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Q&A with Benjamin Lefebvre (October 2010)

This Q&A with Benjamin Lefebvre originally appeared on the website for Chapters Indigo in October 2010, to coincide with the release of a restored and annotated edition of Rilla of Ingleside, which he had edited in collaboration with Andrea McKenzie, and of the paperback release of the initial edition of The Blythes Are Quoted. The interview was conducted by Melanie J. Fishbane.

How excited am I to be bringing you an exclusive Q&A with one of the editors of the new edition of Rilla of Ingleside, Benjamin Lefebvre, in which he discusses studying Montgomery, collaborating with Andrea McKenzie, and his work on last year’s Online Bestseller The Blythes Are Quoted (the paperback edition will be released this month as well).

It is always interesting to speak to someone who has devoted a significant amount of time on one author’s work. What was it about L.M. Montgomery that drew you to study her books?

Although a lot of readers tend to be drawn to Montgomery’s romance plots and her effusive nature descriptions, I keep reading and rereading Montgomery’s work because of her depictions of community and her wicked sense of humour. She can define a character through one or two idiosyncrasies and uses humour to poke fun at people’s narrow-mindedness. In Montgomery’s world, married men and women (including Anne and Gilbert in the later books) are fairly dull as characters, since they’re expected to behave according to societal expectations. Montgomery gives children, spinsters, and older people a lot more leeway here, so she makes them far more interesting as characters. She said herself that she didn’t feel comfortable writing about romance, so the romantic resolutions in her books often seem (at least to me) awkward and rushed.

Montgomery’s journals and letters are also fascinating, but for very different reasons: they show a passionate, articulate, and sometimes tortured person voicing thoughts that she trained herself to suppress in public. When I started graduate school over a decade ago at the University of Guelph, whose archives hold a significant L.M. Montgomery collection, I started reading through Montgomery’s scrapbooks and business correspondence, and later combed through her manuscripts at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown. What fascinates me most about Montgomery is that there’s always something new to discover—she leaves all these puzzle pieces for readers to fit together. Working on Montgomery is never dull.

I am sure a lot of people are wondering what makes this new edition of Rilla of Ingleside so special. What can readers expect to find in this new edition?

Cover of RILLA OF INGLESIDE (Viking Canada, 2010)
Cover of the restored and annotated edition of Rilla of Ingleside edited by Benjamin Lefebvre and Andrea McKenzie

For starters, this edition restores the original text, as it was first published in 1921. In the 1970s, an American publisher issued an edition of Rilla of Ingleside that silently cut about 4,500 words, or 4% of the text; that edition was later reprinted by Bantam-Seal and remains in print today. Rilla of Ingleside is set during the First World War and was published within three years of the war’s end, so the novel assumes that readers already know the significance of place names, public figures, customs, and the details of key battles along the Western and Eastern fronts. This edition provides all this background knowledge for the benefit of readers today, in the form of a detailed introduction to the novel and to the war, maps of Europe, and a detailed glossary. We wanted the edition to interest Montgomery’s broad readership of young people and adults, and be useful both to casual readers and to secondary and postsecondary students who are interested in Canadian history, women’s writing, and the history of war generally. We also included two poems about war, one by Montgomery and one by her contemporary Virna Sheard.

Rilla of Ingleside is one of the only Canadian novels to dramatize, within a few years of the end of the First World War, the effect that the war had on the Canadian homefront. What the novel captures so well is the range of ways people responded to the war, in terms of justice, sacrifice, duty, family, and patriotism. Montgomery herself agonized over the events of the war, as they were described to her in the mainstream press. Many of her own responses, recorded in her journals, are given verbatim to her characters. Although neither she nor her characters didn’t believe everything they read at face value, they share a conviction, rooted in their Christian beliefs, that this war is a necessary sacrifice in order to ensure peace and harmony for subsequent generations. This conviction is one that she returns to in The Blythes Are Quoted, which she finished in the middle of the Second World War.

You collaborated with Andrea McKenzie on this edition, including the introduction. How was this different than your work on Blythes?

Andrea is an expert on First World War fiction and life writing by women, whereas I specialize in twentieth-century Canadian literature. Our differing backgrounds complemented each other really well, especially as we drafted the introduction together. The advantage of collaboration is that your co-author becomes your first editor, so we had far more discussion back and forth about what we wanted to achieve and about what was working and what wasn’t than a writer working independently obviously does. Although I was living in England when we finished the project and she’s based in New York, twenty-first-century technology meant that the ocean between us didn’t pose any logistical problems.

What led you to read the typescripts of The Blythes Are Quoted?

Cover of /The Blythes Are Quoted/, by L.M. Montgomery, edited by Benjamin Lefebvre
Cover of the first edition of L.M. Montgomery’s rediscovered final book, The Blythes Are Quoted, edited by Benjamin Lefebvre

The Blythes Are Quoted was first published in an abridged form as The Road to Yesterday (1974), which I read as a teenager alongside all of Montgomery’s novels. The Road to Yesterday was advertised as a collection of short stories, some of which contained references to Anne and Gilbert and their family, but it wasn’t at all clear to me how this book was supposed to act as a book-end to the Anne series. I took at face value reports that it contained the full text of an unfinished typescript by Montgomery, minus a short introductory sketch. A colleague of mine who had done doctoral research in the Montgomery archives at Guelph eventually told me that Montgomery’s typescript was actually much longer, and that it included more than three dozen poems—written by Montgomery but attributed to Anne and to her son Walter—and numerous conversations between the family members. When I went to Guelph in 1999 to have a look for myself, I also found that the short stories had been abridged and rearranged, and moreover, that three different typescripts of the book had survived.

