In the 1920s in Bobcaygeon, there arose a constellation of writers, including some of Canada’s most decorated poets and influential newspaper editors. At the heart of this constellation was a group of men who cottaged together and were at the forefront of defining Canadian culture. And they seemed to have a hate on for Lucy Maud Montgomery.
It all started with Arthur L. Phelps, who came to Bobcaygeon as a youth, again as a minister, and finally bought a cottage in 1919. He invited the friends he’d made at Victoria College in Toronto to visit him during the summers. They fell in love with the area on the banks of the Sturgeon Lake, and some bought cottages of their own, while others became regular visitors.
[Arthur L. Phelps] was part of a group of men who spent their summers in cottages at Bobcaygeon, Ontario, where their families socialized and the men themselves talked over their ideas about the state of Canadian literature, world literature, and politics. This group included other academics, journalists (like [William Arthur] Deacon), and writers invited to join them (like Frederick Philip Grove).”Lucy Maud Montgomery: the gift of wings. Mary Henley Rubio. 2008.
The next to snap up a cottage was E.J. Pratt, the three-time winner of the Governor General’s Award for Literature for his poetry. After visiting Phelps, Pratt fell in love with the place. Pratt had a grand old time in Bobcaygeon. He established a garden, built a writer’s shed on the shore where he composed most of his poetry for the time while he owned the cottage, and hosted many guests.
The next to buy a cottage was William Arthur Deacon, who became Canada’s first full-time book reviewer, fulfilling one of his life’s ambitions, as editor of Saturday Night magazine and the Globe and Mail.
“ln 1925, for $400 in easy instalments, they also acquired a piece of land at Bobcaygeon, in the Kawartha Lakes district near Peterborough, a part of the summer colony that included the Pratts and the Phelps.” (“William Arthur Deacon: A Canadian Literary Life.” Clara Thomas and John Lennox. 1982)
Guests to the cottage included:
- Flos Jewell Williams
- Edgar Pelham
- Frederick Philip Grove
- Watson Kirkconnell
- E. K. Brown and wife, Margaret Deaver Brown
In those days, writers and poets alike joined the Canadian Authors’ Association (CAA), where membership afforded connections to other writers, along with workshops and other learning options, to say nothing of publishing opportunities in the organization’s anthologies and magazines.
For many, writing is a solitary profession, and organizations such as CAA are a lifeline, giving writers the chance to get out and commiserate and network with other people who can immediately empathize, no explanation needed.
Where a chapter of the CAA did not exist, many writers opted to create one, as Deacon did when he lived in Winnipeg.
At the same time, the sources of literature and radio in Canada were primarily Britain and America, and there arose a need to produce and promote Canadian content. This became a highly debated topic, as no definition of “Canadian” had been made, but in very short order, a plethora of Canadian literature was produced and the CBC was created.
In addition to his professorship duties, Phelps became host to a number of CBC programs that debated and defined Canadian culture, broadcasting throughout his career, even from his deathbed in 1970.
Deacon, in his editorial positions, decided which books got reviews and which were passed over. And Deacon was instrumental in the creation of the Governor General’s Award for Literature, and which Pratt won three times. Other visitors to the cottages also won this prestigious prize and cash award.
When it came to Lucy Maud Montgomery, this crew from Bobcaygeon did not feel her work was worthy of inclusion as part of the nation’s culture, nor as being worthy of winning a prize.
They excluded Montgomery’s work because it was written for children and well-loved by girls and women all around the world. They were jealous of her sales numbers– which none of them had achieved more than a fraction in comparison.
Their jealousy and misogyny frustrated Montgomery. When she ran for president of the Toronto branch of the Canadian Authors Association and learned she was up against Deacon, she withdrew because she knew of his connection to the Bobcaygeon crew and how vast this network extended.
It does not matter in the least to me that I am not on the executive. Deacon has always pursued me with malice and I am glad I will have no longer to work with him. He is exceedingly petty and vindictive and seems to be detested by everybody who knows him.L.M. Montgomery (Rubio, 2008)
On the occasion of Canada’s National Book Week in September 1935, the Toronto branch of the CAA hosted an event to celebrate those who had received the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) that year; advertising stated the occasion would honour “three knights and two OBEs”: Sir Ernest MacMillan, Sir Wyly Grier, Sir Charles G. D. Roberts, L.M. Montgomery, OBE, and Dr. E. A. Hardy, OBE. It was a hugely important event for Canada’s literary scene.
One of the organizers was Pelham Edgar, a professor, and at that time, president of the national level of the CAA. Pelham was a good friend of Pratt and the other Bobcaygeon boys, had been invited to the cottage, and was no friend to Montgomery. Pelham proposed a toast to each of the five honourees. He spent considerable time delving into the accomplishments of the first three, and then finished with “The other two who are included in this toast are Dr. Hardy and Mrs. Macdonald.”
Montgomery’s biographer, Mary Rubino, supposes Maud could have been overly sensitive since a knighthood is a higher award than an OBE, but Montgomery was certain that it was a snub and that if Edgar had stopped to sing the praises for Hardy, he would have had to admit that she was of literary merit. She believed Edgar “would have died any death you could mention rather than admit I represented Canadian literature.”
A write up in the Globe corroborates Montgomery’s version of the event. After being toasted, each of the five made replies, but the write up by Deacon in the The Mail and Empire omits any mention of Hardy’s and Montgomery’s replies. It’s as though the Bobcaygeon boys had decided Montgomery simply didn’t exist.
By this time, Montgomery had shifted to writing books for adults, including A Tangled Web and The Blue Castle, sales had slowed, and her work was called “provincial” at a time when books were prized for being “cosmopolitan” and favoured for having “universal” themes. For a while, The Blue Castle was banned.
This was the beginning of Montgomery’s descent from publishing. She was a victim of the Bobcaygeon boys’ bullying that became cultural programming that ascribed “literary” works as better than “commercial” works.
Had any of them even read her work?
At least not while she was alive.
When Phelps wrote his book, Canadian Writers (1951), he included a chapter about Montgomery, but proceeded to call her work “naïve” and “easy reading” that “lacks realism and penetration.” In fact for most of the chapter, he didn’t mention her work much at all, but wrote about other writers: Robert W. Service, who had his own chapter, and Mazo de la Roche. He said Montgomery’s readers were “nostalgic” and “sentimental” and only for “the uncultured and unsophisticated.” Finally, the last two pages of the chapter covered Montgomery and her work. He checked out her books from the library, where he was told not to keep them too long as they were in high demand. He finally read the Anne novels, and decided “there may still be a place for the stories of L.M. Montgomery.” He ended the chapter with “get a copy of Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery and read it.” Unfortunately, Montgomery had passed away in 1942, wanting to believe she had a place in Canadian literature, but never actually achieving it until after the deaths of the Bobcaygeon boys.
But even today, the idea that “literary” fiction is superior to “commercial” fiction lingers. The literary community still has much work to do to detangle this particular net cast by the Bobcaygeon boys and their constellation of friends.
Phelps, Arthur L. Canadian Writers. McClelland and Stewart Limited. 1951.
Rubio, Mary Henley. L.M. Montgomery: The Gift of Wings. Doubleday Canada. 2008.