Nora LeFurgey Campbell: A Friend Like Fire

Candles in the dark.

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

Friendship, like natural beauty and books, was one of the joys of L.M. Montgomery’s life. Fictional friendships like Anne and Diana’s, Pat and Bess’s, Emily and Ilse’s grew out of real-life friendships with her cousin Penzie, childhood friends Nate Lockhart, Will and Laura Pritchard, and later, her cousin Frede Campbell. In the winter of 1903, as she tried to navigate her aging grandmother’s stormy moods, family troubles, loneliness, and uncertainty, one friendship warmed the icy days. She had Nora.

Montgomery wrote about that winter in April 1903: “dark moods,” frustrations with her grandmother’s rigid rules, and anger over the injustice of her Uncle John and his sons (who had inherited the house they lived in and wanted her grandmother to move out so her cousin Prescott could have it) (Selected Journals I 286-87). But Nora LeFurgey, who was teaching school in Cavendish that year, became her roommate and companion in January. 

Nora was “a positive God-send” when Montgomery met her in the fall of 1902 (Selected Journals I 283). Her intelligence, love for literature, and sense of humor suited Montgomery “exactly” (283). As Mary Henley Rubio puts it, “Nora possessed a strong and irrepressibly positive life force, and she energized those around her – just what Maud needed” (Gift of Wings 111).

In the pages of her journal, where she recorded her tears and dreams, Montgomery slipped a different diary, one that she and Nora wrote together, one “of the burlesque order” (Selected Journals I 287). She said “we set out to make it just as laughable as possible. I think we have succeeded.” This diary is full of laughter, teasing accusations (“I didn’t take your yellow garter!”), details of their social lives and the souvenirs they “scrounged” from them, and mocking each other about young men. Jennifer H. Litster has an entire chapter on this co-diary in The Intimate Life of L.M. Montgomery.

Nora was a candle in that long, dark winter – part of what I think was a winter period in Montgomery’s life, 13 years in which she was single and lived with her grandmother. A few years later, Nora married Edmund Ernest Campbell in 1911, left the Island, and didn’t see Montgomery for 24 years.

And then they met again, in September 1928.

They had both suffered. Montgomery was anguished by the destruction of World War I, the death of her best friend, Frede, and a madness that convinced her husband he was “damned to hell.” Nora lost one son at birth and a daughter to polio. In 1929, she lost a third son to a canoeing accident and had only one, Ebbie, left. But the Nora we meet in the pages of Montgomery’s journal reacted to her hardships differently than Montgomery. Rubio calls her “unfailingly upbeat” and “as vital a life-force as ever” (382). Montgomery said that the “relief” of having a friend like Nora was “tremendous . . . I feel as if I had been smothered and were now drinking in great gulps of clear gay mountain air” (Selected Journals III 378).

Mary Beth Cavert researched “voices” or people described in Montgomery’s diaries, including Nora’s. Through interviews with Nora’s family, she found that Nora never complained about her sufferings, but “most often assumed the position of adviser and was a tower of strength in times of trouble” (114).

After her sufferings, Nora still had a spirit of hearthfire joy, the ability to laugh and listen to her friend’s troubles. She never showed envy or intimidation at L.M. Montgomery’s successful writing career (she had been world famous since 1908) even though Nora herself wrote a novel she was never able to publish (Cavert 107).

In middle age, they had times of fun and laughter as sweet as when they were single young adults together. In 1933, when Nora came for a visit, Montgomery wrote to her literary correspondent G.B. MacMillian: “Every night we went on a voyage to some magic shore beyond the world’s rim.” After supper, they walked miles under a “harvest moon” as “every particle of our middle aged care and worry seemed to be wiped out of our minds and souls as if by magic.” They walked in silence or talked, discussing “every subject on earth…When we had exhausted earth we adventured the heavens, to the remotest secrets of ‘island universes.’” They had adventures that left them “drunken with laughter.” (My Dear Mr. M 164-66)

Radiance of joy…when I read about Nora in Rubio’s The Gift of Wings, she became one of my heroes. She isn’t famous for a public legacy of writing books or political success. But she weathered pain and loss and disappointment without letting them drown her.

I have had friends like Nora. In high school, a girl in my class and I and shared fantasy books and laughter at field hockey practices. At summer camp, a girl with sunshine in her soul helped me remain cheerful even when we hauled heavy cots up the steep hills on hot days. In college, one of my friends and I didn’t like dancing, so we would dress up for the galas, attend just long enough to collect plates of brownies, chocolate chip cookies, and cheesecake bites, and then smuggle them back to our dorm to watch TV.

A friend who has that kind of joyful strength, an inextinguishable light, is rare. I hope I can tell stories that people enjoy as much as they enjoy Montgomery’s. But as an individual and a friend, I want a spirit like Nora’s, a fire that never dies out.

Works Cited

Cavert, Mary Beth. “Nora, Maud, and Isobel: Summon Voices in Diaries and Memories.” The Intimate Life of L.M. Montgomery, edited by Irene Gammel, University of Toronto Press, 2005, pp. 88-105.

