“I have to write”: Emily Climbs

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In L.M. Montgomery’s Emily Climbs (1925), one of the novels Emily Starr reads is The Children of the Abbey (1796), by Regina Maria Roche, which is also mentioned in Jane Austen’s Emma, when Harriet Smith tells Emma that Mr. Martin is going to read it because she’s recommended it. Emily laughs while she’s reading the novel, because “The heroine fainted in every chapter and cried quarts if anyone looked at her.” It’s the only novel Emily’s Aunt Ruth owns—and Aunt Ruth is shocked that Emily finds it funny, as she thinks it “a very sad volume” (Chapter 16).

The Children of the Abbey, Valancourt Books edition

There are no tears mentioned on the first page of The Children of the Abbey, but there’s one—a single “tear of unutterable joy”—on the second page, and it’s quickly followed by a description of the heroine, Amanda, “smiling through her tears.” In the second chapter, “a trickling tear stole down [Lady Malvina’s] lovely cheek, which, tinged as it was with the flush of agitation, looked now like a half-blown rose moistened with the dews of early morning.” And there are many more. For example: “her tears began to flow for the disastrous fate of her parents” (Chapter 45); “Tears at length relieved her painful oppression, she raised her languid head, she looked around, and wept with increasing violence at beholding what might be termed mementos of former happiness” (Chapter 55); “She wept, and sighed to think, that the happiness he had prayed for he could not behold” (Chapter 58). I can picture Emily laughing, and Aunt Ruth sighing, or perhaps allowing a single tear to trickle down her cheek.

Rose at Leonhards Cafe

This rose (which I photographed in Charlottetown, PEI when I went to Leonhards café last December for coffee and a slice of their famous vanilla roll) is quite lovely, I think, but unfortunately it is not “moistened with the dews of early morning.”

Like Helen Glew, who says in her blog post about rereading Emily of New Moon as an adult that she was “struck by the literary nature of the book,” I’ve been paying more attention to literary allusions in the “Emily” novels this time around than I did the first time I read them, when I was ten. Helen highlights references to The Pilgrim’s Progress, Jane Eyre, and The Mill on the Floss. I can hear echoes of Mansfield Park as well, especially in the scene in Emily of New Moon in which Emily is given a room of her own and thinks, “I wonder if Aunt Elizabeth will ever let me have a little fire here” (Chapter 27), and in Emily Climbs when Aunt Ruth tells Emily that “Plays are wicked” (Chapter 10).

Victoria-by-the-Sea

Another photo from my December trip to PEI. This is near Victoria-by-the-Sea.

In Magic Island: The Fictions of L.M. Montgomery (2008), Elizabeth Waterston suggests that in Emily Climbs, “The constant literary allusions emphasize Emily’s similarity to her creator in tastes and influences. Emily’s journal, like Montgomery’s, mentions Scott’s poems, Viking sagas, Emerson’s essays, Tennyson, Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra (1832), George Macdonald’s At the Back of the North Wind (1871), Byron, Macaulay, Dickens’s David Copperfield (1850), Mrs. Browning, Mrs. Hemans, the historical works of Francis Parkman, and Bliss Carman’s poetry.” (Thanks to “Buried in Print” for recommending Magic Island in a comment on my Emily of New Moon blog post last month.) I also enjoyed reading Waterston’s analysis of images of entrapment in the novel, of the names Montgomery chose for her characters, and of Emily’s response to both obstacles and opportunities as she pursues her dream of becoming a successful writer.

Magic Island

When I read this series for the first time, I’m pretty sure I focused more on Emily as a writer than on Emily as a reader. I was inspired by her determination to create a literary career for herself, to keep writing despite “brutal rejection slips and the awfulness of faint praise” (Chapter 22). Like Montgomery herself, Emily adopts the metaphor of climbing the “Alpine Path” when she thinks about her literary ambitions: “she would climb it, no matter what the obstacles in the way—no matter whether there was any one to help her or not” (Chapter 5). (Montgomery’s autobiography was published as “The Story of My Career” in 1917 and later as The Alpine Path. The phrase “the Alpine Path” comes from a poem by Ellen Rodman Church and Augusta De Bubna called “The Fringed Gentian,” which Montgomery pasted into one of her scrapbooks; an image of the scrapbook page is included in a virtual exhibition curated by Elizabeth Rollins Epperly.)

