The Author Who Brought the Montessori Method to Life in Her Fiction

And then suddenly something inside Elizabeth Ann’s head stirred and moved. It came to her, like a clap, that she needn’t know which was right or left at all. If she just pulled the way she wanted them to go—the horses would never know whether it was the right or the left rein!

It is possible that what stirred inside her head at that moment was her brain, waking up. She was nine years old, and she was in the third A grade at school, but that was the first time she had ever had a whole thought of her very own. At home, Aunt Frances had always known exactly what she was doing, and had helped her over the hard places before she even knew they were there; and at school her teachers had been carefully trained to think faster than the scholars. Somebody had always been explaining things to Elizabeth Ann so industriously that she had never found out a single thing for herself before. This was a very small discovery, but an original one. Elizabeth Ann was as excited about it as a mother-bird over the first egg that hatches.

I remember thinking, as a child, that this was a thrilling moment, and not one I had encountered before in a story. It’s a moment that repeats many times in “Understood Betsy,” as Betsy conquers cooking, chores, and even mental arithmetic in the Vermont one-room schoolhouse that replaces the rigidly sorted urban school of the “third A grade” with a system in which you work at each subject on your own level—the teacher is, again, a natural Montessori educator.

In “The Deepening Stream,” Canfield Fisher’s 1930 novel, which was reissued in 2021 by the British press Persephone Books, Canfield Fisher wrote for adults about these same issues—the profound importance of childhood triumphs and sorrows and memories, the way a child’s intellectual, moral, and spiritual character is shaped by the real-world experiences of growing up and the challenges set by the world, from daily family tensions to war, cataclysm, and suffering. This long and complicated book may be the greatest First World War novel you’ve never heard of, a home-front novel of France and relief work, a novel that combines international relations and domesticity. The first section charts the childhood sensibility and emotional coming of age of the heroine, Matey, who grows up in an American academic family—as did Canfield Fisher herself—with a successful (and self-important and pompous) professor father, who moves the family from one college campus to another as he changes jobs. Early chapters trace Matey’s unhappy awareness of the tensions between her parents, whom she comes to perceive as perpetually competing in a hostile struggle for small social and intellectual victories against each other. What might be academic domestic comedy—a mother embarrassed by an imperfect French accent, a father prone to deliver rehearsed and didactic remarks on social occasions—is presented as profoundly traumatic for both Matey and her sister, who tells her, “I’d always taken for granted you and I would never marry.”

That same academic childhood includes sabbaticals in France, where Matey is welcomed into a truly happy—and truly intellectual and truly musical—family, the Vinets. When Matey marries and brings her husband, Adrian, to visit the Vinets, it is 1908, and the reader can’t help thinking of how the First World War is approaching. When war does break out, Matey and her husband agonize over what is happening in Europe—and Matey, in particular, worries about the danger to her French “foster” family, their gentle, musically talented son sent to the front, one of their daughters lost in the chaos of the German invasion of Belgium, their gracious cultured life completely destroyed.

Matey’s husband, whose dear friend in France has also been sent to the front, is distressed. “It makes a man feel like a dog to be wallowing here in comfort and safety, while…other men, old friends, old comrades…” Matey angrily turns that back on him: “How do you think it makes a woman feel? You think it’s perfectly all right and natural, I suppose, for a woman to be in a position that makes a man feel like a dog?”

And then comes an entirely unexpected plot twist: Matey and Adrian get on a ship with their two very young children to make the dangerous crossing to France. Adrian does hesitate to bring the children, but Matey is insistent. “I learned when I was a little girl that anything is better than letting a barrier grow up between parents and children,” she says, and her father-in-law, a profoundly moral Quaker, approves: “It will be a sorry day . . . when getting married and becoming a parent puts an end to being a member of humanity!”

Soon, the family is sailing through submarine-infested waters to do their part as members of humanity. Adrian has signed up with an ambulance service, and Matey moves in with the Vinet family. They shelter men on furlough and write letters home to soldiers’ families, collect clothing for refugees, send parcels of chocolate and cigarettes to the front, all as they endure air raids and wait anxiously for their own men to come home on leave. Matey cares for injured soldiers and orphaned children in the “never-ending work of trying to restore to life those mutilated human organisms . . . all to the tune, perhaps, of an air raid overhead, or news of a great German offensive which might sweep them all into the ranks of refugees.”

