The 13th Biennial L.M. Montgomery and Reading Conference is featuring an exhibit from author and professor at the University of Prince Edward Island, David Hickey. I asked Hickey to describe his exhibit, “Unearthly Pleasures: The Artful Astronomy of L.M. Montgomery,” which will be exhibited at the university all next week.
THE ARTFUL ASTRONOMY OF L.M. MONTGOMERY
By David Hickey
“I have never had time to resume the studies in astronomy which so fascinated me a year or two before my marriage,” Montgomery writes in a letter to G.B. MacMillan in February of 1919. “I wish I might have but I suppose I never shall. The memory of them is most fascinating” (My Dear Mr. M. 86).
“The Artful Astronomy of L.M. Montgomery” is an interactive media project that explores Montgomery’s fascination with astronomy and the night sky by visualizing and contextualizing her many references to celestial objects. While at times overlooked as a significant dimension of her life, astronomy was nonetheless a source of creative inspiration and intellectual curiosity for her.
"The Land of Heart's Desire"
Near the end of 1926, Montgomery would recall an excursion in her journal that in many ways encapsulates her relationship with the night sky. Following a description of a less than enjoyable United Church bazaar, where she “was whispered at hostilely by several Unionists” for being Presbyterian, Montgomery counters the memory with a more pleasant recollection of the outing that followed. “Then tonight,” begins a new paragraph,
“I walked down the street to make a call. There was a half-moon over the pines – an old friend of mine – not too bright for stars. And under the stars the shadows of the pines on the snow. And the line of a poem read long ago came in my mind,
‘I will go home to the evening star
To the light on the edge of the world.’
So I went down the street hand in hand with delight. What a pity you can’t photograph starlight! Yet – is it? Isn’t it just as well there is something that cannot be caught?” (SJ 3: 318)
Just as Anne “sailed over storied seas [. . .] with the evening star for pilot,” Montgomery takes a similar journey here “to the land of Heart’s Desire” (11). The passage begins with the commonplace, a walk “down the street to make a call,” only to dissolve into a description of the sky and the landscape around her.
The details that Montgomery includes here are carefully chosen. She begins with the half-moon overhead, and then gazes down to pines, and then to their shadow on the snow. The narrative subsequently moves inwards to lines from a remembered poem before returning to street level, where Montgomery walks “hand in hand” with “delight,” which reads here as the sum total of these reflections.
By creating a bridge between what she sees and what the unnamed poet imagines, the two visions come to inhabit the single space of the speaker’s mind harmoniously. The half-moon, meanwhile, presides over this scene: its light is tempered, and “not too bright for stars,” which suggests the balance that Montgomery recognizes most immediately around her exists overhead as well.
According to Anne, “the evening star" that Montgomery mentions in this passage "is a lighthouse on the land where the fairies dwell” (146). As a result, when the evening star is adopted as a “pilot,” the light leads to a place where the pressures of the world all but cease, and new forms of personal enrichment become possible. “And she was richer in those dreams than in realities,” Montgomery writes of one such journey, “for things seen pass away, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (11).
In Anne’s world, the imagination supplants “the cayenne speeches of malicious neighbors,” as the evening star becomes the gateway to the unseen, yet no less necessary realms of dream and myth.
While her own journey towards these sites of reprieve would have been far more challenging than those undertaken in her fiction, Montgomery nevertheless found comfort in those rare moments when celestial companions, such as the evening star, felt near.
"What a Pity You Can't Photograph Starlight!"
Montgomery mentions astronomy and photography on more than one occasion in her writing. “Tonight I tried to write a description of Dean in my Jimmy-book of character sketches,” Emily states. “But I didn’t succeed.” She continues:
‘What I wrote seemed like a photograph -- not a portrait. There is something in Dean that is beyond me.’
‘Dean took a picture of me the other day with his new camera, but he wasn’t pleased with it.’
‘It doesn’t look like you,’ he said, ‘but of course one can never photograph starlight.’ ( 29)
In this passage from Emily of New Moon, both characters express dissatisfaction in the means of representation at their disposal. Emily, for her part, appears to characterize photography as a lesser medium by distinguishing between a “photograph” and a “portrait,” as if to suggest that the latter conveys its subject with greater depth. Dean appears less troubled by the fact that the photograph does not resemble Emily; he is, instead, accepting of the tool’s limitation, and greets it as opportunity to complement Emily on her elusiveness.
A passing reference to photography and starlight also appears in The Blythes are Quoted, only this time the impossibility of capturing the stars on film is described instead by Dick as something that is “hard” to do (489). It is tempting to speculate that Montgomery was following the development of the camera, and that, in the years between writing these manuscripts, she came to believe that photographing the stars was no longer impossible, but simply a challenging feat.
Regardless, her decision to align these suggests that she was sensitive to how technology was changing the nature of representation, and that she was actively thinking through what it meant to live in an increasingly mediated age. Perhaps for this very reason, Montgomery takes care in her writing to value memory itself as a source of fascination.
Montgomery's appreciation for the importance of memory is especially evident in the passage to G.B. MacMillan that opens this post, as she makes a subtle distinction between her studies in astronomy and the act of recollecting them. It is as though her interest in astronomy has been relocated to a more personal region of herself where the past is safely maintained and restored, and where the only apparatus needed to reveal the stars is the fascination of those who would behold them.
David Hickey teaches writing at the University of Prince Edward Island. He is the author of two books of poetry, Open Air Bindery (2011) and In Lights of a Midnight Plow (2006). In 2014, his Ph.D dissertation was awarded the Karl F. Klinck Prize for outstanding work in the field of Canadian Literature at Western.