Exploring a coffee shop near Riverdale Park last week, I started a conversation with a young woman reading at the communal table in the back, while I waited for Mr. BIP who was waiting for the coffees (he was enjoying the view across the park and greeting the four-legged companions waiting near the door).
Not that I am usually the person who interrupts the reading person, but I had tried too many times – unsuccessfully – to peek at the cover, enough times to catch her eye, and I felt I had to ‘fess up about my curiosity.
Apparently she was uncomfortable being seen reading a children’s book, but every year, when she finishes her academic year, she rereads the C.S. Lewis Narnia series.
That’s just what I used to do with L.M. Montgomery’s books, most often the Anne series. Although I read them during those years, too, while preparing for exams, whenever times were stressful. So Naomi’s idea of rereading the Emily books was a lovely one, from the beginning.
On this rereading, I was most struck by the sense of what matters in stories and why they continue to matter, in Emily’s world, in L.M. Montgomery’s world, and in my own wordy world. One of the reasons that I have returned to L.M. Montgomery’s stories so often is the idea that she cares about nothing happening.
In Emily Climbs (1925), Emily is offended by Mrs. Alec Sawyer’s declaration: “The idea of saying ‘nothing ever happens here!” She retorts in her diary. Which is where all the important things about nothing get said. There she is, determinedly believing that “folks here are interesting in themselves” but putting all those interesting things into a notebook, keeping them to herself.
But in the final volume, she stretches her voice; even though she continues to be enamoured with more melodramatic tales (and continues to overuse italics), Emily uses the stuff of everyday to craft tales, because the stuff of everyday is tale enough.
Above all, the Emily books show Emily developing into a tale-teller, more boldly than Little Women‘s Jo March (if not as boldly as Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, which would be published just a couple of years later).
When I was a girl, I reread Emily of New Moon (1923) because girl-Emily appealed to me and I eschewed the other two books, in which girl-Emily becomes interested in boys. As an adult I reread Emily of New Moon intending to read on, but even though I still loved so many things about girl-Emily (her cats, her friends, her scribbling, her home) she became less believable to me for a rather superficial reason (and I usually did not read on, my copies of the second and third volume looking nearly-new).
Girl-Emily is a terrible speller and this pretense on the author’s part breaks the spell for me, because this pretend young Emily doesn’t mess about with her grammar to the same extent as her spelling, and also it’s wrong, the way she gets spelling wrong: I just can’t believe that a kid would misspell ‘knight’ but still include the silent ‘k’ in the misspelling. Her letters to her father are interspersed throughout the novel, allowing a more personal glimpse into her feelings and thoughts, but they leave me feeling further away.
Having read the author’s journals only contributes to the sense of fracture for me, because so many elements of LMM’s experience in this series are reflected in Emily’s quandaries. Like Emily, LMM had a series of beaus, but she ultimately married for practical reasons, and she did not find contentment in her marriage. Her own journals, which she rewrote later in life, believing that they would be read after her death (and, so, presumably shaped to cover the worst bouts of depression) reveal the same kind of angst and disappointment.
This time around, I enjoyed Emily’s Quest (1927) most of all but it, too, left me feeling saddened. Now, knowing that LMM wrote her way out of despair (something she ‘gave’ to Emily), I was overwhelmed by the fact that she left Emily at the end of the story, being contented by the idea of being a “dutiful wife”, as though simply knowing that her husband would support her artistic dreams and ambitions was so satisfying that she didn’t need to actually pursue them anymore and could contentedly join Ilse in married life.
And this is what LMM gave her as a “better” ending. This is the ending she could write because it was not her own ending, not the one she had to live. And this is the happiest ending she could imagine for her? “I shall always end my stories happily. I don’t care whether it’s ‘true to life’ or not. It’s true to life as it should be and that’s a better truth than the other.” (EC)
But we readers have a sense of that from the opening pages of the final novel, when she suggests that change and separation always leaves a chill between once-loving friends. Emily is so lonely. And, perhaps it simply must be so. For, by now, LMM is lonely too. As though she has been surrounded by ununderstanding people, like Aunt Elizabeth, for far too long: solitude careening into loneliness.
And one of the reasons that this makes me even sadder, is that it seems to undercut her belief that everyday stories do matter. If she cannot find contentment there, if she cannot fashion a happy ending from these ordinary and everyday scraps, then perhaps it simply isn’t true. Perhaps these are not the stories which matter, if, in the end, the tale-teller is left alone in a room, seeking an end to suffering after a series of lonely white nights (as I imagine LMM to have been).
When I return to Emily, I want to be like Emily returning to the playhouse. “Yet, when Emily went to the playhouse next morning, bent on retrieving her share of broken dishes and boards, there was Ilse, skipping around, hard at work, with all the shelves back in place, the moss garden re-made, and a beautiful parlour laid out and connected with the living-room by a spruce arch.” (EONM)
I want to believe in a way of being alone which is not lonely. “I’ve been reading one of Father’s books to-night. I always feel so beautifully near to Father when I read his books–as if I might suddenly look over my shoulder and see him. And so often I come across his pencilled notes on the margin and they seem like a message from him.” (EC)
I want to believe that Emily and LMM can find an escape whenever needed. “She would write it out–she would begin that very moment. Flinging a dressing-gown over her white shoulders to protect them from the keen gulf air she sat down before her open window and began to write. Everything else was forgotten–for a time at least–in the subtle, all-embracing joy of creation.” (EQ)
When I was rereading these stories in the past, I was often looking for a way to restore my belief in what lasts, in what remains. Now, on rereading, I am distracted by thoughts of what the author believed, by what only passed as belief, and by what she might no longer have believed in.