At the beginning of L.M. Montgomery’s Emily’s Quest (1927), Emily Starr has “very clear-cut ideas of what she was going to make of herself.” Committed to living in and writing about Prince Edward Island instead of New York, she is “filled with youth’s joy in mere existence” and determined to succeed as a writer. She anticipates that a “hard struggle” lies ahead: there will be neighbours and relatives who’ll judge the way she spends her time, rejection letters from publishers, days when she’ll feel unable to reach the standards she’s set for her work (Chapter 1).
For all her talents at a kind of “second sight” (Chapter 11), however, she can’t predict the full extent of the challenges. And even though the book begins with her spirited resistance to rewriting her stories to please magazine publishers—“After this I’m just going to write what I want to,” she declares in her diary (Chapter 2)—she still has to endure criticism from Dean Priest, a long period during which she doesn’t write at all, and many days and months of feeling she can hardly muster the courage to live through tomorrow, let alone the years ahead. Dean speaks of her writing as an amusement, a “little hobby,” saying, “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” (Chapter 4). And then she gives up on writing altogether.
It’s hard to listen to Emily of New Moon, who used to say things like, “I am important to myself” and “I have to write,” dismissing her writing: “Oh, I’m done with that. I seem to have no interest in it since my illness. I saw—then—how little it really mattered—how many more important things there were—” (Chapter 8).
She’s engaged to the wrong man, and as Elizabeth Waterston says in Magic Island: The Fictions of L.M. Montgomery, “The artist as a young person seems to have disappeared from the story, just as, long ago, in Anne of Green Gables, the story of Anne’s literary ambitions veered away into the traditional path of a courtship tale.” Cecily Devereux writes that “without home and children, as Janet Royal makes clear to Emily, and as Anne comes to see early in her story, success for women is seen to be a hollow thing” (“Writing with a ‘Definite Purpose’: L.M. Montgomery, Nellie McClung and the Politics of Imperial Motherhood in Fiction for Children,” in The L.M. Montgomery Reader, Volume Two: A Critical Heritage, edited by Benjamin Lefebvre).
After Emily breaks the engagement, she returns to her writing: “Suddenly—the flash came—again—after these long months of absence…. And all at once I knew I could write” (Chapter 12)—and yet the courtship plot has not disappeared. In one chapter, she’s quoting Elizabeth Barrett Browning and praying, “Oh, God, as long as I live give me ‘leave to work.’ … Leave and courage” (Chapter 12). And then in the very next one, she’s ready to set aside that work for domestic happiness: “Who cared for laurel, after all? Orange blossoms would make a sweeter coronet” (Chapter 13).
Mary Rubio says that “It was painful for Montgomery to make her feisty little alter-ego into a creature of bland domesticity,” and it was “little wonder” that she found it hard to complete the last “Emily” book. Rubio notes that “On June 30, 1926, she wrote grimly: ‘I began work—again—on Emily III. I wonder if I shall ever get that book done!’ On October 13, 1926, she breathed a sigh of relief: ‘Yesterday morning I actually finished writing Emily’s Quest. Of course I have to revise it yet but it is such a relief to feel it off my mind at last. I’ve never had such a time writing a book. Thank heaven it is the last of the Emily series’” (“Subverting the Trite: L.M. Montgomery’s ‘Room of Her Own,’” in The L.M. Montgomery Reader, Volume Two).
I was interested to learn that after she completed Emily Climbs, Montgomery postponed writing the inevitable sequel and instead began to write The Blue Castle. “This was unprecedented,” Rubio says in her biography of Montgomery, “having two novels going at the same time.” It sounds as if she was very reluctant to commit to an ending for Emily’s story and write it down. Emily’s marriage, Rubio writes, “was the foregone conclusion, demanded by the genre and the era” (Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings).
I read Jane Urquhart’s L.M. Montgomery (from the Extraordinary Canadians series) last month and I was intrigued by a question posed by a friend of hers: “my friend insists that Montgomery was holding back, that had she given herself permission to do so she could have written adult fiction as compelling as that of Charlotte Brontë or George Eliot—both of whom, Montgomery confesses in her diaries, she ‘may have dreamed of rivaling’ in her ‘salad days’—or of her American contemporaries Edith Wharton or Willa Cather. But how would such cerebral and possibly sexual drama be received in the conservative Protestant society Montgomery lived in and wrote about?”
What would the “Emily” series have been like, I wonder, if Montgomery had followed the very advice Emily gives herself at the beginning of Emily’s Quest, “to write what I want to”—if she hadn’t written the ending her readers expected?
This blog post is the third and last in a series for the Emily Readalong (#ReadingEmily) hosted by Naomi of Consumed by Ink (for more about the readalong and links to what others have written for their blogs, see her posts “Emily Readalong: Emily of New Moon,” “Emily Readalong: Emily Climbs,” and “Emily Readalong: Emily’s Quest”). My first two posts in the series: “‘I am important to myself’: Emily of New Moon” and “‘I have to write’: Emily Climbs.”
I spent the Easter weekend in Prince Edward Island, and I have a few photos to share with you.
New London on Saturday evening:
New Glasgow on Sunday afternoon:
Cavendish Cemetery, “Resting Place of L.M. Montgomery”:
L.M. Montgomery’s grave:
Graves of L.M. Montgomery’s mother, Clara Woolner MacNeill, and grandparents, Alexander and Lucy Woolner MacNeill:
L.M. Montgomery’s Birthplace, New London (the museum opens for the season in May):
Oceanview Lookoff, Cavendish, Prince Edward Island National Park:
It was grey and foggy most of the time we were there, perfect weather for reading at the cottage where we were staying, or in a café. I was #ReadingEmily, of course, plus Kathleen A. Flynn’s fabulous new novel The Jane Austen Project, and listening to Pride and Prejudice and then Budge Wilson’s Before Green Gables while driving. I’m looking forward to visiting PEI again later in the spring or maybe in the summer. The weather on the weekend reminded me of a line from Anne of Green Gables about “the beautiful capricious, reluctant Canadian spring” (Chapter 20). Like Montgomery, Budge Wilson often describes what spring is like in the Maritimes. In her story “Be-ers and Doers,” the narrator talks about the South Shore of Nova Scotia: “all those granite rocks and fogs and screeching gulls, the slow, labouring springs, and the quick, grudging summers. And then the winters—greyer than doom, and endless.”
In the comments section of Naomi’s post on Emily’s Quest, she and I have been been talking about ideas for a future LMM readalong. In the fall, maybe, or next winter? Who wants to join us, and what would you like to read? We’re talking about The Blue Castle, Jane of Lantern Hill, Pat of Silver Bush, or The Story Girl and The Golden Road, and the list goes on and on….
Naomi says, “Let’s just assume we’ll eventually get to them all!” I’d like to choose one or two to read over the summer. When I was in Charlottetown on Monday, I bought “Una of the Garden,” the story Montgomery published in The Housekeeper magazine and later transformed into a novel, Kilmeny of the Orchard, so I’m tempted to start there, but I’d be interested to hear what others are thinking.