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Jabberwocky

David Beagley, editor


"A Shock of Joy": Transformative and triumphant Trauma in the Fiction and Life-Writing of L. M. Mongomery

Shea Keats


Shea Keats received her MA in English and American Literature from New York University in 2013. Her research areas include trans-Atlantic Modernism, contemporary British literature, Virginia Woolf, and L.M. Montgomery. She lives, works, and writes in New York City.


L. M. Montgomery's engagement with war (both literal and symbolic) extends far beyond Rilla of Ingleside and her own personal distress during the catastrophic years of both World Wars. Those familiar with Montgomery's full bibliography know she repeatedly explored the effects of personal and social conflict on both a local and global scale. The majority of her characters endure severe trauma, abuse, or mental illness at some point in their lives, and the conflict surrounding these events often becomes the driving force behind the narrative. As one examines these recurring instances of trauma a fascinating pattern begins to emerge: trauma takes on curative and restorative powers. Characters who have been rendered severely dysfunctional by an initial trauma are cured of their ills by a subsequent traumatic event. By examining instances of what I have termed "triumphant trauma" in two of Montgomery's more mature novels, Kilmeny of the Orchard and The Blue Castle, in conjunction with her biography and extensive journals, the reader moves beyond the many simplifications of Montgomery's life and work. I argue that the literature she produced was neither a direct reflection of her life or simple escapism, but a very careful mediation between realism, fantasy, and psychology in her quest to save herself in world ravaged by war.

Kilmeny of the Orchard reflects Montgomery's growing interest in the effects of psychological trauma on an individual and their family (Waterson 34). In Kilmeny's weird tale, Eric Marshall falls in love with the isolated Kilmeny Gordon, a talented violinist who has been mute since birth due to an in utero psychological transference of trauma from her mother. A doctor examines Kilmeny and gives his theory of "psychosomatic impairment caused by 'trauma' and his hope that Kilmeny may be shocked into a cure" (Waterson 36). He has a "vague theory" that she could speak if she "wants it badly enough" with a "sudden, vehement, passionate inrush of desire, physical, psychical, mental, all in one, mighty enough to rend asunder the invisible fetters that hold her speech in bondage" (KOTO 119). The trauma transferred upon Kilmeny by her mother holds her power of speech hostage, and it will require a second trauma of equal force to set it free. This serendipitous second trauma occurs when Kilmeny happens upon Eric brooding under the trees, unaware of an approaching danger:

A mighty surge of desire seemed to rise up within her and overwhelm her like a wave of the sea,--a surge that swept everything before it in an irresistible flood. As Neil Gordon swiftly and vindictively, with the face of a demon, lifted the axe he held in his hand, Kilmeny sprang forward through the gap.
"ERIC, ERIC, LOOK BEHIND YOU--LOOK BEHIND YOU!" (KOTO 126)

The direct, personal trauma of this event violently overwhelms and eclipses the previous trauma transferred upon Kilmeny, and cures her of her affliction. This moment becomes a natural rebirth, as she "springs forward" fully formed to defeat the "demon" (both Neil and her disability). Trauma is triumphant over trauma, but it is somewhat unclear at the novel's conclusion who benefits most from this cure--Kilmeny, whose life is irrevocably changed as she prepares to meet the outside world, or Eric, who can now possess her in the same way she was possessed by her muteness.

This novel is fundamentally an obsessive meditation on the transference of punishment, and reflects Montgomery's own ongoing interest in Scottish Presbyterian and Calvinist doctrine and theology, specifically predestination (Waterson 35). How are the sins of the parent visited on the child, and what does this mean for the child's mortal life and immortal soul? However, Montgomery juxtaposes these traditional thoughts on theology with an exploration into new developments in psychology, which she was avidly studying and discussing during the composition of the book. She was particularly interested in the phenomena of psychosomatic healing, which raises a completely different set of questions (Waterson 35). Can we consciously or subconsciously heal ourselves from our mental and/or physical affliction? How?

By the time Montgomery wrote Kilmeny, she already recognized, although was loathe to name, a severe tendency towards depression in her own psyche and outlines in her journals episodes of severe clinical depression that go far beyond general frustration and sadness (Fiamengo 174). Montgomery's depression may not have dampened her ability to write prolifically, but she could not eat or sleep, and was often overcome by an overwhelming and unfounded sense of dread and anxiety. She suffered these depressive episodes alone, and in silence, with her only voice the written one of her journals.