Even when Emily feels she doesn’t have time, she keeps writing: “I haven’t a moment of time for writing anything. … But I have to write. So I get up in the morning as soon as it is daylight, dress, and put on a coat—for the mornings are cold now—sit down and scribble for a priceless hour. … That hour in the grey morning is the most delightful one in the day for me” (Chapter 7).

Emily Climbs, Tundra edition

Reading about Emily’s persistence in writing stories and sending them to publishers made me want to do the same thing, and when I was ten, the year I read these novels, I wrote two stories that were strongly influenced by Emily’s own history and by what she was writing.

The first story, “Alone,” opens with ten-year-old Katie being told by her uncle’s housekeeper that her beloved Uncle Mac has died. I just noticed now, rereading the story, that she cries in Chapter 1, but then at the funeral, in Chapter 2, “not once did she let a tear fall.” She doesn’t faint, either. Katie is sent to live with her Great-Aunt Lucy, who dies the very next night, and then she’s sent to an orphanage, where she makes friends with a girl named Alice and the two of them plan to run away. Eventually, they find a home with a kind woman who adopts both of them—and then, “as most stories usually do, this one ends. And they all lived happily ever after!” Anne of Green Gables is obviously another influence.

I’m pleased, and a little embarrassed, to say that this story was included in a collection published by the Halifax City Regional Library. I guess that must have been my first published story. And I haven’t published any fiction, yet, as an adult, though I’ve spent the past several years working on a novel. (I mentioned my novel at the end of a blog post I wrote last fall.) I’ve been working on a new round of revisions and I’m much happier with the manuscript now. As soon as I have anything else to report, I’ll be sure to share the news here.

I suppose I could show you a photo of the manuscript, or maybe of my laptop and coffee cup, or something like that, but instead I’ll show you a photo I took the other day when I was on my way to a café in Herring Cove to work on the novel. I liked the colours of the sea and sky so much that I’ve made this the banner photo for the blog.

Herring Cove

Anyway—back to the second Emily-inspired story I wrote when I was ten. It’s called “A Night in the Old Garden.” I knew the plot of “Alone” owed a great deal to Emily of New Moon, but I had forgotten that there was also a connection between Emily Climbs and the second story. In this case, it’s just the title. Emily’s poem is called Night in the Garden, and I don’t think the flowers come to life, as they do in my story. Here’s how my story begins: “There was a strange feeling about the moors as I walked slowly towards the old garden that night. … I started to draw the old garden, but the flowers kept making horrible, twisted faces at me….”

I showed “Alone” and “A Night in the Old Garden” to my grandmother, who shared them with a friend of hers, Lois Valli, who drew several sketches to illustrate each story. And then my grandmother traced and stitched the outlines of some of the sketches onto a quilt she was making for me. I still have the quilt, of course, and I’ll always treasure it, as it reminds me not only that my grandmother believed in my writing, but also that her own creative work has been a source of inspiration for me all my life. She loved painting, drawing, quilting, and writing letters and poetry. And she loved reading.

I wish I’d kept track of the books I’ve read over the years, beginning either when I was ten and discovered the “Emily” series or sometime soon after that. I know I’ve often mentioned books in diary entries, but I do wish I had a more complete list of what I read and when. Vicki Ziegler wrote recently about the notebook in which she’s recorded the books she’s read over the past thirty-four years, and I felt quite envious when I read her blog post (“What I Read in 2016”). I also felt a shock of recognition, because the notebook she uses looks very much like the one a friend gave me sometime in the 1980s.

