“I haven’t ANY intention of dying. I’m going to live—for ages—and be a famous AUTHORESS—you’ll just see if I don’t, Aunt Elizabeth Murray!”It all began, I have to say, with cats. When, in one of the first few chapters of Emily of New Moon, L.M. Montgomery describes what it was like for newly orphaned Emily Byrd Starr to have one of her kittens smuggled into her room at night by kindly Aunt Laura, I was instantly reminded of everything I love about her writing:
Aunt Laura yielded meekly. She carried Emily upstairs, helped her undress, and tucked her into bed. Emily was very sleepy. But before she was wholly asleep she felt something, soft and warm and purry and companionable, snuggling down by her shoulder. Aunt Laura had sneaked down, found Mike and brought him up to her. Aunt Elizabeth never knew and Ellen Greene dared not say a word in protest—for was not Laura a Murray of New Moon?There’s just something about the voice, the warmth, the gentle humour, and the simple but precise wording (seriously, how perfect is “soft and warm and purry and companionable”?) that made me feel at home straight away. Why did I let so many years go by without reading an L.M. Montgomery novel?
The Emily trilogy (Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs and Emily’s Quest) was published between 1923 and 1927. It came after Montgomery’s more famous Anne of Green Gables series, and the two bear many immediate similarities. Both are about orphan girls who we first meet just when they’re about to start new lives — Anne with an adoptive family; Emily with her mother’s proud and estranged relations, the Murrays. Both protagonists win the hearts of prickly-seeming guardians with their unconventional charm. In both cases, we’re introduced to the heroines just before they enter their teens, and follow them into adulthood. Both Emily and Anne love nature and are aspiring writers, and in both series there are love interests, BFFs, school days, everyday adventures, rapturous nature descriptions, and plenty of moments of gentle and warm domestic humour.
However, Emily Byrd Starr’s story differs from Anne Shirley’s in fundamental ways. In How to be a Heroine, Samantha Ellis says that it felt to her that Montgomery might have written Emily’s story to redress the wrongs done to Anne; that all along Emily was meant to have the ending that her previous heroine had been denied. I can definitely see where she’s coming from. You see, the crucial thing about Emily Byrd Starr is that she’s allowed to remain a writer. She doesn’t move on to “living epistles” and dismisses her previous dreams; instead, she faces her family’s disapproval, her town’s initial sniggering, and all the tut-tuting directed at women with professional and artistic ambitions — and she triumphs. Emily is told repeatedly that while “it was credible and commendable that a boy should have ambitions”, “a girl was an entirely different matter. A girl’s place was at home”. Her story is all about resisting those ideas.
This makes the Emily trilogy fascinating to read from a feminist perspective. When I say this, I don’t mean that the series is a shining and uncomplicated paragon of contemporary feminism, of course. It shows its age in many ways: for example, Montgomery is at times undisguisedly cruel to unmarried women (“the old-maidishness of the regime of Elizabeth and Laura” is one of the many barbs aimed at Emily’s single aunts); the story about Ilse’s mother made me long for The Awakening; and horrifying attitudes towards disability crop up in Emily’s Quest following Emily’s accident. (Not, of course, that any of these problems are confined to the past, but they’re particularly undisguised in novels from the 1920s).
However, I’m often reminded of what Lorna Jowett says in her collection of Buffy criticism, Sex and the Slayer (a book that helped me better articulate my own attitude towards engaging critically with media): approaching media from a feminist angle is rewarding exactly because it’s not about deciding if a work is feminist and therefore “good” or sexist and therefore “bad”. Instead, it’s about asking interesting questions about a piece of media and how it’s in dialogue with our world. It’s about analysing how our culture’s ambivalence towards women and their roles makes its way into media and informs the narrative structure of the works in question, often expressing itself in tensions and contradictions. There was plenty to sink my teeth into in Emily of New Moon, and as a result I had a wonderful time with the trilogy.
