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Last summer, during a long visit to Prince Edward Island, I read the first volume of L.M. Montgomery’s Selected Journals and was struck by how sad it was that she received so little encouragement from people in her hometown of Cavendish when she decided to study English literature at Dalhousie University. On September 15, 1895, her last night at home, she wrote that she felt “tired and worried and discouraged — not a bit hopeful or expectant.” No one understood what she was trying to do with her life: “Nobody seems really to sympathize with my going to Halifax. Grandmother is willing for me to go because I wish it so much but not because she has any understanding of my reasons for wishing to go. . . . Grandfather has shown no interest of any kind in my going. Cavendish people generally show a somewhat contemptuous disapproval.”

How different it is for so many young Canadian women now, when they plan their university educations — although not everyone understands when an undergraduate chooses to major in English. It would be more than a decade before Montgomery found success with Anne of Green Gables. She must have needed a steely resolve to pursue her education: “A thousand pin-pricks can cause a good deal of suffering,” she wrote that night. “If I had just one friend, whose opinion I valued — to say to me, ‘You are right. You have it in you to achieve something if you get the proper intellectual training. Go ahead!’ what a comfort it could be!”

I’ve often thought of Montgomery’s life in comparison with Edith Wharton’s. Wharton never attended university, but her family was rich and she read widely in her father’s extensive library. She also travelled far more as a child and as an adult than Montgomery ever could. Wharton was unhappily married for a long time, and divorcing her husband was not easy for her, but it was possible and she did it, leaving her husband for an independent life in France. Divorce was not an option for Montgomery, unhappily married to a small-town Presbyterian minister in Southern Ontario.

The lives of Wharton and Montgomery were very different, but they were nearly contemporaries: Wharton was born in New York in 1862 and died near Paris in 1937; Montgomery was born in New London, PEI in 1874, and died in Toronto in 1942. Wharton’s first major success came with the publication of The House of Mirth in 1905; Montgomery’s came when Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908. Both writers achieved success despite the belief held by family and acquaintances that education was not appropriate for young women. Wharton says in her autobiography A Backward Glance (1934) that writing was seen by members of her society as “something between a black art and a form of manual labour.”

For further reading:

Montgomery, L.M. The Selected Journals, Volume I: 1889-1910. Ed. Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Rubio and Waterston have now edited The Complete Journals of L.M. Montgomery: The PEI Years, 1889-1900 (OUP, 2012), which was reviewed last Saturday by Benjamin Lefebvre in The Globe and Mail.

Wharton, Edith. A Backward Glance. New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1933; rpt. New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1998.