“I am important to myself,” says Emily Byrd Starr when she’s told by her late father’s housekeeper that she ought to be “thankful to get a home anywhere” and to remember that she’s “not of much importance.” “This is an extraordinary assertion,” writes Mary Henley Rubio, “in an era when young girls were socialized into domesticity, subordinating their identity to their husbands and family” (Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings). Many girls “must have been amazed at Emily’s audacity, while tucking away the comment as an empowering idea” (“Subverting the Trite: L.M. Montgomery’s ‘Room of Her Own,’” by Mary Rubio, in The L.M. Montgomery Reader, Volume Two: A Critical Heritage, edited by Benjamin Lefebvre).
This month, I read L.M. Montgomery’s 1923 novel Emily of New Moon for the first time in many years, and while I remembered some aspects of Emily’s journey to become a writer—the diary she burns after her aunt reads part of it, the letters she writes to her father after his death, her ambition to become both a poet and a novelist—I had forgotten just how strict her Aunt Elizabeth is, how cruel her teacher is, and how much Emily has to fight to be taken seriously as a person.
After her father dies and she’s taken to New Moon to live with her relatives, she becomes friends with Cousin Jimmy, who tells her he’s “composed a thousand poems” and has never written any of them down. Emily discovers she, too, can write poetry. “Perhaps I could have written it long ago if I’d tried,” she thinks. Aunt Elizabeth won’t let her have any paper, but Emily finds she can compose in her head, just as Cousin Jimmy does. Sometimes she writes on her slate at school, “but these scribblings had to be rubbed off sooner or later—which left Emily with a sense of loss—and there was always the danger that Miss Brownell would see them.”
Eventually, Miss Brownell does catch her writing, and Emily endures humiliation from her teacher. “Really, children,” Miss Brownell says to her students, “we seem to have a budding poet among us. … It is a whole slateful of—poetry—think of that, children—poetry. We have a pupil in this school who can write—poetry. And she does not want us to read this—poetry. I am afraid Emily is selfish. I am sure we should all enjoy this—poetry.”
Once again, Emily feels she must destroy what she has written, just as she did even before she came to New Moon, when she saw Aunt Elizabeth reading her diary. She has nothing to wipe her slate clean, so she “gave the palm of her hand a fierce lick and one side of the slate was wiped off. Another lick—and the rest of the poem went.” But then when Miss Brownell threatens to burn the other poems Emily has been keeping in her desk, Emily snatches the pages back from her and, in a scene worthy of Elizabeth Bennet standing up to Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, she refuses to give them back.
“I will not,” she insists. “They are mine. You have no right to them. I wrote them at recesses. I didn’t break any rules.” And then she adds, “You are an unjust, tyrannical person.” She knows she’ll be punished, but she is determined “they should not get her poems—not one of them, no matter what they did to her.” Near the end of the novel, when Aunt Elizabeth finds and reads Emily’s letters to her father, she again defends her work and refuses to allow it to be destroyed. “I’d sooner burn myself,” she declares. Her attitude toward her writing has changed a great deal since the early chapter in which she burned her diary to prevent her aunt from reading any more of it.
Forced by Aunt Elizabeth to apologize to her teacher, Emily says, “I am sorry for anything I did to-day that was wrong … and I ask your pardon for it.” Forbidden to speak to anyone until the following day, she asks her aunt, “But you won’t forbid me to think?” And, left alone in the pantry to eat only bread and milk for her supper, she begins to compose an epic poem in her mind.
On this reading of the novel, I found Emily’s meeting with Father Cassidy especially interesting. I had forgotten that he’s one of the few people who encourage her to write. She goes to see him to ask him to persuade her neighbour not to cut down the beautiful trees near New Moon. She confesses that she’s a “poetess,” and his initial reply is not very encouraging: “Holy Mike! That is serious,” he says. “I don’t know if I can do much for you. How long have you been that way?” (I’m not sure how I could have forgotten his distinctive voice. I certainly remember Mr. Carpenter’s voice, much later, in Emily’s Quest, telling Emily to “Beware—of—italics.” But I’m getting ahead of myself now, as that’s the novel I plan to read in April.) After she’s told Father Cassidy more about her writing, he tells her to “keep on writing poetry,” which no one else has ever told her, and he assures her that “The path of genius never did run smooth.”
