Ed is a retired IT professional from Nova Scotia, Canada. His many passions include the study of WWII, the elusive game of golf, and dogs.
In the main, this will be an examination of the thinking behind the Christian morality shared by a majority at the turn of the twentieth century. For the complete unabridged background, read Montgomery's entire set of journals and the scholarly biography by Mary Henley Rubio.
I wish to discuss the evolution of modern religious morality and its impact on Lucy Maud Montgomery’s happiness. Pious people with sensitive opinions on the topic should look away or be condemned to a lifetime of writing angry missives in reply.
Why is Her Victorian Morality Important?
Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote “Anne of Green Gables”, the story of an unloved orphan girl, around 1908 which instantly became a best seller worldwide. Maud, as she liked to be called, did something else far more valuable to the world however, by writing her very detailed journals from the age of 14 to the end of her life in 1942. These journals are invaluable to sociologists, professional and amateur alike, who wish to excavate all her private thoughts and, like an archaeologist brushing off artifacts, allow us to piece together the details of her thinking, her motivations for all her major life decisions, and in essence come to a summation of human morality at the turn of 20th century and beyond. How did we evolve from buttoned-down, pious Victorians to a society of hedonists who build naked digital profiles of themselves for the purpose of attracting mates? The transition is astonishing and worthy of examination. It happened more or less in my lifetime. Its roots were in Maud’s lifetime.
Morality changes throughout history. It happens slowly because each change is such a complete revolution in thinking that, if it were to happen too quickly, it would cause violent reaction. Sometimes it does. The holding of humans as slaves is obviously reprehensible but took many years before its immorality was embraced, and then thinking on the topic quickly changed, sparking the US Civil War. The morality of creating and maintaining empires through imperial force came to a head in 1914 and resulted in the First and Second World Wars. Wars of imperial expansion became unlawful due to the UN rules governing international conduct. And so it is with human sexuality. The moral outlook toward it has changed in the last hundred years or so, largely due to a declining influence of the Church. In Maud Montgomery’s lifetime, her journals permit us to dig in to that decline and see what happened because she gave us many details of her thinking and rationale behind her actions, including her private life. So here we go then, from toilets being called “Water Closets” to live-streaming exhibitions of bowel movements on Rate My Pooh Dot Com. How the heck did it happen? So let’s dig in.
Women Bathers in Maud's Time
Why Become a Critical Thinker?
In reading Maud’s journals, we can ascertain that she isn’t a critical thinker. For a person to change their moral stance on a topic, it’s absolutely essential that they become a critical thinker. In Maud’s case we can see she has much more intellectual power than most of the men in her milieu. However, when they preach to her on Sunday, she accepts quietly their wisdom as superior when this is clearly not the case. Her husband, a preacher, was even exhibiting signs of mental illness according to her own descriptions of his behavior. And yet she sits through his sermons every Sunday without any question. Her religion then is given to her from the previous generation, not acquired through a spiritual awakening or consciously developed through the challenges of life. She is a brainwashed child and simply accepts its teachings even when delivered by her mentally disturbed husband.
Maud does not question highly suspicious anecdotes of the Bible, she accepts them. How did the Great Flood happen technically? Is it meteorologically possible for it to rain sufficiently to cover the earth? We know it is not. Did Jesus bring back to life a dead person? Did Moses part a 30 mile wide sea? If you choose to believe it and all the other miracles you have not witnessed once in your lifetime, fine, that is a matter of belief and is your right. A critical thinker would apply what we know now about science and say these things are highly unlikely to have happened. If one rejects the religion, they reject its moral teachings as well. If a person thinks you have lied in order to confine their moral thinking, the morality gets tossed with the lies. This didn’t happen with Maud so one must conclude that she is not a critical thinker, although highly intelligent. She could read and write far better than others around her, but she wishes to remain thought of as a good girl and doesn’t question contemporary morality.
On occasion, Maud remarks on or criticizes the men’s sermons privately in her journals (she knew and dated a few preachers) but never questions the message. Maud’s beliefs were given to her at a young age through society, family, friends and the like. But she did not go to it as an adult, which is the cause of her unhappiness. She’s bright enough to question it but doesn’t.
She glories in the natural world away from mankind in all her writing, but loathes most of those who make the human experience what it is. Why then such subservience to the tenets of their faith. If their religion didn’t make them better people, why not question your own adherence? Am I a better person because I believe that Moses parted the Red Sea and allowed the exodus of Jews from Egypt? She never asks this question or others like it, so she must accept it on faith that she is a better person than others. Eventually we get to see that she is a snob, for her intellect, her social status, and her religion.
