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Extraordinary Canadians: L.M. Montgomery

by Jane Urquhart

The Blythes Are Quoted

by L.M. Montgomery; L.M. Montgomery

While not an entirely new “Anne book,” The Blythes Are Quoted is nevertheless a valuable addition to the Montgomery canon. It was the author’s final manuscript, delivered to her publishers the day she died, and published in 1974 as the story collection The Road to Yesterday.

Missing from that collection, however, were nearly 100 additional pages, including substantial parts of the stories, 41 poems credited to Anne Shirley Blythe and her son, Walter, and “commentary” on these poems by members of the Blythe family. The Blythes Are Quoted restores Montgomery’s complete original manuscript for the first time.

At first glance, the themes of illegitimacy, murder, torrid love affairs, hatred, and revenge might seem unlikely for Montgomery, but long-time readers will quickly find themselves in familiar territory. Lost lovers are miraculously reunited, orphans discover they’re not alone in the world, and mistaken identity leads to true love.

Some stories are stronger than others: “A Commonplace Woman” is the deathbed tale of a woman with a secret life of surprising richness; “Here Comes the Bride” tells of a wedding from various guests’ points of view; “A Dream Comes True” is the hilarious story of a man kidnapped at dagger-point by the woman for whom he’s always pined (and who turns out to be insane). The poetry is unremarkable, save for its supposed authorship, although the poems credited to Walter Blythe, who died in the First World War, have a certain poignancy.

The book’s fragmented structure is complicated and fascinating. The title refers to the conversations of other characters, who habitually quote the locally famous Blythe family, but Montgomery also “quotes” the Blythes in direct dialogue with each other, thereby providing a perspective on the family from without and within. The book is divided into two parts that use the First World War as a pivot. Montgomery’s engagement here with the politics of war is markedly different from Rilla of Ingleside’s more frankly patriotic leanings. 

The book’s structure, however, is not entirely organic. Many of the stories had appeared previously in periodicals, and were revised to include references to the Blythes and to fit the book’s timeline. The manuscript’s lack of polish is evident, and surprisingly, the Blythes are its least interesting component – even the irrepressible Anne Shirley is all grown up and has become unnaturally saintly and dull.

Editor Benjamin Lefebvre points out that “this final book certainly asks a lot of Montgomery’s devoted readers,” but he is correct that it also delivers much in return. Anne devotees will welcome any glimpse into her later years, and most importantly, the rawness of the text offers insight into its author and her writing process. (It also helps that many of the stories are excellent.)   

Jane Urquhart provides further context with L.M. Montgomery, part of Penguin Canada’s Extraordinary Canadians series, which complements Mary Henley Rubio’s definitive 2008 Montgomery biography, The Gift of Wings. Urquhart’s book benefits from (and pays credit to) Rubio’s research and offers a thorough, readable portrait of a writer whom readers like to think they know.

Montgomery, however, maintained rigid control of her image, and the yarns she spun are in marked contrast with the facts of her life. Hers was a world where romantic happy endings simply did not happen. She lost her parents early on and was never provided the love Anne found at Green Gables, her marriage was unhappy, and she spent her authorial career subject to vicious critical attacks. Montgomery also rigorously edited her diaries such that they became as much of a puzzle as she was.

To reassemble the pieces, Urquhart employs her novelist’s sensibility. Jettisoning chronology, she introduces Montgomery moments before her death, and subsequent chapters are organized thematically, resulting in a richly multi-layered portrait.

“In a Man’s World” presents Montgomery’s struggles as an author, bilked of royalties by her publishers and set upon by male critics. “Places” is an account of her attachment to particular surroundings (Urquhart notes that nearly every one of Montgomery’s book titles contains a place name). “The Work” deals with her two identities – famous author and minister’s wife – and how each role affected the other.

Urquhart is by no means uncritical of her subject, but for the most part she acts as her champion, asserting that Montgomery has influenced generations of Canadian writers to mythologize ordinary lives. She delights that Montgomery’s work is now deemed worthy of academic pursuit, while the male critics who dismissed her are “almost completely forgotten.” With her excellent biography of this extraordinary Canadian, Urquhart has ensured that those critics will be rolling in their graves.