Warning: this contains spoilers! Come back and read it later if you too intend to re-read the book.
Recently, Virago re-issued the ‘Emily’ series by Lucy Maud (‘L.M.’) Montgomery, the author of Anne of Green Gables. Like many Montgomery fans, I too have long believed that the Emily series was superior to the more famous ‘Anne’ series. It’s possible that because as a child I longed to be a writer like Emily I found more in her with which to identify, but I also think the writing in the ‘Emily’ series is more mature. (Anne of Green Gables was first published in 1908; the ‘Emily series did not appear until 1923.)
I had been meaning to re-visit the series for a while, although part of me was a little apprehensive in case I discovered that the Emily I had liked as a child was not, in fact, very likeable or that the book was not as magical as I had remembered. To my delight, the ‘Emily’ I had loved was still there. So were the ‘New Moon’ Murrays, Aunt Elizabeth and Aunt Laura – though the latter was slightly less the diametrical opposite of the former than my memory had led me to believe. Cousin Jimmy was more likeable than before; I had almost completely forgotten about Dean Priest in the intervening years. I still wanted to be part of the gang with Teddy, Perry and Ilse as much as I had ever had.
I have always been particularly drawn to the opening of the novel. (In at least one precocious moment, a young teenage me began work on a script to dramatise the novel, though I didn’t get beyond Montgomery’s opening.) This time around, Montgomery’s ways of describing the ending of a life through a child’s eyes seemed even more masterful. Emily’s fragility and the depiction of the relationship between Emily and her father which we all wish could last longer than the remaining few weeks of his life were beautifully rendered. More striking to the older me were the ways in which Emily was expected to conform and show her grief in ‘appropriate’ and socially-accepted ways; even more appealing was her very deliberate defiance of these Murray expectations.
As an adult who has become a historian I am perhaps more attuned than ever to the representations of the past in novels and the ways in which authors can use novels as social commentary and a means to reimagine the world which they inhabit. Having read both some of Montgomery’s journals over the years and in particular Mary Henley Rubio’s engaging biography in more recent years, I re-read Emily with a greater sense of Montgomery’s life as vicar’s wife and her role in the local community and the expectations that came with her position. I was struck with full force by the way in which the book explores different aspects of religion, spirituality and belief – something which I am not sure had ever stuck me on childhood readings of the book. We start with Douglas Starr’s warning to Emily not to believe in ‘Ellen Greene’s God’ and the different incarnation of God Emily encounters at church at New Moon. Dean Priest – perhaps not so subtlely named – eventually acts as something of an intellectual or spiritual father to Emily – or a kindred spirit, to borrow the ‘Anne’ phrase. Then there is Father Cassidy, the Irish Catholic priest Emily visits to try to get herself out of a scrape she has inadvertently contributed to. It is he who perceives her as a spirit and of another world in which he seems to suggest it is perfectly possible to believe. Emily, of course, has believed in a version of a world of spirits in which nature takes on personas such as the ‘wind woman’. Emily also experiences ‘the flash’, which seems to strike either when she is inspired by nature or when she is the recipient of kindness or understanding. This could be interpreted either as a quasi-religious experience, perhaps – a moment of divine inspiration – or something akin to a ‘Woolfian moment of being’ when Emily feels the positives and purpose in life and, crucially, is able to write, the thing she needs to do more than anything. Montgomery seems to allow at times something of an equivalency between Christian conviction – and the multiple versions of this explored in the novel – and belief in the power of nature . The atheism of Dr Burnley, Ilse’s father, is the only mode of belief which is destroyed in the book – by Emily’s eventual deduction of what actually happened to the wife who broke his heart.
There is also an interesting interplay between rational thought and other powers. Although Emily’s eventual solution to the fate of Ilse’s mother comes to her in sickness-induced delirium and might be deemed a moment of clairvoyance or ‘second sight’ (something which I believe also features in subsequent books in the series, but I have yet to re-read them), Montgomery also sets up Emily’s troubled-ness about this over a relatively long period before her illness. In some ways, it is Emily’s careful attention to facts and circumstances on the night of Ilse’s mother’s disappearance which leads her – in an almost Holmesian manner – to the only rational explanation she can think of. Crucially, though, it is her delirium which allows her to articulate her theory – and propels Aunt Elizabeth to ‘humour’ her request.
The other thing that struck me this time is the literary nature of the book. And I don’t mean the elucidation and exemplification of Emily’s literary ambitions, though they are of course the appeal and in some ways the crux of the book. What has become evident as I have read more in the intervening years is the references to other works of literature: besides the discussion of The Pilgrim’s Progess and gender therein as early as page 3, we have an approximation of George Eliot (‘the happiest countries, like the happiest women, have no histories’, p.327) and a Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. There are likely others too that on this reading I didn’t spot. I’m sure these and many other of the novel’s themes are explored by Montgomery scholars elsewhere, too.
I have read a number of pieces recently which discuss the idea that re-reading favourite books helps us to think about who we once were. Beyond the themes that I was particularly drawn to think about whilst reading, my re-reading of Emily was an absolute pleasure and it is with the distance of years that I am able to more fully appreciate why Emily meant what she did to me over half a lifetime ago. I am now re-reading Emily Climbs and may add a further post about this in the future.