Before I read these books, plenty of people had told me that they were all about Emily becoming a writer, and that they were therefore more subversive and satisfying than the Anne books. But I have to admit that, even so, I was kind of bracing myself from a Victorian-like disappointing ending. Let me explain what I mean by this (and be warned that there will be spoilers along the way): sometimes, when I read authors like Mary Elizabeth Braddon or Wilkie Collins, I’m left with the suspicion that they write disappointing endings (in Victorian sensation novels, this more often than not amounts to rebellious women being killed off or locked away) almost as a concession to conventionality. This very optimistic reading of mine is of course not the only possible one, and there are many valid reasons why we should demand that writers go all the way and break these troubling narrative patterns. But with certain works, I manage to enjoy the subversive possibilities the middle bits raise despite the endings that close them off. I brace myself, I sigh, I let out an inward scream or two, and I enjoy the ride all the same. I dearly wish all the Victorian heroines who disrupt social norms had been allowed to live, but I can take pleasure in narratives that acknowledge their existence and therefore erode essentialist myths and widespread beliefs about what women are “naturally” like.
Interestingly enough, these are moments in these books that can be read more or less along the same lines as the let-us-get-rid-of-this-amazing-subversive-heroine-I-created endings I detailed above, though they are much gentler in nature. For example, take this excerpt where the narrator says,
Emily liked being alone very well at first. She felt quite important over being in charge of New Moon. She ate the supper Aunt Laura had left on the cook-house dresser for her and she went into the dairy and skimmed six lovely big pans of milk. She had no business at all to do this but she had always hankered to do it and this was too good a chance to be missed. She did it beautifully and nobody ever knew—each aunt supposing the other had done it—and so she was never scolded for it. This does not point any particular moral, of course; in a proper yarn Emily should either have been found out and punished for disobedience or been driven by an uneasy conscience to confess; but I am sorry—or ought to be—to have to state that Emily’s conscience never worried her about the matter at all.The “ought to be” and the comment about “proper yarns” are particularly interesting and telling. The narrator also tells us several times, “Remember that I am merely Emily’s biographer, not her apologist”. This kind of tongue-in-check aside allows her to ostensibly wash her hands of her heroine’s moments of defiance without really having to punish or condemn her. “Don’t look at me!”, the narrator says to any potential nay-sayers, “I’m merely reporting the facts.” This goes further than, say, extending the range of female representation with a heroine like Lydia Gwilt only to kill her in the end. The narrator may wash her hands, but Emily Byrd Starr is allowed to exist and to carry on all the same.
To return to my original point, I was more or less prepared for an ending I’d have to excise from my headcanon in relation to Emily and awful Dean Priest, but then—joy of joys!—it turned out I didn’t have to. Montgomery went further than I thought she would. I had braced myself for the worst, and I was determined to see the feelings of entrapment Emily is allowed to expresses as important even if the narrative had undermined them in the end — so imagine my delight when it didn’t after all. It’s true that there isn’t anyone in the story who sees Dean as the creep a modern adult reader can’t help but see him as, and that the narrative treats him with more kindness than he merits all the way through. But—crucially—getting away from him turns out to be unequivocally the best thing for Emily.
Let me, however, begin at the beginning: Emily meets Dean when he saves her life one day. While visiting her Great-Aunt Nancy, Emily nearly falls off the cliffs; she’s just barely hanging for her life when Dean comes along and rescues her. Emily is (I think) twelve at this point, while Dean is a man in his mid-thirties. It’s impossible not to be completely creeped out when he starts making comments about waiting for Emily to grow up and teaching her about love when she’s old enough. Emily doesn’t realise the full implications of these comments, but an adult reader does, and the term “grooming” inevitably comes to mind. Yet even at such a young age, Emily is less than thrilled with Dean’s joking-but-not-really comments about owning her life now that he’s saved it:
“That’s good. Because you see your life belongs to me henceforth. Since I saved it it’s mine. Never forget that.”UGH. SHUT UP, Dean Priest. And GO, EMILY! I was terrified that Montgomery would end up framing Emily’s “odd sensation of rebellion” as silly or immature, but no such thing. As Emily’s story progresses, she and Dean become good friends, and there’s no denying that he’s important in her life. But more and more red flags crop up, and Emily herself is sensitive to these — especially the ones that have to do with Dean’s growing condescension towards her writing. Take, for example, one of the most telling and infuriating passages in the series. It’s long, I know, but it’s important enough that I have to quote it in full:
Emily felt an odd sensation of rebellion. She didn’t fancy the idea of her life belonging to anybody but herself—not even to anybody she liked as much as she liked Dean Priest. Dean, watching her, saw it and smiled his whimsical smile that always seemed to have so much more in it than mere smiling.
