Saturday, August 9, 2014

Book Review: Along the Shore by L. M. Montgomery

When one thinks of literature about the sea, some obvious titles are certain to come to mind immediately, like Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, Melville's Moby Dick, and Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. There are Patrick O'Brien's seafaring novels, beginning with Master and Commander (I haven't read it, though I loved the film adaptation starring Russell Crowe). Then there are all of the wonderful pirate novels, first and foremost, Stevenson's Treasure Island. All of these books have something in common - they're all about men and masculinity. All of these authors are male; most of their books lack female characters.

One author that is unlikely to come to mind when one thinks of great writers of sea tales is L. M. Montgomery - a female writer, known primarily for her novels for young girls, first and foremost Anne of Green Gables. And yet, few writers can lay claim to such gorgeous descriptions of the sea. Montgomery was a native of Prince Edward Island, the principal setting of most of her writing and the magic isle that she immortalized, and the sea, like the trees, hills, lakes, and brooks of the island, was as intimate a friend to her as any flesh-and-blood human. Montgomery's stunningly beautiful descriptions of nature can be found in all of her novels, short stories, and poems, but in Along the Shore - a volume of short stories all of which focus on the sea as a central theme - one finds a veritable treasure trove of such writing. For example, the sea before a squall: "The sky was dun and smoky, the glassy water was copper-hued, the air was heavy and breathless. The sea purred upon the shore, lapping it caressingly like some huge feline creature biding its time to seize and crunch its victim."

While it's undoubtedly the case that Montgomery's sensibilities were romantic, many of her stories have a surprisingly bitter or at least bittersweet edge. In "Mackereling Out in the Gulf," Benjamin Selby is a fine fisherman and a brave, able man, desperately in love with Mary Stella and equally jealous of his rival, a Yankee lawyer. Given the extent of Selby's sense of honor, his bravery, his readiness to self-sacrifice, one would imagine the story to end quite differently than it does. Those who deride Montgomery for her sentimentality would do well to read this lovely story, which, for all its tenderness has an unexpected edge.

The oldest story in the collection, "A Strayed Allegiance," published in 1897, is a tale of romantic scruples, womanly unselfishness, and chivalric honor, set among ordinary people. It's a story that would be ravaged by most readers today and yet, beyond its almost acrobatically poetic and romantic prose, the story has an emotional depth at its core that transcends the keenly conventional trappings of its superficial story. Esterbrook and Marian, having grown up together and always taken it for granted that they would be married as adults, live a pleasant, undemanding life, though Marian, unlike Esterbrook does exert herself for others. Their serene matrimonial plans are interrupted when they meet Magdalen, a stunningly beautiful, proud, and poor woman with whom Esterbrook is smitten at first glance. The story proceeds in the fashion one would expect for a story of its era, but there is an implicit critique of gender that is certainly not in the fashion one would expect. Although Esterbrook carries on a good deal about his manly honor, the strength, pride, and self-sacrifice of the women determine the outcome of events far more than any action or feeling on Esterbrook's part.

The longest story in this volume, by quite a bit, is "Four Winds." It is also the only story that is not set directly by the sea; rather the sea haunts its characters, depending on their particular moral background, either benevolently or sinisterly. The story is about young minister Alan Douglas, living inland by a lake and longing for his seaside home, but nevertheless engrossed in his work. On a tramp by the lake, he comes across a lonely house and meets a beautiful girl. Their friendship and his desire to unravel the mysteries of her tortured past that hold her in thrall to a life of isolation form the substance of this romantic tale, which owes something to the novels of the Brontes. This story was clearly destined for adult readers; though little is made explicit, there is a sexual subtext involving rape that few would expect to find in the work of an author renowned (and criticized) for the innocence and sentimentality of her writing.

Even more unexpectedly dark is "The Waking of Helen." In this story, a painter chooses for his model an abused ugly duckling, Helen, who with his friendship and his offers of books and intellectual companionship opens up her world to dreams of finer things. The painter is not a bad man; on the contrary, he has a great deal of compassion, but almost no understanding of the behavior of beings different from himself. Though Montgomery typically kept her endings tidy and at least moderately happy, there is little room for hope or redemption in "The Waking of Helen." It is one of her rare stories that gives a glimpse into the darker recesses of the author's mind, particularly disturbing when one knows that Montgomery suffered terribly from depression and may possibly have committed suicide.

The best, as well as the funniest, story in the collection (and one of Montgomery's best stories period) is "A House Divided Against Itself," about a quarrel between Big George - five feet one inch - and Little George - six feet two inches. The source of the row is an alabaster statuette of Aurora, won in a lottery by Little George, and detested by Big George. Though the two Georges are cousins, it's difficult for a modern reader not to see their relationship as a sort of marriage. "[Little George's] marriage was so far in the dim past that Big George had almost forgiven him for it, though he occasionally cast it up to him in the frequent quarrels by which they enlivened what might otherwise have been the rather monotonous life of retired sea-folk." It seems unlikely that Montgomery intended to portray a gay relationship, but it's a convincing reading, especially given Big George's jealousy and the tenor of their domestic spats. There is an unfortunate bit of racial humor in the story that dates it and certainly makes me uncomfortable, though it is in keeping with the period and characters of the story.

For devoted readers of Montgomery, some of the stories will seem quite familiar. "The Life-Book of Uncle Jesse" was later reworked into a subplot of Anne's House of Dreams and a number of the key incidents are echoed if not downright reproduced in other works, most notably a dangerous rescue in "Four Winds" also found, though in slightly altered form, in Emily of New Moon. What is fascinating about these reiterations is the glimpse into Montgomery's process. Montgomery wrote hundreds of short stories, most destined for magazine publication, and one can see how she reworks ideas until they reach a more final form in her novels. This is particularly the case with the stories in Along the Shore, as all but one were written early on in her career, between 1897 and 1909. It is also worth noting that the stories were written for money - carefully crafted to please the editors of the magazines to which they were destined and designed to satisfy the wishes of the magazines' readership. Thus, the two stories published in Boys' World, "An Adventure on Island Rock" and "How Don Was Saved," are both about the bond between a boy and his dog and how together they become heroes, while those intended for women's magazines are generally romantic stories with happy endings and those for religiously affiliated magazines have a clear-cut moral or at least a positive message in keeping with the Protestant Christianity of the time.

Though Montgomery's novels are generally superior to her short stories, Along the Shore is a fine collection and one that will certainly give pleasure to admirers of Anne of Green Gables. It also has a good bit of variety, including stories intended for children and others for adults, both funny and tragic tales. Though Montgomery is undoubtedly a writer of her time, it is unfair and short-sighted to dismiss her work as dated or merely for girls. Is there such a great value in anticipating future literary tastes and trends? I cannot help but feel a strong desire to defend Montgomery's work against the usual criticisms leveled at it - it's sentimental, it's popular and therefore without genuine literary merit, it's only for little girls, it's too romantic, it's lacking in "realism" (a particularly bizarre and annoying criticism, given that standards of realism are constantly changing and are reflective of current cultural norms, rather than how realistic or not a work happens to be) - because her writing has given me more pleasure and joy than the work of almost any other author.

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