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ESC: English Studies in Canada 31.4 (2005) 123-146

Pigsties and Sunsets:
L.M. Montgomery, A Tangled Web, and a Modernism of Her Own
Benjamin Lefebvre
University of Winnipeg

"My sales have been slipping a bit of late years," L.M. Montgomery noted in her journal in 1928, commenting on a semi-annual report she had received from her American publisher. "Well, I suppose I have had my day and must make way for newer favorites. For twenty years I have been in the van and that is considered a long time for the fickle public to be faithful" (Selected Journals III [1 October 1928] 378–79). By 1928, two decades after her first novel, Anne of Green Gables (1908), thrust her permanently into the public eye, Montgomery had published thirteen novels, two collections of short stories (one unauthorized), a collection of poems, and numerous periodical pieces. While her comment of resignation may have been realistic for a popular writer in mid-career, Montgomery immediately contradicted that expectation: "Yet my publishers tell me there is another reason—and a rather flattering one. It seems the sales of my old books are keeping up too well and they cut the market from my new ones to a large extent" (379).

While Montgomery could afford to be smug about her continued high sales, there were some changes about which she could not feel so self-assured during this time period. After rereading Marie Corelli's Sorrows of Satan (1895) during a night of insomnia in 1930, she reflected, "What a [End Page 123] commotion that book made when it came out over thirty years ago. And now I suppose nobody under thirty has ever heard of it. It was about as wild and absurd as any book could be—but Marie could tell a story. After all, I prefer the Satanic sorrows to the modern sex putridity" (Selected Journals IV [30 August 1930] 65; see also After Green Gables [26 April 1931] 187). An avid reader who mixed recent popular fiction interchangeably with rereadings of favourite texts by canonical writers of the nineteenth century and whose choice of reading materials does not seem to have been affected by her public role as the wife of a Presbyterian minister, Montgomery was nonetheless not completely indiscriminate when it came to modern taste in fiction, given that she had difficulty adjusting to some of the latest literary trends. After reading a scene in Valentine Dobrée's Your Cuckoo Sings by Kind (1927) that included "the most hideous, loathsome bestial incident—the vilest thing I ever read in any book," something so obscene she refused to describe it, her reaction was so violent that "It turned me sick":

I think what hurt me worst was that it was so unjustifiable. There was no need for it—it didn't belong to the book…. I am no prude. I have read a great many books where sex played a prominent part—great books which I enjoyed. But I have no use for the filth that is being spewed out by the presses of the world today. It is not sex—it is plain dirt. This was worse than dirt—it was verminous.

(Selected Journals III [17 November 1927] 359; see also After Green Gables [7 April 1929] 162–63)1

As Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston note in their Introduction to the fourth volume of Montgomery's Selected Journals (1998), which includes entries from 1929 to 1935, literary trends that evolved gradually after World War I gave a new set of tastes and offerings to Montgomery's "fickle public," which would cause sales of her books to decline steadily throughout the 1930s. "Fragmentation, angst, and disillusionment were [End Page 124] the vogue, and Montgomery's novels, set in pre-war Prince Edward Island, appeared to be works of nostalgia and sentimentalism to the Modernist critical eye," they write. Moreover, her books "were about domestic women at a time when the heroes...