- From "Pretty Nearly Perfectly Happy" to "the Depths of Despair":Mania and Depression in L. M. Montgomery's Anne Series
Recently Kate Macdonald Butler publicly admitted that her grandmother, Lucy Maud Montgomery, creator of the beloved children's literature character Anne Shirley, had committed suicide. Macdonald Butler's admission comes after years of silence from Montgomery's family line. In her article, published in Canada's Globe and Mail on Saturday, September 27, 2008, Macdonald Butler states that her reason for finally opening up about the true cause of Montgomery's death is to help fight the negative image attached to depression and mental illness. She believes "that the stigma surrounding mental illness will be forever upon us as a society until we sweep away the misconception that depression happens to other people, not us—and most certainly not to our heroes and icons." Macdonald Butler views her coming clean about Montgomery's depression as an opportunity to break down many of the mistaken views that people hold about depression and to help people reach a deeper understanding of the disorder that is not colored by judgment or preconceived notions. In light of this news it is interesting to reread Montgomery's most well-known literary character looking for signs of her creator's depression.
It makes sense that knowledge of Montgomery's suicide might change the way we read Anne Shirley. In spite of the fact that Montgomery claimed otherwise (Gillen 85), there are enough similarities between Anne and Montgomery to conclude that Anne is at least partially an autobiographical character. It is well known that Avonlea is a lightly fictionalized version of Cavendish, the small Prince Edward Island town in which Montgomery was raised, and it is also true that Green Gables is a fictionalized combination of various houses from Montgomery's past (Gillen 180). But not only are the places in Anne's [End Page 188] world real, in a way Anne herself was once real too. Montgomery shared with Anne a vivid imagination and an enduring love of nature. Montgomery was even almost an orphan, since after her mother died when she was just a baby her father left her in the care of her grandparents, whose stern childrearing values were strikingly similar to Marilla Cuthbert's (Gillen 14).
It is extremely likely, then, that if Montgomery was clinically depressed she might have inadvertently written that depression into Anne's character, and there is sufficient evidence to conclude that Montgomery's depression was diagnosable. Montgomery's suicide has been contested, but whether or not her death was intentional or was instead the result of an accidental overdose, there can be no disputing that Montgomery suffered from episodes of depression throughout her life and that not long before her death she considered committing suicide. On top of that, noted Montgomery scholar Mary Henley Rubio says that the evidence suggests that Montgomery's was "a premeditated death by someone who was in the grip of a major depressive episode" (578), and one month before her death Montgomery wrote in her journal: "I shall be driven to end my life" (qtd. in Rubio 574). In addition, Montgomery's biography and the abundance of journals and letters she left behind include a number of symptoms of depression.
There are at least four occasions, and possibly many more, when Montgomery was entirely debilitated by depressive episodes. Once in 1910, when she described her experience in her journal in a way that Rubio notes is "a classic description of a person's feelings in a severe depression" (130). Again in 1934 Montgomery suffered from what she described as a "breakdown," after which she said: "for six weeks I couldn't sleep or eat or work" (qtd. in Gillen 171). Montgomery described the time from late 1937 through early 1938 saying: "for 4 months I lived in a sort of hell on earth" (qtd. in Gillen 182). Montgomery had a final breakdown for an extended period from 1940 until the end of her life in 1942, during which time she wrote in a letter to a friend: "I feel my mind is going" (qtd. in Gillen 186). Montgomery likely suffered...