I muse on old age and LM Montgomery

We went to see Jackie last night, and stayed over till this morning. I was so tired when we got back, I skipped yoga and worked in the garden instead… but the garden looks lovely now, and we had a great time with Jackie, and I’ve been feeling all the symptoms of sleep deprivation all day — feverishness, unsteadiness on my feet, unreliable stomach, not to mention just general slowness — so it’s just as well I didn’t attend Kimber’s challenging class. Our trip to Jackie’s was quite an adventure, though, and I wrote about it in my evening pages yesterday. Jackie’s poor grandma is in a rehab center/nursing home following her ankle fracture, and that place is so grim. The saddest thing is that it’s probably one of the better facilities, as such places go. Are there no better options for the ailing elderly? It’s so terrible to think of ourselves, so vital and young and active, someday being reduced to these sad, neglected wraiths who sit in wheelchairs in the hallway… and vice versa, of these shoved-aside aged individuals being once so much more lively and able. A pox on all those dreadful people who work in such places and don’t care about their patients, and the bureaucrats and organizational structures that let this situation come to pass.

I didn’t get much work done today, aside from thinking, cooking, picking up our CSA box, decoupage-cutting, and reading LM Montgomery’s Akin to Anne. The book is a collection of short stories, all written before Anne and published in various magazines. They are all about hardworking, penniless, misunderstood, unloved orphans who through really quite absurd coincidences discover long-lost relatives eager to shower them with money, love, home, and connections. After a while the stories all start to seem the same — sometimes down to the same lines and really blatantly recycled plots — but it’s very interesting to read them as a group. For one thing, I realize more how much Maud must have suffered from her own childhood as the unpampered niece of strict older relatives; look at how much she works this out through her fiction, again and again! (Of course, I realize the happy-ending deserving-orphan story was also a mainstay of the age.) Also, it’s fascinating to watch her progression as a writer through what are basically new versions of the same essential story (this is where the similarity of the stories to one another actually makes them more interesting to read together!); the earliest story in the collection was published in 1900 and is so much clunkier than the last, published in 1933 — and except for the 1933 story, all these preceded her other works, like Jane and Emily and Anne. There is actually a line in one of the early stories that she uses again verbatim in Jane, only in that book its context serves it better… well done to Maud! And I really can’t blame her for recycling stories when these are more than likely what Emily calls “pot-boilers” — stories written for income and practice and nought else! Given how many of these nearly-identical stories are packed into a short span of years, it’s remarkable that they stand apart as much as they do.

I confess a real affection for all these sentimental happy-ending stories of the Victorian era. They’re preachy, they’re idealized; the characters use language that no real person could possibly have used even in that day and age — but whenever I get a craving to read them there’s just nothing else that will do. Right now I’m on a Montgomery kick but I’ve also collected many Alcotts, and I once went through a Horatio Alger phase too. I haven’t really bothered to analyze what my fondness for these tales says about my character, but I’m quite sure it’s very unfashionable for a modern writer to have such tastes. Well, pish. I will like what I like, and let these stories flavor my own work with as much butter and vanilla-sugar as they probably do!

While we’re on Montgomery, I’ll revisit that passage in Emily Climbs (the second in the trilogy and the one that I’ve decided is the best book) that I marked to write about.

The acceptance [of one of Emily’s stories by a “New York magazine of some standing”] came at the psychological moment when the sands of Emily’s faith were running rather low. All the fall and winter her stuff had been coming back to her… Tears of disappointment would come. But after a time she got hardened to it and didn’t mind–so much. She only gave the editorial slip the Murray look and said “I will succeed.” And never at any time had she any real doubt that she would. Down, deep down, something told her that her time would come. So, though she flinched momentarily from each rejection, as from the flick of a whip, she sat down and–wrote another story.

I do so love this passage (it’s actually a full page in the text, with the addition of the specifics) because it’s so true to what we artists must deal with. I haven’t had anything published yet, but I still understand those feelings of dejection and hopelessness… and the underlying faith in one’s own ability that keeps one working through it. I admire Emily because she perseveres through all these challenges to her art, in spite of tears, in spite of social disapproval of her “scribbling.” I haven’t yet had to be tested in that way and with that intensity, but when I get there, I will remember Emily and this passage and hew to my resolve with as much of her same strength as I can muster!!