Maud is an excellent observer of the natural world and the foibles of human behavior and their feelings. Most of what she documents are pictures of these two subjects, but she never questions her beliefs, her role in society, or the structure of it. It’s a sure bet that if she did, it would have made her an outcast. She had the brain power but never let it develop into philosophical power, or at least never let it become exposed in her journals.
Where did Maud Go Wrong?
She doesn’t ask - can it really be true? Can my religious teachings since early childhood, the very thing I taught other children, be falsehoods simply meant to govern them? Are they mere parables delivered by the powers that be to assuage the enquiring mind, for questions to which there are no firm answers?
When reading her journals we find Maud is not pious, of that there is not a shred of doubt. Only once in her thousands of pages of personal thoughts does she beseech God to intervene in her own or others’ woes. And she had many. She rarely thanks God for all the beauty that surrounds her, which she scribbles feverishly about. It’s a curious person who has the intellectual power but doesn’t question the validity of claims by mortals of miracles.
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Maud never strays into a discussion of the nature of faith over reason, and she attends church assiduously. Maud is someone who won’t rock the philosophical boat, morally or spiritually, and therefore she contributes nothing to our thinking, at least consciously so.
As a result of this it’s safe to hand her writings to the children of her era. A short twelve years after “Anne of Green Gables” is published, Hemingway would alter our world with depictions of unmarried sex, unwed childbearing, desertion from the army, and the wholesale questioning of Victorian Christian values in the novel “A Farewell to Arms”. The novel asks, how is it okay to kill millions of humans with the blessing of society and the Church, and yet not okay to give birth to children without those blessings? Whose God is that? Would He/She care if you went golfing on Sunday? Hemingway’s book could have been called “A Farewell to Piety”.
Maud, by comparison, is Victorian, a product of her environment, untrue to herself, something Shakespeare warned us about three hundred years before her. Shakespeare let loose with profound philosophical musings, perhaps one every few lines or so, and Maud not one.
Was she afraid to? Was she, as a woman constrained by social norms, not allowed to? As a Victorian, she’s acutely aware of her high social standing, and the power of gossip to harm that high standing, and yet she engages wholeheartedly in malicious gossip herself. Disappointingly, she admits in her journals that she enjoys engaging in it herself, knowing full well its potential to destroy people.
This tendency to gossip and judge is part and parcel of her own misery in life. For example, she imagines what people will say if they see her at church speaking to Ed Simpson, a preacher and spurned suitor. Shortly afterward, she wonders what people will say if she is seen to be avoiding Ed Simpson at church. This person is unable to act rationally based upon the trap her own mind has set for itself. It eventually leads to her own downfall; her suicide note bemoans, “What will people think?” She claimed to be losing her mind ‘by spells’ and so ended her life to prevent her from doing what might embarrass her. Like what? Is it anything we have not seen before? Would anyone care?
Does anyone of any import care if Maud ran around naked in her feeble years? A careful examination of this topic would reveal just one person would give it much thought, only Maud herself. God made you naked, so he probably wouldn’t give a toss!
Is this an affliction given only to women? When they give birth to a child do they worry what the doctor thinks of their body? My elderly landlord’s wife once made a strange request - that I move her stove and clean behind it thoroughly before she passed away. A devout Baptist, she didn’t want some new owners of the house, whom she would never meet, find that the previous owner, laid up with terminal cancer, was too shameless to clean behind the stove before she died. Maud is governed by these thoughts of self-inflicted shame her entire life, and they are the product of a child’s mind that was fed shame and guilt for Sunday breakfast. Sex - bad. Lust - bad. Pursuit of a satisfying sex life - filthy, immoral, hedonistic, sinful, to be burned in Hell for all eternity. How then can this writer erupt in pearls of Shakespearean wisdom? She can’t. And doesn’t.
She documents what she sees within the constraints imposed upon her during her time. The fact that she never breaks free is instructional in an ironic fashion - she tells people through her journals how not to live. Her constraints kept her from being happy with adult life. Referring to my earlier article, today’s woman would have had sex with Herman Leard, the man who turned her on sexually, kissing and petting in her room where she was boarding. But she did not and lived to regret it, lamenting that turn down for many years. Today’s woman would not have married a mentally ill preacher for his social status. Her constraints kept her from making choices that would have led to a happier adult life.
When adulthood strikes Maud, it’s the beginning of her spiritual decline. Adult relationships are at odds with the beautiful world she writes about and the principle cause of her anxieties. That dichotomy may have been the cause of her depression and her suicide at 67.
