#ReadingLanternHill, books, children’s books, families, grandmothers, Jane of Lantern Hill, L.M. Montgomery, Little House on the Prairie, Narnia
My friend Kathy Cawsey has written a guest post for the Jane of Lantern Hill readalong that I’m co-hosting this month with Naomi of Consumed By Ink, and I’m very happy to share it with you on this last Friday in May.
When I asked Kathy for a short bio, she said that she “gets paid to read and talk about reading at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.” She’s the author of a book on Images of Language in Middle English Vernacular Writings, and her research includes Later Middle English Writing, such as Chaucer, Malory, Margery Kempe, the cycle dramas, and medieval romances, and modern medievalist fantasy, such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Guy Gavriel Kay. Her current project focuses on the complexities of sexualized violence in medieval texts. She says most of her essays are academic, though she’s switching into a more personal style for some, including a very moving essay about reading Old English laments during the COVID-19 pandemic. (You can read it here.)
In this guest post about L.M. Montgomery’s Jane of Lantern Hill, Kathy writes about Jane’s grandmother in relation to her own grandmother. Like Jane, Kathy grew up in Ontario. She was very close to her grandmother, until her grandmother’s death at the age of 97. Here’s a photo from the celebration of her grandmother’s 95th birthday:
Rereading as an adult a book you loved as a child can be eye-opening. As a kid I loved the Narnia series, and read and re-read them; different Narnia books became my favourite book at different ages. But as an adult I found them oddly empty. C.S. Lewis’s worldbuilding power is such that the books opened up landscapes and storyscapes in my imagination that were never actually on the page.
Like the Wardrobe, sometimes when you go back into a childhood favourite, you meet only coats and a plain brown wooden wall. The magic is there, but inaccessible.
Reading the Little House on the Prairie books to my daughter was an eye-opening experience in a different way. I could still enjoy them as an adult in a way I couldn’t enjoy the Narnia books, but I noticed completely different things. As a child, I of course loved Laura, but Pa—because he so clearly was Laura’s idol—was also one of the major figures of the book. I never paid much attention to Ma beyond wanting to taste her vanity cakes and laughing at the stick-figure story-duck she drew to keep the girls occupied while Pa was missing in the blizzard.
As an adult, I no longer laughed. Pa was missing in the blizzard. As an adult, I realized that Ma was desperately trying to keep the children from thinking about that fact. Even the vanity cakes took on a layer of meaning I hadn’t seen before: they were a cheap treat to make for a party with “town girls” who could afford more expensive things. Rereading, I envisioned Ma wracking her brains for nights before the party trying to think of affordable ways to make it special—to show those “town girls” that you didn’t need money to have a good life.
Now a mother myself, I noticed Ma, while Laura and Pa faded into the background. Ma being uprooted from the abundance of the farm in the Little House in the Big Woods to go scratch out a living on the prairie; Ma badly hurting her leg miles and weeks from a doctor (what if it hadn’t healed right? what if it had gone gangrenous?!); Ma holding the family together while Pa was constantly off somewhere. Laura—even as an adult—barely notices Ma. I found myself wondering what Ma thought, what she felt. Resentment? Resignation? Bitterness? Constant anxiety?
But Ma remained impenetrable. Apparently—as far as Laura and the reader were concerned—imperturbable.
(Kathy says, “I hadn’t noticed until just now how the image captures exactly what I’m talking about—Laura running around in the main part of the picture with Ma literally underneath her working away!”)
I don’t know if I read Jane of Lantern Hill as a child. I probably did, but I don’t remember it. I certainly didn’t reread it the way I read and reread the Anne books, or The Story Girl, or even Emily. So reading it for this readalong was a strangely doubled experience: I was reading it for the first time (as far as I could remember) as an adult, while simultaneously being aware of how I would have read it as a child.
And, as with the Little House books, I found myself noticing the adults far more than the central child. (Sarah lent me Alexander MacLeod’s essay “‘They were ours, ours! and now they are gone’: Re-reading J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy,” about a similar experience reading a beloved childhood book to his children, and being more interested in the adults in the story.)
For me, the grandmother is the one who is truly at the centre of Lantern Hill, even though the narrator and the plot follow Jane. She is a “still, cold, terrible” centre. Several readers in this readalong have mentioned the unreality of the PEI scenes, their almost-daydream quality, and I do think there could be a convincing reading of Lantern Hill that sees all the Island chapters as the imaginings of a girl stuck in an unloving, cold house in Toronto. No character in PEI—even the father, even Jane herself—is as vivid as the grandmother in Toronto.
Though maybe the grandmother was only vivid to me, because in my mind my own grandmother slips easily into that character. Jane’s grandmother is what my Grandma could have become, had she made different choices, had life treated her differently.
Grandma was a wonderful person—loving, fun, with a great sense of humour. I never doubted her love for me. So in many ways she was nothing like Jane’s grandmother. She liked children; I have great memories of numerous tea parties with her child-sized dish set.
But there was another side to Grandma. The tea parties were great fun, yes, but they were also where I learned manners and polite, adult conversation. No plastic for Grandma: the dishes were creamy porcelain, elegant and breakable. Most of the fun of tea parties was pretending to be elegant, “proper” ladies. As we aged, we were allowed to graduate from invisible tea to tiny cups of coke, from which we would delicately sip. No spilling, though!—Grandma was fussy. There was a wet washcloth hung off of the bottom rung of our chairs, to wipe all the stick off our hands afterwards. (I hated the way she would wipe down right between my fingers, where stick couldn’t possibly have been.)