In 1917, after the U.S. joins the war, Paris welcomes the American troops. Finally, as the war ends, more American “relief workers” swoop in to “relieve” war-torn Europe. Matey’s slick brother, Francis, who had seen the war from the beginning as a grand business opportunity, appears in Paris with the diplomats, and proudly shows his sister off at an elegant hotel dinner party: “My sister and her husband have been in France in relief work since the spring of 1915. She has given her entire fortune to help the cause of the Allies.” As the peace conference approaches, Matey feels the hopes of all the French women around her vested in Woodrow Wilson: “Every woman Matey knew stood beside a newly made grave. . . . Of all the rulers of the world the American President seemed the only one capable of understanding that to kill the hope that those deaths had advanced the cause of all humanity was to kill the dead men over again.” But she has fewer illusions about American politicians, and about the motives of the people in power, and Matey foresees that all promises will be dashed in the failure of the Wilsonian ideal of a better world, in the triumphant ascendance of the cynics and profiteers, her brother and his circle.

Canfield made a strong marriage, to John Fisher, in 1907, and like Betsy they settled in Vermont; their daughter, Sally, was born in 1909, and their son, Jimmy, four years later. During the First World War, Canfield Fisher, like Matey, took her two young children and sailed for France, where John was an ambulance driver with the American Hospital Corps. For the remainder of the war, she sent home long, detailed, “round-robin” letters to her friends and family, and later published a collection of stories about France, about the war, and about life as lived by the women and children waiting for men to come home from the front. Dorothy and John returned to Vermont with their children, in 1918, and lived there for many years. They had both intended to pursue writing, but, eventually, he assumed a managerial role in her career.

Canfield Fisher wrote about topics and experiences that don’t regularly turn up in fiction, and not only the decision to take her young children into a war. Her focus on children’s inner lives, and on the intensity and sometimes ferocity of family life, was distinctly her own. There’s a great scene in “The Home-Maker” in which Lester, seeing that his son Stephen is frustrated and building toward a tantrum, offers the child a chance to whip a “pretend egg”—that is, a basin of soapy water—with the eggbeater that Stephen has always wanted to handle, but which his mother never let him touch. What ensues is pure Montessori. Stephen’s father “did not offer to show him how it worked.” Instead, he observes with Wordsworthian awe the child’s struggle to figure it out, quoting Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” and imagining himself a spectator at a prizefight as he watches his son fight to master his eggbeater: “Stephen could feel the thinking place in his head draw together hard—and command his hand to turn regularly. How it hated to, that old hand! And how Stephen loved the feeling of bossing it around!” And his father reflects that watching his son has been like reading Emerson, but “lots better.” “How the afternoon had flown! It was hard to put your mind on anything but the absorbing spectacle of Stephen’s advance into life.”

Canfield Fisher was also interested in the more adult side of family life, and her writing about sex—especially marital sex and marital passion—is unexpectedly frank and intense. Her 1933 novel, “Bonfire,” set in the fictional town of Clifford, Vermont, in the shadow of Hemlock Mountain, begins with the community welcoming home the young Anna Craft, who has spent the past two years working in Paris and is now coming back to take up her job as a district nurse and to partner with her brother, Anson, who is finishing his training to practice as a doctor. The book is a portrait of the town, told from alternating points of view that include multiple townspeople and even a cat, and everyone’s sexual activity is tracked (including the cat’s).

We learn a good deal of local sociology by watching Anna on her rounds, as she treats impetigo (with calomel, that is, with mercury) and septicemia, and watches her brother Anson try to relieve the tedium of a rural medical practice by collecting notes on how heart disease plays out in the lives of his patients. But what the novel is really about is sex—that’s the bonfire of the title, and it centers on a mysterious young woman, Lixlee, who comes out of the poor part of town: “What a girl! She made a bonfire of a man and touched him off with a look,” reflects the doctor, who falls under her spell and marries her. And then he exults, to his sister, a spinster who has yet to touch that bonfire:

Why do we hide from young people what the love of man and woman can be—how magnificently more it is than magnificent physical gratification! We tell them, right enough, that sharing life with someone else takes the poison from your wounds and makes life a glory. But we never give them a hint that nothing but love, violent love that tramples your self-control to bits, can work the miracle of making you able to share life with another.

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