House of Dreams: The Life of L.M. Montgomery, by Liz Rosenberg

One of the fondest memories of my early teens was reading about Anne Shirley. I love her dreamy, passionate personality and the hours I have spent reading and re-reading about Avonlea have expanded my own “scope for imagination.” When I came across this book on GoodReads (where I usually find most of my books nowadays), I was immediately intrigued. I wanted to know more about the woman who created such a vivid and charismatic heroine.

House of Dreams is a children’s biography that details the life of Lucy Maud Montgomery. Known simply as Maud, she grew up under the stern eyes of her maternal grandparents. Her mother had died when she was two, and her father soon left her to make his own way in the world. While Maud was materially well-off, she was starved for love and affection. Her vibrant imagination and social personality were often at odds with her grandparents rigid, uptight ways.

Over the course of the book, it becomes apparent that Maud’s unhappy childhood and young adult years fueled not only her love for writing, but also her style as an author. The colorful descriptions and heartfelt detail that is seen throughout Anne of Green Gables and the subsequent books in the series is a product of her optimistic, beauty-loving nature.

I was surprised to learn that most of Anne’s quirks matched Maud’s own temperament. She gave to Anne the loving and stimulating environment which she herself had never experienced: loving grandparent figures in Matthew and Marilla, opportunities to learn and grow her ambition, and a love story that was both romantic and steadfast in its nature. Maud’s own married life was not a happy one. She married the new Cavendish minister for companionship, and later discovered his deep-set depression and mental problems, as well as a quiet jealousy over her literary success vs. his waning popularity as a minister. Her elder son became a good-for-nothing, very violent, and narcissistic. As a result she had an obsessive attachment to her younger, more well-behaved son, which caused more drama in a family that already had copious amounts of it. Maud also battled with depression all her life, and supposedly committed suicide in her old age.

The book goes into a fair amount of detail about Maud’s hardships, yet she always said that it was because of these that her writing was able to grow and flourish in the way it did.

What I Didn’t Like

  1. This should not be labeled as a biography for children. There are too many adult themes in here for children to handle at such a young age. It covers everything from Maud’s unhappy marriage, to a brief section about her sex life, to her suicide and depression. There were too many details about her dangerous coping mechanisms for her mental instability, like mixing medications that we now know are lethal combinations. I actually started feeling really down while reading it, and it would just make the mood of the children plummet. This is a book that’s better for adults who can grasp such concepts.
  2. It’s really hard to discover that a beloved author had such a sad life that was only occasionally punctuated by happiness. I was so desperately saddened to learn that she didn’t think suicide to be something wrong, the easy way out. It was as if all hopes and dreams and vivacity were poured into her Anne books and that she allowed none for herself. She also lost her faith over time. Between a colorless, Protestant upbringing and the lack of affection and love she received from those who should have supported her, I can see why she drifted away. She even used a Ouija board with her cousin (which I would never recommend; too many possession stories). Although I can see why the tide turned in the way that it did, it still made me heartsick to know that the creator of my beloved, sunny Anne Shirley was such a deeply unhappy person.

What I Did Like

  1. I really did enjoy all the tidbits of Maud’s life that were reflected in Green Gables. Although melancholy, it added some extra context to the books; almost like a “backstage pass.” I still remain impressed with her writing, and her determination and perseverance are a true inspiration. Few aspiring writers can say they’ve had challenges a tough as Maud’s. She once wrote:

“Thank God I can keep the shadows of my life out of my work. I would not wish to darken any other life–I want instead to be a messenger of optimism and sunshine. ” 

For me, Anne of Green Gables will always remain a cherished book series, and as described in the biography, it remains a true “literary antidepressant.” Now it is doubly so, with the knowledge that Maud Montgomery was a heroine in her own right. She used the pain of her experiences to alleviate the troubles of others, and if that isn’t a worthy cause, I don’t know what is. Well done, Maud!

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