Grandma valued manners. And grammar. She was “proper” in the way only someone from a poor background could be. She had “married up,” into the lawyer’s family of Fergus, Ontario—but she was proud, and fiercely independent. Like Jane’s grandmother, her husband died young, and she was left with two children to support. Rather than living off of the charity of her husband’s family, she went back to work at a time when most women stopped teaching after they had kids.
I sometimes wonder what Grandma would have been like if my grandfather had lived, and she had become a regular fifties housewife, using her piercing intelligence to choose clothes or plan dinner parties rather than teaching blind children mathematics. Or if he had been richer, and had left her a large house in Toronto, say. She might have become small, and bitter, and petty, like Jane’s grandmother. Grandma cared desperately about what people thought, and that caring was reflected in how she dressed, how she carried herself; she was far more elegant at age 97 than I have ever been. I remember her telling me that if I spent ten minutes each day pinching down in long strokes on my nose, it would become longer and not be so squished.
In her older years—and she lived a very long life—she went through bouts of depression. Jane’s grandmother reminded me most strongly of my Grandma of those years. Grandma had depended on my mother, the oldest child, since her husband died, and they had a very close relationship. Had my mother been different, she could well have turned out like Jane’s Mother—flighty and thoughtless. Mom’s quiet rebellion was refusing to care about clothes and parties.
During those years of depression, Grandma was like Jane’s grandmother, wanting to keep my Mom to herself. I vividly remember Grandma once describing my Dad—whom she loved very much—as the “man who stole my daughter from me.”
Dad was mad, of course, but he explained to me that it was the depression speaking. But I know a small part of Grandma truly believed that fantasy of her and my mother living together forever, even though it could never have happened: my parents met long after Mom had moved out and was living on her own.
So Jane’s grandmother, for me, was a vision of what my Grandma could have been, had she lived and chosen differently. Someone who cared about money and property, and proper-ty, propriety. Someone who resented anyone their beloved daughter loved. Someone who valued appearances and being “proper” more than the happiness of her family. Someone who disdained people who prioritized mere happiness over dignity, respectability, decorum.
Jane of Lantern Hill ends before Jane goes back to Toronto, so we never see the grandmother’s reaction to her daughter’s moving out and buying the “little stone house in Lakeside Gardens.” Almost certainly things would not have gone as smoothly as Jane envisions. Probably they would have moved back into 60 Gay as a family while they waited for the Lakeside Gardens house to be ready; probably the grandmother would have thought she was acting exquisitely politely to Jane’s father, while bitter, snide remarks slipped out against her will. Probably Jane’s father would have steadfastly ignored those remarks. Probably Jane’s mother would have quietly kept the peace and prevented anyone from saying anything truly unforgiveable. Probably after they moved, the family would have gone to 60 Gay every week for Sunday dinner, putting the golf game on the television so there would always be something to talk about or to fill awkward silences. Maybe the grandmother would have moved into Lakeside Gardens when she had glaucoma, and would have learned to twirl spaghetti with her arthritic fingers, never saying a word about her hatred of the dish—because that would be impolite.
Maybe Jane would realize, as an adult, that her grandmother really did love her in her own, rather warped, way, which is why she cared so deeply about what Jane wore, how she behaved, and what school she attended. Maybe Jane would bring her newborn child to visit his great-grandmother in hospice, and even though by that point most of the grandmother’s personality had been nibbled away by multiple strokes, she still would have jumped and fussed when the baby spit-up.
That is my daydream for Jane. An adult daydream of complex, hard joy, rather than simple easy happiness.
Better than childhood fancies of going through the wardrobe to PEI, because I know it can actually happen.
Thank you, Kathy!
If you missed my earlier posts about the novel, you can catch up here:
“Back in Bonn with Bethie, #ReadingLanternHill”
“The Idyllic Island (#ReadingLanternHill)”
From Naomi MacKinnon: “Announcing a Readalong of Jane of Lantern Hill by L.M. Montgomery: #ReadingLanternHill”
From Rebecca Foster: “Jane of Lantern Hill by L.M. Montgomery (1937) #ReadingLanternHill”
If you enjoyed this post, I hope you’ll consider recommending it to a friend. I’m always interested to read your comments and messages. If you’d like to subscribe and receive future posts by email, you can sign up on my website, www.sarahemsley.com. Thanks for reading!
Jill E MacLean said:
Thank you, Kathy, for your descriptions of the two grandmothers, for that always enticing – and unanswerable – question, “What if?” And thank you for leading us to your essay on lament in Covid – I enjoyed it so much – and for the link so I could read The Wanderer. I read Heaney’s translation of Beowulf some years ago – I love the physicality of his language, its muscularity. By the way, I read recently the medieval portion of Marion Turner’s biography, “The Wife of Bath,” and appreciated how she combined scholarly depth and acumen with a very accessible writing style – I hope your own essay might be followed by more essays in a similar vein? I wish I could have met you before my medieval novel came out – I suspect there are parts I might have written differently! Best wishes, Jill MacLean
What an insighftul piece in Montgomery’s story and a lovely portrayal of your own grandmother!
There are so many things I love about this post.
I relate so well to what you have to say about Ma and Pa in Little House on the Prairie. I read the series to my daughter when she was little and–of course–saw everything through new eyes. I was much more interested in Ma and Pa. (Poor Ma and the vanity cakes – you say it so well.)
I love how you tie Jane and Grandmother in with the story of your own grandmother. I did find myself wondering on several occasions, while reading, whether Grandmother loved Jane or not. It doesn’t seem like she does, but then again, Grandmother is obviously dealing with her own demons or else she would not be so mean and jealous. So she very well could love Jane and just not be able to show it. I do wish we could have a had a sequel to Jane that might have answered some questions from the first book. Or, perhaps, a prequel – a story about Grandmother. (Sarah, there’s a book idea for you!)
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