to bring people together, and Andrea thought it would be worthwhile for a group of people to read (or reread) Rilla of Ingleside together, partly as a distraction from the pandemic, partly because there’s such rich cultural and literary context to explore in that novel, and partly because it depicts a community of people working together to get through a different kind of global crisis (in this case, four years of war). The level of response from readers all over the world surpassed our expectations completely, and the group—now called L.M. Montgomery Readathon—recently started discussing a third Montgomery book, The Blue Castle.

In light of the level of enthusiasm that the Readathon has received, Andrea and I soon started talking about additional ways we would connect virtually with fellow Montgomery readers around the world. To that end, I am pleased to announce Conversations about L.M. Montgomery, a series of virtual conversations and activities that will be hosted over Zoom and archived on a YouTube page. For this initiative, we reached out to Melanie J. Fishbane, Sarah Goff, Daniela Janes, Caroline E. Jones, Yuka Kajihara, and Kate Sutherland, and together the eight of us form the steering committee.

In figuring out a format for a series of virtual events, we were motivated by the wide range of workshops, conferences, events, meetings, and conversations that have happened on Zoom, but we were also mindful of the well-documented phenomenon known as “Zoom fatigue.” And so, instead of an all-day or a multi-day virtual conference, we’ve opted for a series of short events (round tables, formal papers, workshops, informal conversations, and readings), scattered throughout the year, for which any Montgomery reader who downloads the Zoom app can join us.

Early cover art for /The Blue Castle/, by L.M. Montgomery

Our first event will be a round table discussion of The Blue Castle and will take place on Saturday, 17 October 2020, at 2:00 p.m. (EST). It will feature three engaging and knowledgeable speakers: Tara K. Parmiter (New York University) will speak on The Blue Castle and the environment, Rachel McMillan (Toronto) will speak on The Blue Castle and romance, and Caroline E. Jones (Austin) will speak on The Blue Castle and the figure of the bad girl.

Interested participants should register in advance. First-time readers of the book are warned that the discussion will contain plot spoilers. Questions? Suggestions? Comment on this post below or get in touch through the contact form. Please subscribe to this blog via email to get all the latest updates.

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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.

Starting Today: The Blue Castle!

Last March, shortly after the start of the COVID-19 restrictions, Andrea McKenzie asked me to collaborate with her on a new initiative designed to help bring L.M. Montgomery’s readers together during this uncertain time. She suggested a Rilla of Ingleside Readathon as a way for us to connect with Montgomery’s worldwide readership through Facebook and as an opportunity for us to revisit some of the contextual work we had put together a decade ago in our restored and annotated edition of the novel, published by Penguin Canada. In a series of Facebook posts, we read the book within the context of Montgomery’s life and times, discussing historical context, gender, nationalism, fashion, technology, allusions to previous works of literature, book covers, translations, and the controversial 1970s abridgement of the text (which, it turns out, happened even earlier than I’d thought!) that continues to be reprinted today.

Andrea and I so enjoyed the opportunity to discuss the novel with so many people around the world that once we were done, we decided to keep the party going, so to speak, and ended up doing the same thing with Jane of Lantern Hill, which we read over the summer. By this point the focus of the group had shifted away from Rilla of Ingleside specifically to more of Montgomery’s work, and so we decided to change the name of the group to the L.M. Montgomery Readathon.

Starting today, we turn to a third Montgomery novel, The Blue Castle, which is a favourite of many Montgomery readers. The only Montgomery book to be set entirely outside Prince Edward Island, The Blue Castle was seen as a major departure for Montgomery when it was first published in 1926. As the Calgary Herald stated in its review of the book, “Admirers of [Anne of Green Gables] have followed [Montgomery] loyally and patiently in the hope that one day she would give them a story which would equal or surpass Anne in theme and reader interest. That day has arrived, and The Blue Castle is the story.” As the New York Times Book Review noted, “although perhaps a little more mature in its spirit than the earlier books,” this book “is unmistakably from first page to last an L.M. Montgomery novel, compact of sentiment, rosily trimmed with romance, peopled with beings drawn solely out of the imagination, but telling a well-made story with humor and pathos.”

The L.M. Montgomery Readathon is open to all readers of L.M. Montgomery’s fiction, including those who are reading The Blue Castle for the first time. Please join us!

L.M. Montgomery Readathon

New Article on Sentimental Fiction and the Victorian Sickroom

The latest issue of The Lion and the Unicorn (31.3, September 2007) is now available through ProjectMuse to subscribing libraries. The issue includes Kate Lawson’s new article, “The Victorian Sickroom in L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle and Emily’s Quest: Sentimental Fiction and the Selling of Dreams” (232–49).