Besides loving L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables because it’s a great story with a timelessly loveable heroine, it is special to me because it is one of the few books my mom introduced me to that she had loved when she was young. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon is special to me because my daughter and I discovered her together. I still feel a bit of a traitor because . . . I like Emily better.
As I read again Emily recently, I tried to pay more attention to what about her appeals to me. I realized that she makes more sense to me than Anne does because Emily is more like me. Shortly after my Emily reread, I read L. M. Montgomery’s The Alpine Path: The Story of my Career, a short work that was published in installments in a women’s magazine in 1917. This was about six years before Emily was published. Several comments in this little story made me think, “Aha, Emily is more like Montgomery as well.” Montgomery includes some of her own family history in Emily’s, and incorporates a relative or two of her own into Emily’s family circle. Some seemingly less significant aspects of her childhood also make it into Emily’s story, such as Montgomery’s wish to go to school barefooted and being forced to wear an ugly apron to school. She says of herself, “I dared not attempt to use verses and hymns in current conversation [like a girl in a story she had read]. I had a wholesome conviction that I should be laughed at, and moreover, I doubted being understood.” This is a repeated theme in Emily.
The charge I often hear that Emily is darker than Anne is, perhaps, just. The story certainly deals with certain aspects of life more starkly. Montgomery was almost 50 when Emily was published. Maybe she was working out some of her own darkness in this story.
When the story opens, Emily lives with her loving, understanding father. Her mother has been dead since Emily was very small. She knows her father isn’t well, but doesn’t realize just how sick he is until he dies. Her mother’s family descends on the funeral and they draw lots to see who will take Emily in. No one really wants her, but the Murray Pride will not allow for her ending up in an orphanage.
Her father’s death turns Emily’s life upside down. She has to go live with Aunt Elizabeth, Aunt Laura, and Cousin Jimmy, whom she had never met before. She has to choose between her two beloved cats because she is only allowed to take one to New Moon. Her father had taught her at home, but at New Moon she is immediately sent to school. There she experiences the usual challenges of adjustment. Because she is from New Moon, the other girls assume she will think herself above them, so they tease her and play a mean trick on her. Her teacher is a nasty, sarcastic woman. She also makes one very good friend, Ilse, and the hired boy at New Moon becomes a protector.
For me, seeing Emily orphaned at the beginning of the story, witnessing a little of the happiness she loses, and watching her struggle with the aftermath, add depth to her plight. She is not a naturally outgoing, bubbly person. She has to work at happiness. She makes few friends, but those friends are fiercely loyal, as she is in return.
Much of the darkness comes from frequent references to the deaths and peccadilloes of neighbors and ancestors. Occasionally Emily accidently overhears these, but she also has relatives to whom it doesn’t occur to soften these for Emily’s ears or to make sure she isn’t listening. In one instance, Emily goes to look at an abandoned well on the neighbor’s property where two brothers had quarreled and one killed the other by hitting him over the head with a hammer.
While visiting Aunt Nancy, Emily hears what is supposed to have happened to Ilse’s mother. She disappeared when Ilse was small, and everyone assumes that she ran off with a man she knew before she married Ilse’s father.
One day Emily slips off a cliff by the shore and is trapped. While she waits and hopes for help, she thinks about what will happen if no one ever finds her. “The crows or the gulls would pick her eyes out.”
The way Emily and Ilse discuss their attempts to work out what they believe about God may be troubling to some readers. Ilse’s father has entirely neglected her upbringing. His reaction to his wife’s disappearance is, among other things, to decide not to believe in God, so Ilse doesn’t either. Emily sometimes refers to her father’s God as opposed to Aunt Elizabeth’s God. She doesn’t believe there are two Gods, but she is trying to sort out what he must be like when her father’s God is so loving and Aunt Elizabeth’s is so stern. As part of Ilse’s ever-developing belief system, at one point she decides to believe in God, but to call him Allah because it sounds nicer. This is a passing comment rather than a concept that is developed in the story. The questions about God feel like realistic musings of children who have questions the adults in their lives are not equipped to answer.
Toward the end of the book, the school gets a new teacher who turns out to be a great encouragement to Emily. However, it is well-known among the students that he has a drinking problem.
Another aspect of this story that makes it more appropriate for older children than Anne is the frequent references to romance. Emily is only 11 at the beginning of the book, but the adults in her life often refer to whom she might marry. Perry, the hired boy, tries to get her to promise to marry him. Though they are still children, there is occasionally some jealousy between Ilse, Perry, and the other good friend in their circle, Teddy. Emily seems relatively unaware of her power over the boys, but the reader is made aware of the tension.
When Emily is contemplating death on the cliff, she is rescued by her cousin Dean who is at least 20 years older than she. He is taken with her and begins making comments she doesn’t understand about waiting for her, teaching her about love talk (so she can write novels), and how her life belongs to him now that he’s saved her.
Emily writes her father that the only time she doesn’t like Aunt Nancy is, “when she begins talking about the different parts of me and the effect they will have on the men. It makes me feel so silly.”
Though I mention these references as cautions to parents who want to shield their children from questions of romance until they are mature enough to handle them rightly, they are less disturbing when viewed through the filter of Emily’s time. Emily’s family is prominent on the Island. This is still a time when appropriate marriages are considered essential for the sake of the family name. Many of the marriage references by adults are cautions to Emily about forming relationships to boys who are “beneath her.” Most readers will sense that, from what we know of Emily’s nature, class distinctions are not going to figure prominently into her choice of a husband.
I love Emily’s stark honesty. Several times, when an adult says something to her like, “I’m sorry you will have to be punished,” she comes back with, “No, I don’t think you are.” She doesn’t intend to be disrespectful, she is simply telling the truth. I am the mother of one such child.
A large portion of the story is told through letters Emily writes to her father. Though he is dead, she doesn’t have anyone else to talk to about how she feels or what she really thinks, so she pours it out onto a stack of letter-bills Cousin Jimmy has given her. Montgomery uses this device to fill us in on Emily’s perspective on her world. Her innocence, her misspellings, her frankness and seering observations are delightful. I also appreciate that this is how she tries to understand many of the baffling aspects of the adult world. Because Emily is an introvert, she often doesn’t ask questions about things she doesn’t understand, but hold onto them until she has more information. This is one way in which I identify with Emily. Unlike Anne, Emily is never publicly effusive. She wants to be a famous poetess, but she keeps that to herself unless she is with someone she feels will understand. She doesn’t give way to raptures on a flower or spring or a sunset except in poems or in letters to her father.
Emily does her best to be obedient and is mindful that stern, and sometimes unfair Aunt Elizabeth is bringing her up at her own expense, but there is a streak of iron in Emily that must sometimes say, “Thus far and no farther.” On more than one occasion, Aunt Elizabeth is forced to realize she is wrong. This changes the relationship between Emily and Aunt Elizabeth for the better ever so slightly over time.
I think perhaps what may be perceived as darkness in Emily’s story is Montgomery trying to tell the truth about life. It is hard. People can do horrible things. Death happens. Pride does make people behave selfishly and unreasonably. Children are often helpless before the whims and foibles of the adults who are in charge. But there is also room for forgiveness, redemption, and love. Not every aspect of the story is tied up neatly in the end, but there are generous portions of reconciliation.
This is available via Audible.