“That doesn’t quite suit you? Ah, you see one pays a penalty when one reaches out for something beyond the ordinary. One pays for it in bondage of some kind or other. Take your wonderful aster home and keep it as long as you can. It
He was laughing—he was only joking, of course—yet Emily felt as if a cobweb fetter had been flung round her. Yielding to a sudden impulse she flung the big aster on the ground and set her foot on it.has cost you your freedom.”
“It will be so dreadful here this winter without you and Teddy and Ilse that I will not let myself think of it at all,” went on Emily. “Last winter was bad. And this—I know somehow—will be worse. But I’ll have my work.”The most insidious thing is how Dean’s words, the words of someone she looks up to, erode Emily’s confidence (“for Dean is so clever and knows so much”) and leave her on the verge of giving up. It made me sad that Emily was unable to believe in herself without Dean’s approval, but the dynamics of their relationship rang true. The last book in the trilogy, Emily’s Quest, is partially a tale of will-they-won’t-them — but of the kind where you’re constantly shouting “NOOOOOOOOOOO” at the page. Emily gives up writing and she and Dean become engaged, and yet her sense of entrapment persists:
“Oh, yes, your work,” agreed Dean with the little, tolerant, half-amused inflection in his voice that always came now when he spoke of her “work,” as if it tickled him hugely that she should call her pretty scribblings “work.” Well, one must humour the charming child. He could not have said so more plainly in words. His implications cut across Emily’s sensitive soul like a whip-lash. And all at once her work and her ambitions became—momentarily at least—as childish and unimportant as he considered them. She could not hold her own conviction against him. He must know. He was so clever—so well-educated. He must know. That was the agony of it. She could not ignore his opinion. Emily knew deep down in her heart that she would never be able wholly to believe in herself until Dean Priest admitted that she could do something honestly worth while in its way. And if he never admitted it—
“I shall carry pictures of you wherever I go, Star,” Dean was saying. Star was his old nickname for her—not as a pun on her name but because he said she reminded him of a star. “I shall see you sitting in your room by that old lookout window, spinning your pretty cobwebs—pacing up and down in this old garden—wandering in the Yesterday Road—looking out to sea. Whenever I shall recall a bit of Blair Water loveliness I shall see you in it. After all, all other beauty is only a background for a beautiful woman.”
“Her pretty cobwebs—” ah, there it was. That was all Emily heard. She did not even realize that he was telling her he thought her a beautiful woman.
“Do you think what I write is nothing but cobwebs, Dean?” she asked chokingly.
Dean looked surprised, doing it very well.
“Star, what else is it? What do you think it is yourself? I’m glad you can amuse yourself by writing. It’s a splendid thing to have a little hobby of the kind. And if you can pick up a few shekels by it—well, that’s all very well too in this kind of a world. But I’d hate to have you dream of being a Brontë or an Austen—and wake to find you’d wasted your youth on a dream.”
“I don't fancy myself a Brontë or an Austen,” said Emily. “But you didn’t talk like that long ago, Dean. You used to think then I could do something some day.”
“We don’t bruise the pretty visions of a child,” said Dean. “But it’s foolish to carry childish dreams over into maturity. Better face facts. You write charming things of their kind, Emily. Be content with that and don’t waste your best years yearning for the unattainable or striving to reach some height far beyond your grasp.”
She was very happy two-thirds of that summer—which she told herself was a high average. But in the other third were hours of which she never spoke to any one—hours in which her soul felt caught in a trap—hours when the great, green emerald winking on her finger seemed like a fetter. And once she even took it off just to feel free for a little while—a temporary escape for which she was sorry and ashamed the next day, when she was quite sane and normal again, contented with her lot and more interested than ever in her little grey house, which meant so much to her—“more to me than Dean does,” she said to herself once in a three-o’clock moment of stark, despairing honesty; and then refused to believe it next morning.The choice of words here—“stark, despairing honesty”—is once again very telling. Although the overt reason we’re given for the eventual end of Emily and Dean’s engagement is her growing realisation that she loves her childhood friend Teddy Kent, not him, there’s so, so much more that Montgomery isn’t explicitly telling us but which is present nonetheless. Of course Emily couldn’t be happy in a relationship with someone who required her to “be in bondage”. The last straw comes when Dean reveals that he never really lost faith in Emily’s writing—he just wanted her to stop so she’d focus her attention solely on him. Don’t even get me started on the whole episode of his feedback on her first novel and her resulting desperate actions. Argh—begone, you toxic creep! (I’m sorry; I find it very hard to be generous to Dean Priest.)