At the age of 16 onward, she allows various men to pursue her but is surprised and angry when their close friendships get befouled by declarations of love. She was what we would call a genital teaser today. She writes in her journal - let’s see if I can remember them all, there’s Nate, Will, Lem, Lou, Ed, Henry, Jack and Herman. And who all else? Oh yes, Fulton and Mr. Mustard who ‘mustered the courage’ to ask her “do you think our relationship will develop into anything else?”
Only with Herman Leard did she have an intense sexual attraction, but in no other way did she find him suitable. She had a kissing and petting dalliance with him at 22 but kept herself from ‘sinning’!! (I wonder if this is why we enjoy Hemingway so much, that baseless sinner!)
Did Her Religion Help or Harm Her Life?
In a timeless struggle for all men and women to find a suitable match, it was made all the more difficult for Maud since she considered herself morally and intellectually superior to the men around her. The men she respects intellectually, she doesn’t find suitable sexually and visa versa. As she ages, her choices become more limited. She wishes to experience the joys of a sexual pairing but at what cost to her sanity?
She accepts preacher Ed Simpson’s proposal with the reasoning that she “could learn to love him” because she deems him to be suitable in all other respects. But soon after, she finds him detestable in every way and breaks off the engagement, causing much agony and years of self-recrimination. Poor Ed! He dodged a bullet but probably thought otherwise.
We learn from the journals that Maud rarely distinguishes between book-learned knowledge and hard won wisdom, discounting suitors as unintelligent if they have none of the book-learning she so highly prizes. It speaks of her class driven metrics as well, which probably separated her from Herman Leard, the lover she needed to distance herself from lest she give in to sinful desires.
There are very few happily married people on this earth and she could see the risk that a bad marriage posed to her writing career, a goal to which she was ultimately devoted. If she married Herman or gave in sexually to his polite but firm requests, (which she admitted she loved to hear) she said she would be trading one year of intense bliss for a lifetime of misery. Who can say? Perhaps she didn’t realize that at best, marriage is a lottery. I strongly suspect the reason she did not give in to Herman despite her attraction to him was that she would have to give up her writing to be his wife, as was expected of women back in the day.
Painfully ironic, Maud is a chronicler of Prince Edward Island’s beauty, the beauty of flowers, the beauty of youth, the beauty of friendship, but doesn’t allow herself the beauty of love between man and woman. What then can she tell us about it? She’s too buttoned-down in a prison cell of her own making to give us lasting insights on the human condition.
For this I blame her religion, probably formed in her youth by her adoptive grandparents. Her vision of a scornful God shaped her entire life to follow. She almost married Ed Simpson following what she thought was a wise course but broke it off before it went too far. At 37 she gave in to the impulse again and married another preacher (Ewan) for the same reasons she was engaged to Ed. She didn’t learn, she gave in. As a younger woman she had choices and didn’t like any of them. As an older woman, she shoe-horned the remaining choices into her life. The twisted values of the era sealed her fate, and the fate of many women of her time. (My own mother included, which would explain my interest in the topic.)
What’s the Moral of Maud’s Suffering?
Maud’s life lesson to us is taught through irony. She refused sex and love, married without love, gave birth to three children without love for their father, endured a tortured marriage, and committed suicide, all actions based on “what people will think”. The lesson in irony, in case you missed it, is that no one really gives a damn, and she should have lived her own life according to her own values, not the ones forced upon her against her will in childhood.
Maud’s beliefs stranded her on a desert island. Her journals are a thing of immense value far above the value of her novels. They are the first of a woman in the modern era to document her thoughts from puberty to her death. That era witnessed an enormous moral growth for women and mankind in general. Before her, a woman would not be allowed to balance a career with family life. After her, the woman contemplating such a decision should only ask rhetorically - why ever not?
And if you’re wondering, yes, I did clean behind the poor lady’s stove. It comforted a dying woman. When she died I was the only person to cry at her funeral. You see, I believed she had passed away, was gone forever, and the rest in attendance were happy, believing she was now in Heaven up there beside the Savior. Go figure.
One gem of an item I found in Maud’s journals worthy of mention but is apropos of absolutely nothing in the above article: Maud states that when she was in college in Halifax circa 1895 she bought a new hat and one of the male students said that her hat ‘looked out of sight’, an expression that she had never heard and didn’t understand how it could be construed to mean ‘a very nice hat’. This is the first documented instance I’ve found of this expression, at least 70 years before the hippie generation made it their own! Maybe it is important. Maybe it shows us how long it takes before a novel idea becomes accepted.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.