Seeing Vicki’s photo prompted me to search for my notebook. I didn’t know for sure whether I still had it, or, if I did, where I would have put it, but I was fairly certain that I hadn’t written on very many of its pages. It didn’t take too long to find it—it wasn’t in the same box as my two stories, but it turned up in a box nearby—and I discovered that at some point in the past, I tore out and discarded several pages. I don’t think I burned them; I’m sure I would remember if I had done something that dramatic, or if what I had written was so scandalous that it merited that fate. Thus, while I don’t know what was written on those pages, I have a new opportunity to begin a record of the books I’m reading. (Plus, my notebook looks kind of like Vicki’s, which I think is awesome.)

My notebook

Naturally, I’ve started with Emily of New Moon and Emily Climbs. For about four years now, I’ve kept track of at least some of the books I’ve been reading—the ones I want to be sure to remember—on Goodreads. (Please do come and find me there! I’m always interested in hearing recommendations.) So I’ll consult that online list when I record in my “new” notebook the titles of other books I’ve read this winter, including Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, Lisa Moore’s Flannery, Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder, and Juliet McMaster’s Jane Austen, Young Author—all of which I recommend highly.

I’ve also had the privilege to read Melanie J. Fishbane’s wonderful novel Maud, which focuses on L.M. Montgomery as a teenager, during the years when she was, like Emily, beginning to work seriously on her writing. (Maud will be published by Penguin Random House on April 25th.)

A new first page in my notebook

I love the way Montgomery shows how important Emily Starr’s reading is to her career as a writer, and I’m now curious to find out what she reads in Emily’s Quest. And, of course, to find out what she writes.

This blog post is the second in a series for the Emily Readalong (#ReadingEmily) hosted by Naomi of Consumed by Ink. Here’s Naomi’s blog post “Emily Readalong: Emily of New Moon,” which includes links to what other bloggers have written about the novel. And, in case you haven’t seen it yet, here’s my first post for the series: “‘I am important to myself’: Emily of New Moon.” I’m planning to write about Emily’s Quest in April.

A few more of the passages I underlined in Emily Climbs:

Emily’s diary “seemed to her like a personal friend and a safe confidant for certain matters which burned for expression and yet were too combustible to be trusted to the ears of any living being.” (Chapter 1)

“I have made up my mind that I will never marry,” Emily tells her diary. “I shall be wedded to my art.” (Chapter 1) (Mary Henley Rubio says in Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings that when Montgomery was writing Emily Climbs, “She felt little interest in it. Her readers would demand that Emily grow up, marry, and live happily ever after. Maud had been in a state of heady excitement when she wrote both Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon, but it was only her personal discipline that got her through the sequels, where her feisty heroines had to be tamed.”)

Nothing ever seems as big or as terrible—oh, nor as beautiful and grand either, alas!—when it is written out, as it does when you are thinking or feeling about it. It seems to shrink directly you put it into words. … Oh, if only I could put things into words as I see them! … but it seems to me there is something beyond words—any words—all words—something that always escapes you when you try to grasp it—and yet leaves something in your hand which you wouldn’t have had if you hadn’t reached for it.” (Chapter 1)

A comment from the narrator: “I have never pretended, nor ever will pretend, that Emily was a proper child. Books are not written about proper children. They would be so dull nobody would read them.” (Chapter 1)

“I am not anybody’s ‘property,’ not even in fun. And I never will be.” (Chapter 2)

“Well, it all comes down to this, there’s no use trying to live in other people’s opinions. The only thing to do is live in your own. After all, I believe in myself.” (Chapter 4)

“Keats is too full of beauty. When I read his poetry … I always feel a sort of despair! What is the use of trying to do what has been done, once and for all?” (Chapter 19)

On whether to stay in Prince Edward Island, or leave home to pursue a literary career: “as for material—people live here just the same as anywhere else—suffer and enjoy and aspire just as they do in New York.” (Chapter 24)

Emily Climbs and Magic Island