After this conversation, Emily even begins to think she might write novels as well as poems. “But Aunt Elizabeth won’t let me read any novels so how can I find out how to write them?” she wonders, which is an excellent question. (Aunt Elizabeth says, “They are wicked books and have ruined many souls,” but Emily manages to read The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Romance of the Forest before she’s forbidden to read the books at her friend Ilse’s house.)
I love what Emily says when she begins to think of her future audience: “‘Another thing that worries me, if I do grow up and write a wonderful poem, perhaps people won’t see how wonderful it is.’”
I remembered reading about what happened when Mary Rubio gave Alice Munro a copy of Montgomery’s journals, so I looked up that passage again in Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings: Rubio says, “When I handed Alice Munro a gift copy of the first volume of The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery, Volume 1, at the Ginger Press Bookstore in Owen Sound, Ontario, in late 1985, she looked at it for only a second to see what it was, and then, without missing a beat or without making any reference to Emily of New Moon, she responded by quoting the end of the novel: ‘I am going to write a diary that it may be published when I die.’” In this short “Appreciation of Alice Munro,” Margaret Atwood and Lisa Dickler Awano talk about how Montgomery’s novels influenced Munro when she was growing up, at a time when “the idea of being a writer was so alien. Just to think you could do it was an act of major hubris.”
The Emily novels have served as an inspiration to many young women who dreamt of becoming writers, as Rubio notes in “Subverting the Trite: L.M. Montgomery’s ‘Room of Her Own.’” She mentions, for example, Munro, Atwood, Margaret Lawrence, Astrid Lindgren, Rosemary Sutcliff, Jean Little, and Carol Shields. I know Munro wrote an afterword for Emily of New Moon, but I don’t (yet) have a copy of that edition. Have any of you read it?
In between chapters of Emily of New Moon, I’ve been reading Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls (2016), a collection of short biographies of strong and inspiring women. L.M. Montgomery doesn’t make an appearance in the book, unfortunately, but I was happy to find that Jane Austen is included. Montgomery and her strong heroines, especially Emily, with her insistence that “I am important to myself,” and Anne Shirley, would fit right in.
Rebel Girls is intended to be both “heartwarming” and “thought-provoking,” and I’d say both of those terms apply to the collection, right from the dedication page. It’s dedicated “To the rebel girls of the world.” Heartwarming: “Dream bigger, Aim higher, Fight harder.” Thought-provoking: “And, when in doubt, remember, You are right.” I have to say, I think it’s dangerous for any girl, or boy, to grow up believing she or he is always right. There’s no room for education, something that was clearly important to the ambitious women featured in Rebel Girls, just as it was important to Montgomery, and to the fictional Emily Starr, who, for all her confidence in her own importance, is a great example of a heroine who knows she has much to learn, and is determined to get a good education.
This month, I’ve also been rereading Persuasion, because I’m writing a lecture on “Anne Elliot’s Ambitions” for the Jane Austen Society conference in Halifax in June. I was struck by the similarity between the opening of Emily of New Moon, in which Emily’s told she’s “not of much importance,” and the opening of Persuasion, in which the reader learns the Elliot family doesn’t think Anne is important: “She was nobody with either father or sister; her word had no weight. Her convenience was always to give way—she was only Anne.” (Miriam Rheingold Fuller talks about the influence of Persuasion on Montgomery’s Anne of the Island in her essay “Jane of Green Gables: L.M. Montgomery’s Reworking of Jane Austen’s Legacy.”)
Montgomery is most famous, of course, for Anne of Green Gables and its sequels, and, as many readers have noticed, Emily resembles Anne Shirley. Sometimes she even sounds just like her. “Oh, isn’t it good to be alive—like this?” Emily says to her friends Ilse and Teddy during one of the evenings when “they all three sat on the crazy veranda steps in the mystery and enchantment of the borderland ’tween light and dark” and “a great round yellow moon rose over the fields.” “Wouldn’t it be dreadful if one had never lived?” she asks them. This passage makes me think of Anne saying to Diana, in Anne of Green Gables, “It’s good to be alive and to be going home.”
