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Featured Scholar: Mary Rubio, Interview with Bernadeta Milewski

This is quite a treat. Bernadeta Milewski is a L.M. Montgomery fan who spends much of her time traveling to various sites across Canada, interviewing people and taking photos. Milewski then reports her findings on her Polish language blog or  Milewski was born in Poland and Anne of Green Gables was the first novel she ever read on her own at the age of 8. The book and its sequels became very important to her, so she started dreaming of visiting Prince Edward Island one day. In 2000 she moved to the USA which made it possible for her dream to come true. She has been back 5 times since her first trip and has also visited the Ontario locations related to L.M. Montgomery this year. Since 2013 she has been blogging about her trips and all things Anne for Polish audience.

During her last visit to Ontario, Milewski met up with Dr. Mary Rubio, who showed her around Montgomery’s favourite Norval haunts. Rubio agreed to answer some questions from some of Milewski’s readers, which was published in Polish this past fall in two parts. The interview was conducted on September 27, 2015. Rubio provides a history of how she got into L.M. Montgomery studies, evening mentioning the creation of the LMMI.

You can read the original Polish entries here.  Having translated the questions herself, Milewski has given the LMMI permission to publish them here. I have changed some basic formatting and added a few clarifications in square brackets, but the rest is as it was given to the LMMI by Milewski from her interview with Rubio.

Milewski: How long have you been researching [L.M. Montgomery’s] LMM's life and why did you become interested in it?

Rubio: I started researching LMM’s life in the early 1970s. Many things occurred in those early years: my daughters were in elementary school here, and using almost exclusively American texts, so a colleague and I did a school text  called Kanata to introduce Canadian writers for children into the school system.  We also started an academic journal called CCL: Canadian Children’s Literature in 1975 because there was no ready source to find out about Cdn books for children. (There wasn’t much Canadian literature for young people then.) We then introduced a course on Children’s Literature in the English Department at the U[niveristy] of Guelph, including a few Canadian authors among the international ones. I was at the same time trying to provide materials at home for my girls, and LMM was an obvious choice!

I got so interested in LMM that I kept looking into her life, and Elizabeth Waterston told me about the existence of her journals, which were then in the hands of her son in Toronto, Dr. Ewan Stuart Macdonald, a medical doctor.  I sent him a copy of our CCL issue on his mother, and met him after that. Eventually he asked me to edit the journals and to write a biography of his mother.  (He wanted me to do a biography, using the journals as my research source, but I knew a good biography would have to entail a lot of research outside the journals.)  Elizabeth had already met him when she did the first academic article on LMM in the 1960s.  This was the beginning of feminist attention to women writers, and to popular women writers, and to the realization that women’s socialization was important, too.

Anne of Green Gables in Polish
Anne of Green Gables in Polish

At that time, LMM was regarded by academics and the media as a third-rate writer of sentimental novels for girls and women; these critics were mostly men, of course, because there were not then so many women in these fields.  In the 1960s, a young and very talented Elizabeth Waterston had been told by older men in her department that if she wanted to progress up the academic ladder, she should not waste any more time on LMM. In 1975, we wanted to change Montgomery’s reputation because we knew she was read around the world and had influenced many women writers around the world, too.  Every time our then Chair of English (Dr. G. Doug Killam) came back from one of his many tours to speak in other countries (In Australia, India, Europe, Africa, the UK, etc.), he would tell my husband that the only Canadian writer people seemed to know about was LMM.  He surmised rightly that someone who was read around the world, and universally beloved, was an important writer even if she wrote about the lives of girls and women..  

Feminist critics were beginning to make that point, too. And Cultural Historians were beginning to look at the impact of “best-sellers” on public attitudes.  I had met Dr. Elizabeth Epperly, who is about my age, and who loved LMM’s books, shared the same ideas, and so did various other people around the world (including Barbara Wachowicz — she wrote Dr. Macdonald and he gave me the letter to answer). Gabriella Ahmansson in Sweden was around this time starting a PhD thesis on LMM, and she wrote us about LMM. A lot of things came together, and we published many pieces on LMM in CCL.  There is an Index on-line through the U[niveristy] of Guelph website. After the journals came out, Betsy Epperly was able to start the [L.M. Montgomery Institute], and that has produced many articles and books, too. LMM is now a cultural icon, I think.

Milewski: After researching LMM's life for many years you have certainly become accustomed with her and got to know her. How would you describe her? If you met her in person, would you like her right away or would you need some time to see a kindred spirit in her?  

Rubio: Your  questions are hard to answer even though I do feel I know LMM very well: there were many people inside LMM, which is another way of saying she was a very complex person.  It goes without saying: She was different people at different times in her life. She was a different person with people she trusted than with casual acquaintances. She was one person in some situations and another in others.  However, she had an inner core of kindness and integrity, and she always intended to do the right thing. Even so, she said about herself that she was not always "good.” She knew she was incisive and sharp. Stuart said that she engendered deep affection in her family, but that being her son was not easy.

Personally, I don’t think being her husband would have been easy, either: she was too smart and could be very direct.  The maids said she "wore the pants" in the family.  Yet, Chester’s first wife admired her, as did all the maids, and all of the parishioners I talked to, which were many.  Even the maids who had taken a drubbing from her admired her, although they could make critical remarks about her. Everyone said she was a wonderful conversationalist and storyteller, and contributed a lot to the church and community in other ways.  Nobody doubted her sincerity and integrity.  As the Pope said today: “We all get dust on our feet as we walk through the path of life. None of us is perfect.”

