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  • The Creative Force and Depression: Did "Anne of Green Gables" Creator Commit Suicide?
The Creative Force and Depression: Did "Anne of Green Gables" Creator Commit Suicide?
Written by
Sakki selznick
February 2016
Written by
Sakki selznick
February 2016

Does depression necessarily co-exist with creativity or can creativity be a tonic, an antidote to depression? L.M. Montgomery, the creator of Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon,  would make a good subject for research on that topic. Here is Little Lucy Maud. She always said she had a lot more in common with Emily than with Anne, and she certainly looks like Emily, the dark, haired, big-eyed elfin little girl with pointy ears.

When Lucy was not quite two, her mother--Clara Woolner Macneill--died of T.B.

Father, Hugh John Montgomery, torn by grief, left his toddler daughter  with her mother's parents, Alexander and Lucy MacNeill. They were, apparently, exactly how the look: strict, cruel, unbending and unloving. But Hugh was long gone, way out west. They were pretty much all little Lucy Maud had.

This is why Little Lucy grown up wrote many stories filled with unloved, abandoned children, often neglected either emotionally or physically, who make the best they can of things while being peripherally raised by neighbors. 

One thing the grandparents did have, however, was a home on gorgeous Prince Edward Island, which--along with neighbors and good friends--may have saved imaginative little L.M.'s life. Here is a view of her grandparent's back garden, c. the 1890's. A child--even a lonely, unloved child-- must have been in heaven there. 

Lucy was raised in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island, until her father, way out west in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, where eventually, he, remarried, a woman named Mary Ann McCrae. When Anne was a teenager, her father sent for her. Anne managed one year in Saskatchewan, but she hated it there--flatland, dull, land, prairie, nothing like her wooded Prince Edward Island. She disliked her step-mother and believed the marriage to be deeply unhappy, but she did sell her first poem while in out there.

Then, back she came to her grandparents and Cavendish. She went to high school and to college--for two years, and then for a year studying literature. She had very little money and remembers mostly being cold and achingly hungry, and making good friends.

Then, she taught, and was courted, and turned people down or broke engagements. In her journals, she writes of the challenges of being unmarried in a culture where women's only value came from being married. In this culture, when she was thirty-one, she became secretly engaged to Ewan McDonald, who went away for further ministerial training and had a mental breakdown, and she wrote and wrote and wrote.

 At age 37, she married Ewan.

The couple had three sons, with the second stillborn. Even today, in Western culture, we don't talk much or allow much time for the grief

 of a stillbirth. A stillbirth is a catastrophe, but people say, and said even more so in those times--get on, have another, you'll forget.

The McDonald Family with a friend, c. 1918. 

I don't imagine they ever did forget. And there were other problems. Lucy Maud struggled with loneliness and grief, depression and difficulty sleeping. She was not cut out to be a minister's wife, and she hated the part of Canada where they then lived.

Ewan McDonald seems to have been a kind man, but, get this--he never read his wife's books. He was distant as a father. He went through long periods of deep depression, where he believed he was cast out from God and eternally damned. The specialists from Boston and Toronto called it Melancholia. Lucy Maud, herself, suffered from sharp mood swings and headaches, and what she called "neurasthenia."

Both Lucy and her husband were proscribed barbiturates and bromides for their illness. In those days, nobody knew how dangerous this. (Virginia Woolf was on a barbiturate at the time of her suicide, and Evelyn Wauch wrote a novel (the Ordeal of Gordon Pinfold) about his bromide psychosis. Bromide compounds were used until 1975 in over-the-counter headache medicine and sedatives, like Bromo-Seltzer. They were outlawed, though, because of their chronic toxicity. (One text speaks of side effects: "Besides the inconveniences mentioned in my lecture on hysteria, and which are the acne eruption, the disagreeable odor of the breath, the peculiar manifestations of a grave kind. . . A remarkable depression of the vital forces. The patience could not stand, could not make the least movement without difficulty. Intelligence was impaired, and there was aphasia and amnesia." Toxic indeed. 

Meanwhile, Lucy and Ewan's oldest son, Chester, was going through struggles of his own. I suppose you could say. Because he appears to have been a sociopath. a liar and a thief, and also--I'm not kidding--a public masturbator, with "many a house-maid quitting in disgust."

