Should you visit Google today, you’ll find that the daily “doodle” commemorates the birthday of Lucy Maud Montgomery, born November 30, 1874. The animation portrays Montgomery’s most famous creation, the red-haired Anne-with-an-e Shirley, turning green as she cuts into a piece of adulterated cake. (Herein lies my acknowledgment of Cyber Monday—and understand it is not intended as an ad.)
Like so much of Montgomery’s writing, this moment in Anne of Green Gables is heartwarming and gently funny, part of the long journey toward love and acceptance by Anne’s strict guardian, Marilla Cuthbert. These early books—before Anne becomes overly ethereal and perfect and beset with dozens of clamoring suitors—are the best loved, and certainly my favorites. But in her day, all Montgomery’s novels sold well, even less-inspired fare like Kilmeny of the Orchard or the mopey Emily series. By the time of her death the author was a bona fide celebrity, and Mark Twain called Anne “the dearest and most moving and delightful child since the immortal Alice.”
Montgomery’s death was deemed a coronary thrombosis, and even today it’s disputed—was the portentous, apologetic note found by her bedside merely an errant page from a missing journal? As one of her relatives explains, they did not like to think of gay, jolly Aunt Maud in such terms, and as such no one in the family ever discussed the matter—even though it was known that her husband battled mental illness for years, requiring great care, and that Maud herself spoke frankly of bouts of melancholia. If the subject is of interest, I highly recommend Mary Henley Rubio’s biography Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings and Montgomery’s collected journals, edited by the same. The portrait that emerges is not just one of early-modern literary celebrity or of a particular moment in a changing Canada (although that’s there) but of a deeply complex figure—far more complex than most of her heroines.
Here is what the note said:
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.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.