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Home: The Toast

sundayThere’s a sort of cheerful, self-satisfied superiority about Presbyterianism that runs through the oeuvre of L. M. Montgomery. Her main characters, by and large, are matter-of-fact in their allegiance to the old Scottish denomination. The comic side characters, however, are allowed to get downright judgmental about it. The most notable is probably Miss Cornelia Bryant, who comes to meet Anne and Gilbert when they move to Glen St. Mary in Anne’s House of Dreams, “seeing you’re Presbyterians. If you were Methodists she wouldn’t come at all. Cornelia has a holy horror of Methodists.” (She’s also “a most inveterate man-hater” and remains a dear friend to the Blythes and their children for years to come.) The best compliment Miss Cornelia can think of for Leslie, who is young, beautiful, troubled, and only an occasional (Methodist) church-goer, is that “she’s a real strong Presbyterian at heart.”

Montgomery herself seems to have been broad in her theology and skeptical of some of the values of Scots-Presbyterian culture. In “L.M. Montgomery: Scottish-Presbyterian Agency in Canadian Culture,” Mary Henley Rubio reveals this subversion: “She grows up in a [very Presbyterian] society that values reason and the intellect above all, but she uses her fiction to show that the intellect is often driven by the emotions.” The seriousness and clannishness that characterized her P.E.I. Presbyterian community show up throughout her novels as more morally complicated values, and she “laces her morality with humour, rather than thundering away like [founder of the Presbyterian church] John Knox.”

But like Miss Cornelia, Montgomery believed fervently that the Presbyterian people were the salt of the earth—they may not be perfect, but at least they weren’t Methodists. In 1906, already in her thirties, she agreed to marry a Presbyterian minister she didn’t particularly love. There were certainly other factors at play in her decision: he was kind and easy-going; she considered him more socially acceptable than the farmer she had loved ardently and briefly in her youth; and, as she wrote in her journal, “I wanted a home and companionship; and more than all, to be perfectly candid, I wanted children” (12 Oct. 1906). Montgomery (“Maud” to her friends) and Ewan Macdonald were wed after a secret five-year engagement—he had gone to Scotland for further education, and she waited for her grandmother to die. For the rest of her life, she would balance her career as one of Canada’s most popular and enduring novelists with the expectations of the minister’s wife.

Further complicating their relationship was the enormity of Ewan’s secret, religion-fueled depression. He believed fervently in the doctrine of predestination, once a cornerstone of the Calvinist denominations. In a nutshell, no one deserves to go to heaven, but God has picked some people who will; Jesus died for them and only for them; and there’s nothing you can do to switch lists. For some believers, this is reassuring. To Ewan Macdonald, it was terrifying.

Now, Presbyterian seminaries had stopped teaching the doctrine of predestination by the time Ewan went through. No matter. Montgomery’s journals tell of her husband’s “constitutional recurrent melancholia” (13 Sept. 1919), rooted in his conviction that he was among the damned; that he had no way out of hell; and that his position at the head of a church was cruel and unfair to his congregants.

The damnation and hellfire niggling at Ewan’s mind often kept him out of the day-to-day work of parenting and running a household. On the worst days, he couldn’t get out of bed. His wife’s offhand complaints bubble up, year after year, in her journals. In 1916, Maud wrote of her disappointment with Ewan’s attempts to take care of their first child, Chester.

Five years later, she continued to bear sole responsibility for raising and disciplining their two sons, while “Ewan has never, since the boys were born, attempted to teach or train them in any respect, not even in the truths of his religion. […] It was a bitter moment in my life when I was forced to accept the fact that all the responsibility for the teaching and training of my children was to fall on me” (17 Jan. 1921). Occasionally, Maud succeeded in bringing Ewan into disciplinary conversations, but he participated unwillingly and she felt that he shirked his share of the work. After one such episode, she wrote, “There is nothing I miss more in my life than the aid of a wise and competent father in the bringing up of my children. It is absolutely lacking” (8 June 1922). Even as Chester entered adulthood, Montgomery noted that he and Ewan “don’t pull well. For one thing they are too much alike. For another Ewan has no understanding of youth and young men whatever” (16 June 1930).

From what we know of Montgomery’s own life, it seems that she, too, suffered from persistent depression—but that her own illness took a definite backseat to her husband’s incessant suffering. Her journals have their moments of rapturous joy, as when Chester was born in 1912 and she exclaimed, “Oh, my darling little son, you make up for everything I have suffered and missed in life. Everything led to you—and therefore I feel that all has been for the best” (22 Sept. 1912). A few years later, when her younger son, Stuart, was still a toddler, she wrote that “my two little sons—they fill life and heart and soul. […] I miss nothing, I lack nothing of bliss” (18 March 1917).

After all, she had married in order to have children to love and adore. (I should note that there was a middle son, Hugh, who was stillborn.) Maud herself had been raised by her elderly grandparents, who she felt didn’t understand her youthful dreams and ambitions. This makes it all the more heartwrenching when she writes that “I do regret one thing keenly, and that is that almost all the years of my boys’ childhood which should have been my happiest years I have been so unhappy and worried over Ewan’s malady” (10 Feb. 1925).

As the boys grew up, their own choices frequently disappointed their mother; they plunged her into “the darkest hours,” where she “cannot believe anything good will ever again come to me or anyone I love” (30 Oct. 1937). Where Ewan seemed obsessively devoted to his visions of sin and damnation, Maud’s growing depression roamed free of theological restrictions. She tossed around the language of predestination side-by-side with the contradictory ideas of free will and divine punishment, but the sentiment was always the same:

“This is a terrible life—but it seems to be my predestined lot—I must bear it for the sake of my children” (10 Oct. 1934).
“To think that I was once so happy in and proud of my two little boys. Too happy—I loved them too much and God has punished me for it” (27 Aug. 1936).

That note of onetime happiness calls to mind an entry from 15 years earlier, when the boys were still young and their every decision not yet a deeply-felt disappointment to a depressed mother whose suicide would become a long-guarded family secret (Some Montgomery scholars have contested this revelation; I choose to go with the family). While Ewan was again abed, stricken with fear of a future without salvation, his wife was reflecting on a kind comment from a friend, who noted that she “always seem[ed] so bright and happy”:

“Happy! With my heart wrung as it is! With a constant ache of loneliness in my being. With no one to help me guide and train and control my sons! With my husband at that very moment lying on his bed, gazing at the ceiling and worrying over having committed the unpardonable sin! Well, I must be a good actress. I wonder how many other women I know, who seem ‘bright and happy,’ have likewise a closet full of skeletons. Plenty of them, I daresay” (18 Aug. 1921).

Further Reading:

L. M. Montgomery and Canadian Culture, edited by Irene Gammel and Elizabeth Epperly. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

[Picture of Billy Sunday via]

Kate R. West is a professional librarian and an amateur religion researcher. She self-identifies as an Americanadian, a wallflower, and an Order Muppet.

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