Chester got a girl pregnant and had to marry her. He physically  abused her. She left him and went home, though they reconciled long enough to have another child. (Lucy blamed her daughter-in-law for that.) Mary Henry Rubio, a biographer of L.M. refers to Lucy's youngest son, Dr. Stuart McDonald, as Lucy's "one good son." It's amazing, frankly, that either son survived given the deep depressions their parents seemed subject to.

By the time the family moved to the edge of Toronto, Ewan was wild-eyed, hearing voices, or walking around like a zombie. He went from doctor to doctor, stocking up on  barbiturates and washing them down with his wife's homemade wine. In her journal, Montgomery wonders, "how I ever came to marry this stooped, shambling, blear-eyed man wandering around with a hot water bottle tied to his forehead. It seems quite impossible that he could ever have been the straight, merry-eyed, dimple-cheeked man he was thirty-years ago."

She was working hard to hide all these problems from the world and writing, writing, writing, to pay off the mortgage and keep her sons in college. (Chester was skipping classes and pressuring her for money, and embezzling at his job, but she never learned about the last, as he only went to prison for that after her death.) She was also deeply depressed about the clouds gathering over Europe. She, too, took barbiturates in an effort to calm herself. 

Lucy died on April 24, 1942. A note was found beside her bed, reading, in part, "I have lost my mind by spells and I do not dare think what I may do in those spells. May God forgive me and I hope everyone else will forgive me even if they cannot understand. My position is too awful to endure and nobody realizes it. What an end to a life in which I tried always to do my best." The family always believed that she killed herself, though it might have been death by accidental overdose. Their fears and her depressions and those of her husband were kept secret by the family until 2011, when a granddaughter spoke of them openly. 


Here is one entry from her journal

Saturday, Oct. 30, 1937
“Journey’s End”

I have spent a very miserable day. Tortured by a dreadful restlessness. I took a sedative Lane advised but it did not help. I went to Loblaw’s in the afternoon to do my weekly shopping. Chester as usual drove me but never spoke and looked very furious. I think he hates me.

In the later afternoon I walked to Bloor because I could not remain in the house. It was a lovely day – warm and sunny; the drive was dotted with the ethereal purple of Michaelmas daisies in the gardens. But there was no healing for me. Why, oh why? I have many faults and have made many mistakes but I have tried to do right – to be a good wife and mother. Why must I endure this endless hopeless misery?

Tonight everyone is out. My loneliness is terrible. My head feels as if an iron band were round it and my arms ache and burn. I can’t even read. If only Lucky were here, my dear comforting old companion! The cats we have mean nothing to me.

I am so tortured I don’t know where to turn or what to do. I have a return of claustrophobia tonight but cannot go out because the wind is too cold. I am really in a dreadful state and am making a little relief in “writing it out”. I can’t believe Lane was right when he said that bleeding did not mean anything serious. I feel I am doomed to die a terrible death of torture – I would welcome an easy death but not such a one as that. I cannot believe anything good will ever again come to me or anyone I love. Everything presents itself to me in the darkest hours. This is the state to which the child I have loved has brought me. I wish I could stop loving him. He could not torture me then. But this is my curse. I cannot.

And yet, from all this, she created. Sought refuge in her writing. Came to value it for itself. Didn't care that the world no longer valued happy endings in adult literature. Through everything, until the very end, she wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. Her last novel, "The Blythes are quoted,"  was packaged and waiting to be sent to her publisher at her death. Her publishers refused to print it, most likely because of the book's dark tone and powerful anti-war message--the book speaks painfully about WWI. We should all read it, and her works, with a new eye. How painful her early years must have been. What courage she had. Have hard she fought against expectations for women. How hard she worked, all her life, and how her creativity benefited so many people.  How fortunate we are to live in a time when women are expected to do more than just marry and raise children--as L.M.'s Anne Shirley  (1908) does, but her Emily of New Moon, the final volume published in 1927, does not. Hurrah for Lucy Maud. 

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  • Hope A. Perlman

    Fascinating and terrible story. Thank you.