Although never mentioned directly in her journals, Montgomery's familiarity with modern psychology and medicine alludes to a knowledge of Freud and his predecessors. Montgomery repeatedly explores something similar to the psychological cure discussed by Freud in his essay "Mourning and Melancholia," that is when "as a result of some influence, a large expenditure of psychical energy, long maintained or habitually occurring, has at last become unnecessary, so that it is available for numerous applications and possibilities of discharge" (Freud 254). The existence and power of such transformative psychosomatic events must have appealed to Montgomery as both a victim of "melancholia" and as a writer--her illness need not
be chronic, and by writing these types of dramatic, curative events she could give her readers the happy endings they begged of her, without sacrificing her exploration of darker themes.

By the time Montgomery published The Blue Castle she was more comfortable in her standing as both an established writer and a married woman to explore more mature themes. However, she felt keenly the pressures of life as a minister's wife, as well as her husband's descent into religious melancholy and the decline of serious critical appreciation for her work. The novel became both an escape from the wearisome cares of her personal life and a reprimand to those whom she felt judged her harshly. No longer was her heroine a happy-go-lucky child, but a severely depressed woman with a painful physical illness, whose depression and despondency curiously paralleled Montgomery's own.

The outlook for Valancy Stirling is bleak. Her initial trauma is a lifetime of small disappointments and crushing disillusionments that leave her as a nonentity, doomed to live out her remaining days simply imitating an acceptable and respectable life. With Valancy, Montgomery illustrates an almost textbook definition of depression, as described by Freud: "painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment" (Freud 244). Valancy's mental illness then manifests as a fatal, according to her doctor, and very painful heart condition.

The middle of the novel focuses on Valancy's startling decision to leave her home and family. She eventually abandons all decorum and proposes to Barney Snaith, the town reprobate, who accepts her offer, but only as a favor to a dying friend. Barney and Valancy have a lovely year together, marked by a solitary negative event. Barney goes hiking in a snowstorm and Valancy despairs that he has died in the blizzard. Upon his return, she reacts physically, not emotionally: "She did not run to meet him. Something happened to her knees and she dropped down on Banjo's chair" (TBC 214-215). Barney rises out of the snow like one reincarnated and Valancy's self is born anew. She describes the experience in this way, "'When--I saw you--come round the point--there--something happened to me. I don't know what. It was as if I had died and come back to life. I can't describe it any other way" (TBC 215). An experience which easily could have resulted in a traumatic death, instead brings life;? her halting, disjointed speech showing the way in which her life has been shattered, and then reassembled into something better.

Although the situation previously outlined is the curative trauma, Montgomery includes a final traumatic event which allows Valancy and Barney to recognize Valancy's recovery, cure Barney of his own traumatic past, and accept the love they share as true. After Valancy is almost run over by a train, she returns to the doctor and he admits he made a mistake and that her heart disease was actually not fatal, but "pseudo-angina" and is often cured by a "shock of joy." Valancy wonders: "she remembered the marvellous feeling of re-creation she had had when she saw Barney coming home safe after the storm. Had that 'shock of joy' cured her? (TBC 231) The traumas of Valancy's life are shown to be false and Valancy is cured. Montgomery, however, does not end their story with saccharine perfection, but rather a realization that happiness purchased by trauma is a happiness which must be appreciated and feared, for it is both fierce and fragile.

Unfortunately, for Montgomery, personal happiness during most of the composition of this novel must have seemed very distant. Her husband suffered his worst attack of religious melancholy to date;? her royalties brought disappointing returns;? her eldest son began to be a trouble;? she was ill;? there were more family deaths;? and many parish annoyances. Perhaps she wished she could banish these debilitating troubles with one miraculous event as Valancy does. After finishing, she wrote, "I have enjoyed writing [The Blue Castle] very much. It seemed a refuge from the cares and worries of my real world" (Waterson 140). As Barney says in the novel, it was "a few minutes of transfiguration and revelation" which she so desperately craved (TBC 208).

Montgomery often lifted turns of phrase and, occasionally, entire passages from her diary for use in her novels, allowing a reader of both to see an indisputable connection between Montgomery's life writing, her fiction, and the narration of and meditation on Montgomery's own traumas, whose power to negatively transform her life she could not escape. Recent psychological studies of traumatology focus on telling and retelling the story of one's traumatic experience, and the body and mind's symptomatic response to that trauma, as an important part of healing. Traumatologist Cathy Caruth states that "psychic trauma involves intense personal suffering, but it also involves the recognition of realities that most of us have not begun to face" (Caruth vii). Montgomery's journals are a stand-alone literary piece in their own right, a mediation between the public and private, a narration and witnessing of a difficult life and a turbulent world for both personal healing and professional posterity.