I have to say that although I firmly believe that we desperately need more stories about happy, fulfilled single women, I loved Emily’s reconciliation with Teddy. I loved that Emily got both — the happy marriage the ending suggests, and the fulfilling writing career we know she’ll go on to enjoy. Emily and Teddy’s romance subtly alludes to exciting possibilities when it comes to relationship dynamics, which of course have implications in terms of gender roles. It’s a tentative but moving acknowledgement that partnerships of equals are possible. And this is especially important when you remember that, almost a century later, people are still saying things like “I think women find it difficult to do their jobs, look after their children, cook dinner and write pieces” and using that as a justification for failing to cover more women writers. Yes, it’s true that women have struggled, but guess what? This is neither inevitable nor immutable. Emily and Teddy are a reminder that it’s possible for a woman to have a partner who respects her work and who sees it as equal to his own.
Very explicit major spoilers end here! There was so much I loved about this trilogy: I love that at its heart is the “basic feminist act” of centring a story on a girl and giving her voice and her perspective the full attention it merits. I love that this is a story of a young woman’s intellectual growth, of her grappling with the full messy glory of being a human being, of her determined climb towards her life goals. I loved all the sensible and heartfelt discussions of writing Montgomery works so organically into the narrative. I loved Emily’s relationship with Isle (Montgomery does BFFs so well) and just how important it is in Emily’s life (the riff between them in Emily Climbs almost broke my heart, but it was such a perfect description of how fear and miscommunication can drive good friends apart). I’m immensely glad I made time for these books at long last.
The Emily series was reissued by Virago last year with the gorgeous covers I posted above. You can also download the trilogy for free from Protect Gutenberg Australia.
More interesting bits:
Mike II is here with me, sitting on the window-sill. Mike is a smee cat. Smee is not in the dictionary. It is a word I invented myself. I could not think of any English word which just describes Mike II so I made this up. It means sleek and glossy and soft and fluffy all in one and something else besides that I can’t express.Reviewed at: The Written World, Stella Matutina, Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf, Bookshelves of Doom, Becky’s Book Reviews
“Oh, I must write, Aunt Elizabeth,” said Emily gravely, folding her slender, beautiful hands on the table and looking straight into Aunt Elizabeth’s angry face with the steady, unblinking gaze which Aunt Ruth called unchildlike. “You see, it’s this way. It is IN me. I can’t help it. And Father said I was ALWAYS to keep on writing. He said I would be famous some day. Wouldn’t you like to have a famous niece, Aunt Elizabeth?”
“I am not going to argue the matter,” said Aunt Elizabeth.
“I’m not arguing—only explaining.” Emily was exasperatingly respectful. "I just want you to understand how it is that I HAVE to go on writing stories, even though I am so very sorry you don’t approve.”
Aunt Elizabeth listened in silence—a disapproving silence, as Emily felt.
“The Murray women have never had to work out for their living,” she said coldly.
“It isn’t exactly what you would call ‘working out,’ dear Miss Murray,” said Miss Royal, with the courteous patience one must use to a lady whose viewpoint was that of an outlived generation. “Thousands of women are going into business and professional life, everywhere.”
“I suppose it’s all right for them if they don’t get married,” said Aunt Elizabeth.
Miss Royal flushed slightly. She knew that in Blair Water and Shrewsbury she was regarded as an old maid, and therefore a failure, no matter what her income and her standing might be in New York. But she kept her temper and tried another line of attack.
“Ambition!” wrote Emily bitterly in her diary. “I could laugh! Where is my ambition now? What is it like to be ambitious? To feel that life is before you, a fair, unwritten white page where you may inscribe your name in letters of success? To feel that you have the wish and power to win your crown? To feel that the coming years are crowding to meet you and lay their largess at your feet? I once knew what it was to feel so.”
All of which goes to show how very young Emily still was. But agony is none the less real because in later years when we have learned that everything passes, we wonder what we agonized about.
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