Later in Emily of New Moon, when Emily believes she is going to die after eating an apple and then hearing from her neighbour that it was full of poison, she laments her lost happiness—“She had thought she was going to live for years and write great poems and be famous like Mrs. Hemans”—and then when she finds she hasn’t been poisoned after all, she is thrilled to be alive. “Oh, it was nice just to be alone and to be alive,” and to be able to write more: “Emily already saw a yard of verses entitled ‘Thoughts of One Doomed to Sudden Death.’”
Like Anne, Emily is interested in roads and paths. (I’ve written before about Anne’s love of “The Bend in the Road,” the title of the last chapter of Anne of Green Gables.) Emily talks about three paths through the bush: “the To-day Road, the Yesterday Road, and the To-morrow Road.” One is “lovely now,” one is “out in the stumps” and “used to be lovely,” and the third “is going to be lovely some day, when the maples are bigger.”
With all these similarities between Anne and Emily, it’s fascinating to learn that Montgomery preferred writing about Emily. “It is the best book I have ever written,” she wrote in her journal, “—and I have had more intense pleasure in writing it than any of the others—not even excepting Green Gables. I have lived it, and I hated to pen the last line and write finis. Of course, I’ll have to write several sequels but they will be more or less hackwork I fear. They cannot be to me what this book has been” (February 15, 1922).
As I mentioned in last month’s blog post, Naomi at Consumed By Ink is hosting this Emily Readalong, and the idea is to read Emily Climbs next month and then Emily’s Quest in April. Do those two novels seem like “hackwork”? I don’t remember. Feel free to join us in reading these three novels, by commenting on blog posts or writing your own, or by discussing the books on social media (#ReadingEmily).
In her February post on Emily of New Moon, Naomi talks about the similarities between Anne and Emily and she raises excellent questions about some of the other characters in the novel, particularly Mrs. Kent (controlling?) and Dean Priest (creepy?). She also includes images of many different covers for Emily, noting that in general, the Emily covers are “not as bright and cheery” as the covers of the Anne novels.
One last thought about—or at least tangentially related to!—Emily of New Moon: when I read about Aunt Laura rubbing mutton tallow on Emily’s chapped hands in the winter, I couldn’t help thinking of Dan Macey’s blog post from last winter’s “Emma in the Snow” celebration, because he wrote about “Discovering Mutton in Emma: The Quest to Please the Principals’ Palates.” The word “mutton” always reminds me of the line from Jane Austen’s letter to her sister Cassandra about how “Composition seems to me Impossible, with a head full of Joints of Mutton and doses of rhubarb” (September 8, 1816). And now, the word also reminds me of Dan’s research and the recipes he created for the characters in Austen’s Emma. As it happened, the day after I read the passage about mutton tallow in Emily of New Moon, I learned that Dan’s blog post on mutton has been shortlisted for an International Association of Culinary Professionals Food Writing award. Congratulations, Dan!
(Emily writes, “It is hard to write poetry with chapped hands. I wonder if Mrs. Hemans ever had chapped hands. It does not mention anything like that in her biograffy.”)
This past week in Nova Scotia, we’ve had several snow days, so I’ve been thinking about this Readalong as “Emily in the Snow.” I’ll spare you the photos of the snow mountains in my neighbourhood—I posted plenty of photos of snow last winter during the “Emma in the Snow” celebrations. There’s far more snow this winter; in fact, right now, it looks pretty much the way it did in March of 2015, when I was participating in the Anne of Green Gables Readalong and I included a snow photo in this post on “Attending Redmond College with Anne Shirley.” Just as I did that month, I’m dreaming of a summer visit to PEI (and of raspberry cordial at the Blue Winds Tea Room in New London).
Okay, I think this blog post is long enough. Probably too long. I’m going to stop writing about Emily of New Moon for now, and start reading Emily Climbs. Or maybe I’ll read Felicia Hemans’s poem “Kindred Hearts”….