Her home was her sanctuary; a place she could abandon the amiable, passive masks she wore.
When I was 11 years old, I read Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery, and much like millions of other young girls, I found a kindred spirit in the precocious redhead. It wasn’t until I was 37 that I realized I had far more in common with the author than her feisty fictional character.
The full weight of this realization hit during a visit to Montgomery’s Leaskdale home a little over a year ago. Snuggled in a quiet, one-stop sign hamlet just north of Uxbridge, Ontario, Maud moved to her Leaskdale home with her minister husband in 1911. It was in this Leaskdale Manse that she had her sons, grappled with the death of her best friend Frede and wrote 11 out of her 22 novels.
The use of the word “manse” to describe a building is not so common in Canada. It is often confused with a mansion. Instead, it signifies a home in which a minister lives, much like a vicarage.
This Leaskdale manse, Montgomery’s former home, is located 10 minutes from my hometown. I have been there on numerous occasions for events hosted by the Lucy Maud Montgomery Society of Ontario (LMSSO), a not-for-profit organization that operates the home as a museum. For a time, starting in the early 1990s, the building was also rented out as a personal residence. It was a way for the Township of Uxbridge, who had bought it from St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, to help pay for overhead costs.
A friend of mine lived in the manse with her mother and sister from 1999 to 2002. She remembers weekends interrupted by shutter-happy tour groups—but it was the price of living in the former home of a Canadian literary icon. She and her family were the last to live in the Leaskdale Manse. When they moved out, the township gave the LMMSO complete access to it, thereby establishing it as a full-time National Historic Site.
I don’t envy my friend her residence in the manse. Even before I stepped foot into Montgomery’s former home, I’d read her complete journals.
Lucy Maud Montgomery created some of the most magical and euphoric characters and stories of all time, but an equal and opposing truth was that she suffered from crippling and ultimately, deadly, mental illness.
In 2008, in an attempt to help end the stigma of mental illnesses, the author’s granddaughter revealed in a letter published by the Globe and Mail newspaper a closely guarded family secret: Montgomery had likely died of suicide during a drug overdose. She had left a note, asking for forgiveness–a note the granddaughter had never seen herself, but had been told about. Given the stigma of suicide, which was only more taboo in previous generations, it’s hard to imagine someone would have fabricated its existence.
A few days ago, I met briefly with Melanie Whitfield, the LMMSO’s president. We had a socially distanced chat and I borrowed a journal missing from my collection. I asked her what she thought of Montgomery’s suicide: was it intentional or accidental?
Whitfield suggested that the presence of a note would certainly suggest intention, but Montgomery was also likely in a compromised state of mind. When she died, the author was on many different medications from different doctors, including dangerous, addictive barbiturates.
The interactions between drugs were not well-known at the time, nor were her medications closely monitored.
Whitfield said–and I agree–it is difficult to say to what extent the chemical cocktail was affecting her ability to make decisions. The fact remains Montgomery died as a result of her mental illness.
For anyone who has read Montgomery’s journals, this information will be sad but not entirely surprising. She had written in December 1931 that she “has not been well—and I seem to be haunted night and day with fear of something—I know not what. I am horribly afraid of life—of everything. This is all plain neurasthenia.”
Neurasthenia – a word that has fallen out of fashion but was once used to describe a collection of symptoms, including fatigue, depression and anxiety – comes up repeatedly in her journals.
Montgomery’s home was her sanctuary; a place she could abandon the amiable, passive masks she wore for her husband’s congregation and her fans. A place where she could try to navigate the crippling anxiety that plagued her.
As I had tea in her kitchen during my visit, explored the bedroom in which she gave birth to her three sons—one of whom was stillborn—and took pictures on her front porch, I couldn’t help but feel like I was intruding on her still, almost 80 years after her death.
I also couldn’t deny that I felt incredibly–if not also a little uncomfortably–close to the author. More so than the perennially cerebral Anne. I also struggle with an anxiety disorder. And, like Montgomery, my home is a safe haven where I don’t have to maintain a smiling face and stiff upper lip.