Litster, Jennifer H. “The ‘Secret’ Diary of Maud Montgomery, Aged 28 1/4.” The Intimate Life of L.M. Montgomery, edited by Irene Gammel, University of Toronto Press, 2005, pp. 106-126.

Montgomery, L.M. My Dear Mr. M: Letters to G.B. MacMillan from L.M. Montgomery. Edited by Francis W.P. Bolger and Elizabeth Epperly, Oxford UP, 1992.

—. The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery: Volume I: 1910-1921. Edited by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston, Oxford UP, 1985.

—. The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery: Volume II: 1910-1921. Edited by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston, Oxford UP, 1987.

Rubio, Mary Henley. Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings. Anchor Canada, 2010.

Gray Days: Finding Joy at Winter’s End

A sheet of broken ice on the ocean. The sky is dark gray until the horizon, which is gold with sunset.

The most difficult time of year for me (emotionally) is revolving back to us again: late February and all of March, winter’s deathbed. The bitter cold or gloomy damp, the gray skies, dirty snow, and slush, the wet bark of leafless trees, and the fierce winds weigh tend to drag my mood down to the depths.

Why is this season harder for me even than the darkest time of year, December 31st? Holidays and “human” seasons (as opposed to the earth’s seasons) have a lot to do with it: November and December are made cozy and warm, exciting and communal by Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year. The difference is aesthetic, too: though it’s dark and cold, the fresh bright snow glitters in the sunlight and glows in the moonlight; jewel-toned lights glimmer on porches and trees; fireplaces within and cold without make indoors cozy and inviting. Somehow, actual blackness is easier to romanticize and enjoy than the ambivalent, soulless gray we often face at this time of year.

Certain memories of this time of year also depress me; in the not-so-long-ago school years, March especially was the month farthest away from the relief of vacations, when my motivation to study was running dry. In fourth grade, I read Astrid Lingren’s Pippi in the South Seas and almost cried as I dreamed of escaping my cold, boring, lonely winter days to a tropical paradise of friendship and adventure.

One of my joys as a writer and thinker is the transcendence of dreams. Even as the outside world is drab and colorless, the inside world, literal and figurative, is always under our control. I always turn on the inside lights on overcast days and sometimes light a scented candle, or bring our gas fireplace to roaring cheer. As to the inside world of my mind, I can transform that in two ways: imagination and recognition.

Imagination

I love the flight cliches for the imagination: our imagination jumps, soars, and has wings because it’s transcendent. We tap into the unknown and unseen and create new worlds that not only heal, comfort, and entertain, but when realized with the right amount of action, can manifest themselves in reality.

I can imagine away this winter-sickness by transforming it. For example:

  • Damp: The humidity that hangs heavy in the mornings isn’t the mold-nurturing misery it seems; it’s silver mist heavy with secrets, the fog of mystery and imagination, in which the phantoms of fear and longing take shape.
  • Ugliness: I can survive this time by recreating the loveliness of the other seasons, especially summer. My mind is an infinite landscape of green spaces: zephrys whispering through weeping willow branches, gardens lush with the curling petals of peony blossoms, sunrises like burning roses over rippling lakes. 
  • Boredom: The dull, unchanging days are the persevering striving in the middle of a quest, like Frodo and Sam’s wanderings in the Dead Marshes in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King, when the heroes are tempted to abandon their quest. 

“The mind is its own place, and in it self / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n,” said John Milton in Paradise Lost. If our minds can become prisons, they can also become paradises.

Recognition

And yet . . .  “When the Lord puts us in certain circumstances He doesn’t mean for us to imagine them away,” says Marilla wisely in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Imagination is a wonderful escape, but those who accuse dreamers of being of no concrete help make a valid point. I can dream away the ugliness of this late winter season – or I can recognize the beauty underneath it, inside of it, to which my demand for clear skies and natural life blinds me.

  • Humidity: The gray, overcast skies and moist air are nurturing the earth and preparing it for the glories of spring and summer. Secret beauties are growing under the bark of trees and under the sparse grass and mud as the world softens and awakens from winter’s rest.
  • Boredom: Instead of bracing myself for dull months as if I’m helpless, I can use this time to treat myself with some old favorites. With some exceptions, the Bronte sisters seemed to write about landscapes that remind me of March – stormy skies and wild moors. I can read Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Wuthering Heights, and Shirley in front of a cozy fire with a more empathetic enjoyment than I could on a hot summer day.
  • Ugliness: There are many gray days in this time of year, but the silver-pearl skies reflect serenity as well as gloom. Often a false thaw in February gives way to new, shining snow before winter’s end. The days of sun also have a strange, mystical radiance. In the woods that border the highways, afternoon’s gold illuminates the ash and russet in the bark of leafless trees and the gracefulness of the tangled bittersweet vines.

Even as winter sickens and dies, hope and beauty are eternal; imagination and recognition just open the window.

How can you use imagination and recognition to face this time of year?