Would I myself have liked her?  It depends…. If I had been her mother-figure when she was young, I think I would have been worn out by her volatility and energy: she would have been a handful, but I would have loved her. If I had been her age when she was young, I would have adored having her as a friend because she would always have been interesting and full of fun. I would have loved being her roommate in college.  I would have liked her as a neighbour in Cavendish because she contributed so much to the community.. I would have admired her when she was a minister’s wife and author if I were in the congregation — she really put herself out for the parishioners.  

However, there are other times when I might not have liked her. Stuart said he was frustrated by her “pride” when Chester started misbehaving and she was humiliated and totally preoccupied by it. If I had been a child of hers then, I would have resented that she focussed and obsessed on the bad child, rather than on me, the child who did things right. (Of course, that is a common fault with most parents who have the same situation, and I would have been much like her.) Some of the people in her last congregation felt that she was too impressed by the Barracloughs' money, and they were jealous of the Macdonalds’ closeness to the Barracloughs. I would probably have felt the same way if I had been too poor to host her with fine dinners, or too déclassé to interest her.  I would have admired her for her work ethic and talents.  But everything depends where you stand in relation to a situation or person, doesn’t it!  [If you are a teacher, the student to whom you gave a well-deserved “A” probably thinks you are great, and the one who got a well-deserved “F” probably doesn’t, and thinks it is your fault.]

I did get to know Stuart (and Ruth) quite well, and the older people who knew both him and his mother told me he was much like her.  You could not help liking Stuart — he could make anything interesting: if he made a mere trip to the grocery, he came back with funny stories. He had a wonderful sense of humour and an appreciation for language and the ironies in life.  His colleagues liked him, too. He could be very direct, too, but when he spoke to the point, his remarks were not unjust.   

So would I have liked LMM?  Yes, mostly. I would certainly have admired her. I would have loved her company. She was generous in helping people who needed it, and I admire this — a number of people have told me about her helping them with cash when they were in trouble, and she rarely mentions this in the journals.

One important comment:  I have never been bored with her in my 40 years of giving her a lot of my research attention.  Very often, biographers come to hate the people they are writing about. I did not.  If she had failings, I could only reflect that I have greater ones.  However, I would have felt that the personality traits which came from the insecurity engendered by her childhood were tedious, especially at the end of her life when they showed most.  And I would never have wanted to be someone she took a strip off of!  She didn’t like confrontations and avoided them, but when she blew up at them, people never forgot it.  Apparently people watched their “Ps and Qs” around her grandmother, Lucy, and I think they did around Maud, too! You would not want her bad opinion!

Bernadeta Milewski
Bernadeta Milewski

Milewski:  After years of research do you feel the image of the writer created by LMM is truthful or do you doubt and question it? What was the strangest or the most difficult source you had to get to while writing your biography? Is there a story or an adventure connected with it?

Rubio: I tried to check out everything in her journals when doing the biography.  Mostly she was truthful, but she told things from her own point of view.  How could anyone do otherwise?  She certainly twisted the Herman Leard saga, as I explain in the biography, but she doesn’t directly tell untruths — she just leaves things out. She says she went to Frede’s wedding, and she didn’t.  She left out much of Chester’s story because she hoped he would change / straighten up, and I can’t blame her for that since she intended her journals to be published eventually and knew he had children who might read them eventually.  Chasing down all of the Chester-story was one of the big challenges.  And trying to get the fuller picture of why things went sour at both Leaskdale and Norval was hard.  Once the journals came out, people’s memories changed — both about what had happened and about what they thought of her — and this made it very hard to get honest stories out of people.  I think that no research done after her journals came out is reliable.

Milewski: What do you think caused the change in Montgomery's writing - the change in the customs or her own difficult experiences (re: difficult subjects from later books like divorces, miscarriages etc.)?

Rubio: I don’t see that much change in subject matter — certainly there is more change in tone.  There is horrible cruelty to children like Anne and Emily in the early books, but the light or humorous tone often mitigates the pain. You know from the tone that things will work out. When she was overcome with her own pain towards the end of her life, she had a hard time keeping the tone light.  I am sure that she saw herself at least a little bit in the  controlling grandmother in Jane of Lantern Hill.  Penguin made a selling point that The Blythes are Quoted was darker, but that was more a selling point than the fact.  Publishers have to have an angle for selling things.

There is a big difference between the tone in the novels, especially the early ones, and the journals.  They are the two sides of LMM.

Milewski: If you had a chance to ask Montgomery herself, what question would you ask her?  

Rubio: That’s a hard one. She wrote about how children felt with great insight, but was a difficult mother herself.  Maybe I would ask: If you had a second chance at child-rearing, is there anything you would do differently?

Milewski: Have you ever tried any of Maud's recipes?

Rubio: Yes, I had her cookbook for awhile and copied all of the recipes she gave her maids to cook from. Stuart was delighted that I found her recipe for “mock cherry pie” which had been lost for years. It is good. Her rhubarb pie — a custard pie — is superb.  Stuart loved her candied carrots, but I have not made them.  The Crawfords did a cookbook based on her recipes, which were largely from Frede and the Campbells.  It is disproportionately full of desserts, appropriate for people who worked in the fields in the summer and lived in cold houses in the winter.  The recipes would make the rest of us really fat!  But they are delicious.  She was a first rate cook!