While the author welcomed into her home with open arms the handful of people she considered true friends, she found it difficult to form friendships with her new neighbours. She had published Anne of Green Gables three years prior to moving to Leaskdale and was already quite famous by the time she arrived. She resented having to accommodate the parade of curious gawkers.
In one of her Leaskdale journals she wrote: “On November second and third I went through the farce known as ‘receiving.’ I had many callers who came, drank a cup of tea and ate a piece of cake, left oblongs of pasteboard and went away, believing themselves acquainted with me.”
I have no fame to speak of, but I do understand the critical necessity of maintaining my home as a place I can fall apart as much as I’d like–and since I’m living through the COVID-19 pandemic with a mental illness, that happens more than I want to admit.
Perhaps this fragility of spirit is why revisiting pictures of my visit to the author’s home and rereading her journals is such a strange comfort to me right now. It’s an exercise in navigating the complicated and often conflicting feelings we can have about our lives and surroundings.
Montgomery found both comfort and immense dissatisfaction in her home, which I think many people in the throes of this pandemic can understand. Home is safety. But home can also feel like a reflection of all that’s wrong with the world.
When the author arrived in Leaskdale she was “suffering the agonies of homesickness” for PEI. Her unhappiness overflowed in detailed condemnations of many parts of her home.
She particularly disliked her dining room, writing that it had “almost every vice a room can have. It is too small; it is the only way of getting from the kitchen to the other part of the house so cannot be kept clean easily. It opens into the kitchen and so gets too warm and too smelly. The furnace pipe goes through it and is not decorative. It has five doors and only one window which gives a view of several ugly backyards including our own.”
But there was much Montgomery loved about the Leaskdale manse too.
And we are all so temporarily happy together that life seems good.– L.M. Montgomery
Her garden was an almost constant source of happiness for her. She wrote, “I have the best garden I have ever had. […] I prowl about, weeding, watering, transplanting. My cats frisk around me, my small dog, of whom I am getting very fond, chases the cats and gets his ears boxed–by the cats–for his pains. And we are all so temporarily happy together that life seems good.”
Life is bittersweet.
During our chat, Whitfield had reminded me that despite the author’s neurasthenia, in one of her journals, she had also written of how a spark of true joy could make the misery of life worthwhile.
I looked at Montgomery’s empty home, bare of gardens or lush grass in early May, and felt a rising swell of sadness. Yes, there are pockets of joy in life and they do help us stumble through the rough patches. But these days, there seems to be a disproportionately large expanse of bumpy road.
Whitfield had confirmed that the manse would be closed until further notice, and many LMMSO events have been canceled or postponed this year. The main reason for these decisions is COVID-19, but the children’s Anne of Green Gables Tea Party (which my daughters had been to in previous years), would have been nixed anyway, Whitfield says.
The Society simply isn’t getting the numbers needed to run the event, Whitfield explained.
I thought of how disappointed my daughters would be – of how much they, like me, leaped wholeheartedly into the slipstream escape of Anne’s story, as well as the many other stories by Montgomery we’ve read together.
I thought of how the worlds she had created refreshed us, allowing us to re-emerge back to our real lives feeling a little bit brighter and lighter. My daughters had come home from that tea party shooting star beams from their eyes and smelling of Green Gables cherry blossoms.
Whitfield and I said our goodbyes in a blanket of burnt-sugar sunlight.
It occurred to me that a world without these beautiful escapes and meaningful connections seems a far greater tragedy than my worrying about offending the sensibilities of a dead woman by visiting her house.
Besides, if anyone understood the want of true fellowship in this world, it was Maud. I think she would have welcomed all kindred spirits into her home.
To learn more about Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Leaskdale home and for up-to-date information about the event schedule–including their famous five-course teas and talks that are still tentatively scheduled for July–please visit http://www.lucymaudmontgomery.ca
/// Hollay Ghadery is a writer and mother of four young children, living in small-town Ontario. She has her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have been published in various literary journals, including the Malahat Review, Room, Grain, and The Fiddlehead. Look for her upcoming book of non-fiction coming out with Guernica Editions’ MiroLand imprint in 2021. Follow Hollay on Instagram: @hollayghadery or Facebook @hollayghaderywriter. ///