For Montgomery, the writing and revision of her journals, and the transformation of those experiences into fiction, was an essential component of coping with the traumas of her external world, as well as the traumas caused by her own mental illness, as she slowly came to recognize its painful effects. Montgomery's repeated return to her own experiences for creative inspiration demonstrates her struggle to find meaning in her own traumas, through their repeated telling and metamorphoses in the many versions of the journals and her fiction. The structuring of these personal events in writing shows, in the words of Caruth, that

the event is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly, in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it. To be traumatized is precisely to be possessed by an image or an event. And thus the traumatic symptom cannot be interpreted, simply, as a distortion of reality, nor as the lending of unconscious meaning to a reality it wishes to ignore, nor as the repression of what once was wished . . . The traumatized, we might say, carry an impossible history within them, or they become themselves the symptom of a history that they cannot entirely process" (Caruth 5).

Montgomery, no matter how hard she tried, could not escape trauma, either in her own life or that of the world around her. Therefore, she embraced it within her fiction and gave those characters most wounded by life a second chance through a second trauma, which also functioned as a fantasy cure for Montgomery.

Unfortunately, this cure ultimately remained only a fantasy and the final years of her life were marked by a severe depression brought on by the outbreak of the second World War and her husband's mental illness. Her final official diary entry, that is the final entry that had been prepared in the binders for publication, on March 23, 1942 read, "My mind is gone--everything in the world I lived for has gone--the world has gone mad." (SJ 5:350). While her novels featured miraculous, if traumatic, cures, and the writing of which often translated to periods of relatively good mental health for Montgomery, her journals, carefully edited as they were, did not function in the same way. In them there was no way to repair what had been broken in her self or in the world, no matter how many times it was reexamined and rewritten. The editors of her journals, Elizabeth Waterson and Mary Rubio, give a curious reading to them, particularly the later ones, they say:

Echoing her statement that she used her journals to 'consume her own smoke,' we believe that the journals, in turn, c onsumed her. Her journals may have increased her despair precisely because they often give an unbalanced representation of her life. She had used these journals so often to release her darker, 'down' side. She read and reread them throughout her life, reinforcing this record of her life (SJ 5:xxiii).

She may have been able to cure her characters, but the story of her own life ultimately destroyed her, as she recognized the great project of her life writing to be an ultimate failure, because it did not present what she had hoped, over the fifty years she spent writing it, to be a balanced and faithful record of her life. She may have had control over what she wrote in the journals and in her novels, but without the ability of her writing to maintain any other lasting change in her life or the larger world, she ultimately lost control of her own mental health.

However, it is the journals and the traumatic life they represent that have saved Montgomery's fiction for posterity and, potentially, a place not only in Canadian literature, but in the world canon. Although Montgomery's first books were very highly praised by the literary community upon their publication, as she reached the end of her career her reputation as a serious writer had significantly diminished with the rise of Modernism's grim minimalism, which caused critics to fault her for her occasional sentimentalism at the expense of recognizing
her more complex and nuanced skills. She was mocked by a world that once revered her, and was forgotten by critics and serious readers for much of the twentieth century. However, in the words of her faithful editors and biographers: "The publication of the journals has redirected the attention to the novels, rousing new recognition of their subtexts and ironies, their technical skill, and their subtle subversion of the surface romance and optimism that constitute their original charm." (SJ 5:xxiv). The traumatic journals serve as the same catalyst for Montgomery's posthumous reputation as traumatic cures do in the novels. Trauma saves her heroines, and Montgomery's writerly reputation, so central to her self, is saved by the trauma she so stoicly endured and, more importantly, recorded.

 

Works Cited

Caruth, Cathy, ed. Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. Print.

Fiamengo, Janice. "'. . . the refuge of my sick spirit . . .': L. M. Montgomery and the Shadows of Depression." in Irene Gammel (ed.l, The Intimate Life of L.M. Montgomery, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005. pp. 170-186.

Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. "Mourning and Melancholia." Volume XIV. London: Hogarth Press, 1950. Print.

Montgomery, L. M. Anne's House of Dreams. 1922. New York: Bantam Books, 1992. Print.

Montgomery, L. M. The Blue Castle. 1926. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2006. Print.

Montgomery, L. M. Kilmeny of the Orchard. 1910. New York: Bantam Books, 1993. Print.

Montgomery, L. M. The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery. Rubio, Mary Henley and Waterston, Elizabeth, ed. 5 vols. Toronto: Oxford University Press Canada, 1985.

Waterston, Elizabeth. Magic Island: The Fictions of L. M. Montgomery. Toronto: Oxford University Press Canada, 2008. Print.

 

Shea Keats


Volume 18, Issue 2, The Looking Glass, December 2015

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