Finding a publisher for The Blythes Are Quoted took time, given that much of the material had already appeared as The Road to Yesterday, but I was convinced the poetry and the dialogue in contrast with the short stories made for an entirely different book. After The Blythes Are Quoted was accepted by Penguin Canada but before it was published, Montgomery’s apparent suicide in 1942 was revealed by her granddaughter, Kate Macdonald Butler, in a moving essay published in The Globe and Mail. The fact that The Blythes Are Quoted was apparently delivered to Montgomery’s publisher on the day of her death certainly made the final project start to look like an extended suicide note.

What were some of the challenges you encountered when working on not one but three typescripts of the same book?

It’s unusual to have three typescripts of a book by Montgomery. She kept a good many of her handwritten manuscripts, and what we can trace there is her method of composition and revision: scholars who have studied these manuscripts closely have noted that while Montgomery tinkered quite a bit with language, dialogue, and detail, she rarely made any changes to characterization or plot—these were always mapped out in advance. She then sent her completed typescripts to her publishers and never got them back. No handwritten manuscript of The Blythes Are Quoted has survived, so we can’t study how she wrote and revised, but with the three typescripts we can see how she kept moving sections around. Some of the pages in the earliest typescript have five different page numbers, showing that she spent quite a bit of time experimenting with different arrangements until she found one that satisfied her. She actually spent quite a bit of time tinkering with the manuscript, and the one she sent to her publishers—the basis for the 2009 edition—was complete and ready to go.

The format of the The Blythes Are Quoted is quite different from Montgomery’s other novels. Instead of straight prose, she has sections where dialogue looks like it is a play and the short stories are interspersed with what is supposed to be “Anne’s” poetry. Why do you think that it was Montgomery’s intention to publish a manuscript with such a variety of writing techniques?

Quite possibly Montgomery simply didn’t have the creative energy for a new novel—she had started work on a sequel to Jane of Lantern Hill around 1940 but couldn’t keep up the momentum. Rewriting earlier short stories to include Anne Shirley was something she had done before, with Chronicles of Avonlea (1912), so she may have found the familiarity less daunting. Her Anne books continued to sell well, so perhaps she hoped that an experimental book would be well received if it could be marketed as an Anne book. But although the demand for more Anne never waned, her publishers opted not to publish this typescript when it was submitted to them on the day of her death in 1942. I’ve not found any record that would indicate why they decided to shelve the book.

You know that many Anne fans are quite committed to their vision of their favourite heroine and of her relationship with Gilbert. How do you think they will react to this newer, and darker, couple?

Because Montgomery always felt awkward writing romance, she always left a lot of gaps for readers to fill. This becomes clearer when you compare the books with television and stage adaptations, which add and subtract in order to keep the focus on Anne and Gilbert. Over the years I’ve heard from several people who were disappointed with the books after seeing the television adaptations because of the relative lack of romantic moments. For these readers especially, the depiction of Anne and Gilbert’s relationship in The Blythes Are Quoted seems surprising at first glance. But when we go back to some of the later books in the series, such as Rainbow Valley (1919) and Anne of Windy Poplars (1936), in which Gilbert appears rarely, or Rilla of Ingleside, in which he is patronizing and domineering at times, or Anne of Ingleside (1939), in which Anne worries that Gilbert no longer loves her, we get a more complete picture of how Montgomery’s characterization of Anne and Gilbert evolved gradually over time.

These two editions are based on different kinds of sources: a typescript in the case of The Blythes Are Quoted and a published book in the case of Rilla of Ingleside. What were some of the shared challenges and frustrations with the two projects?

The first challenge with The Blythes Are Quoted was determining which of the three typescript versions was the final version: one is obviously an early draft, with endless typed and handwritten corrections, but the remaining two typescripts both appear to be complete, even though they are typed on different typewriters and have a number of variations and differences, big and small, throughout. One of these two versions was in the possession of Montgomery’s second son, Stuart Macdonald, and was used to create The Road to Yesterday. Three copies of the second version (two of which are carbon copies) turned up in archival collections after Road had been published: one is in the papers of Chester Macdonald, Montgomery’s eldest son, and the remaining two are in the McClelland and Stewart archives at McMaster University. I concluded that the version in McClelland’s possession had to be the version that was submitted before Montgomery’s death, and so I used that one as the basis of my edition.

Beyond that, the challenge was ensuring that Montgomery’s text was as readable as possible. I didn’t want to make any major changes to her final work, but she was incredibly inconsistent with spelling, punctuation, hyphenation, and capitalization, and I concluded that readers would find these inconsistencies annoying. I also corrected obvious typographical errors and restored some dropped words. With Rilla, Andrea and I wanted to restore the full text of the first published edition, and since we decided not to consult Montgomery’s handwritten manuscript, figuring out which version of the text to use was much more straightforward. However, we found just as many mechanical inconsistencies in the published version of Rilla than there had been in the typescript of Blythes!

Besides these two editions, you recently published a collection of original essays called Anne’s World: A New Century of Anne of Green Gables, which you worked on with Irene Gammel. What’s the book about, and what do you mean about “a new century”?

Anne’s World is a collection of academic essays that offers new ways to study the appeal of Anne of Green Gables more than a hundred years after its first publication, both in Canada and around the world. The focus is interdisciplinary, meaning that the contributors tackle Montgomery’s novel and its cultural offshoots from a variety of angles, including literary studies, ethics, cultural geography, globalization, disability studies, fashion, bibliotherapy, early childhood education, and branding, and the book focuses as much on reception and adaptation as on the novel itself. The image on the cover is of a little girl with red braids taking a digital photograph of Green Gables House with her cell phone—the perfect collision of past and present that we see in the way readers and viewers all around the world continue to interact and engage with all things Anne.