Re-reading Emily: L.M. Montgomery, Again

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).

Emilys Quest StackNot 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.

EONM RereadingAnd 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.

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2017-07-24T18:42:46+00:00

18 Comments

  1. Rachel May 24, 2017 at 9:14 am - Reply

    I’ve never read Emily of New Moon, but I’ve always wanted to. I love of the idea of re-reading old favorites, but sometimes I do fear that I might not enjoy as much as I did as a child. Hopefully I can take some time this summer to revisit some of my old favorites.

    • Buried In Print May 24, 2017 at 9:47 am - Reply

      I think I had a way of reading when I was young that I’m not able to emulate as an older reader. That way of falling into a story, blocking out everything else? But there are also a lot of things which I capture as an older reader (not the sadness here, necessarily, but other things) so I think it evens out. I look forward to hearing about some of your rereading this summer!

  2. Alley May 23, 2017 at 7:28 pm - Reply

    I love the idea of rereading old favs like this, but it’s sort of a bittersweet bummer when during a reread you realize some not-the-best stuff.

    • Buried In Print May 24, 2017 at 9:45 am - Reply

      And, yet, there are sombre things in life to be experienced, and most often I turn to books to help with that process; when I first read LMM’s journals, I found getting acquainted with her solitary writerly-nature on those pages to be a kind of companionship at the time, but now that I understand how much she edited those, I think my imagination scurries away from me, imagining her to be so much more lonely, more alone, more desperate.

  3. valorie grace hallinan May 21, 2017 at 7:11 am - Reply

    This is a beautiful post about Emily – thank you.

  4. Elizabeth May 20, 2017 at 5:12 pm - Reply

    I’ve been rereading the Emily books as well, while also introducing them to my nine-year old daughter for the first time. She enjoys girl-Emily, but like your childhood self, she lost interest when Emily became interested in boys. I think it will be a while before she finished book 2. I was worried about how she would react to Emily losing her father (she took it in stride) and surprised at how much she sobbed over the unfairness of Emily’s aunt making her leave her cat behind. I was deeply affected by the death of Emily’s father this time (I don’t remember it bothering me much as a kid). I suspect that’s partly because I am now a parent and also because I lost my own father as a teenager. I’m a different person on this reading, so it’s like a different book for me.

    • Buried In Print May 23, 2017 at 7:33 am - Reply

      Your last statement makes me think of Rebecca Mead’s book about rereading Middlemarch; rereading is so interesting. The last Anne book that I read as a girl was Anne of Windy Poplars, for the same reason. In fact, if I hadn’t always loved books of letters, I probably would have skipped that one too, because I still remember how Gilbert and Anne’s endearments and professions of love bored and frustrated me. I knew she wasn’t going to be having any more slate-incidents or waterway adventures if she got all serious about falling in love! I was in my ’30s before I forgave Emily for growing up and read on in the series beyond the first book. (Hopefully your daughter doesn’t make Emily wait that long – she’s a lonely character and could use more reader friends!) As a girl, I always glossed over the beginning of this Emily story (same with the 3/4 scene in Anne) to avoid the scenes surrounding her father’s death; I can imagine how you would have received that scene differently, and think how fortunate it is that your daughter was able to simply take it in stride.

    • Buried In Print May 23, 2017 at 10:08 am - Reply

      (That’s my least favourite scene in the book, too: when Emily had to leave Mike behind, choosing Saucy Sal instead. When I began to reread EoNM, I had to sneak ahead and read the end of that scene before resuming the reread proper, so that it was all dealt with and Saucy Sal had a home, even though Mike would have to “make do”.)

  5. Naomi May 20, 2017 at 2:37 pm - Reply

    You’ve captured the mood of Emily so well in this post. After reading it, I’m feeling sad and lonely – for Emily when she realizes her old friendships can never be the same (and isn’t that true for many of us?) – and for LMM when I think about her bouts of depression. Knowing about LMM’s life definitely makes reading about Emily harder and sadder. When I was young, I was able to gloss right over those parts and allow only the happy parts to stick. Like Anne. This time around it was a lot darker.

    I’m glad you were able to read the books with us. I also love that LMM writes stories about ordinary life. Those are often my favorite kind of stories. 🙂

    • Buried In Print May 23, 2017 at 7:25 am - Reply

      It’s strange, isn’t it? Because one of the aspects about her stories which I love most is her heroines’ devotion to and love of their homes, their sense of belonging to places. That’s just so wonderful, and both Anne and Emily (and so many of the others, too) have this quality. And, yet, Emily remains so lonely through all of it. This recalls Emily White’s book, too, on being lonely, and I wonder how much comfort LMM might have found in the idea that she was not alone in being lonely (because she was such a reader, that I think she would have found a copy).

      • Naomi May 23, 2017 at 10:17 am - Reply

        I was also struck this time around by how lonely Emily always seemed to be, while at the same time remembering that she had chosen to stay home rather than move to New York, because she wanted to be stay where she felt inspired. I didn’t want her to be so lonely – I wanted her to love being at New Moon, whether she was alone or not. Because LMM’s heroines are never alone as long as they have the wind and the trees.
        So, I wondered – why is she so lonely? But I think she would have been lonely in New York, too, because you can feel lonely anywhere. I don’t think it came from *where* she was, but *who* she was. Which is something I would never have thought about when I was young.

  6. Caroline May 20, 2017 at 12:43 pm - Reply

    I never reread because I worry too much about. Being disappointed. There’s a Anne of Green Gables readalong that I might join because I’ve actually never read it.
    I enjoyed your post very much.

    • Buried In Print May 23, 2017 at 7:22 am - Reply

      Thanks, Caroline. I understand your reservations. For the most part, however, my rereads have been surprisingly satisfying. I was quite concerned about rereading a Judy Blume novel a few years back, but it was every bit as good. And even though the language in some of my old favourites was definitely dated (‘gosh’ and “golly”) the stories were still solid. The only one I can think of which was disppointing? Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, but perhaps it was simply impossible to have adored it as much as I did on first reading (I stopped rereading after a chapter).

  7. kaggsysbookishramblings May 20, 2017 at 11:04 am - Reply

    Re-reads can be a double-edged sword, can’t they? The risk of losing a wonderful memory because we’re older, our perspectives have changed and we see things differently. And of course as younger readers we don’t always know the background of the author and book. Very interesting post!

    • Buried In Print May 23, 2017 at 7:16 am - Reply

      I think I had the concept of an “author” sooner than some kids, but I certainly did not understand that that author was a whole and complete person, separate from the stories themselves (anymore than any adult was actually a whole and complete person separate from me – given that the world revolved around me) and everything is certainly much less complicated in that worldview.

  8. Sarah Emsley May 20, 2017 at 5:56 am - Reply

    What a thoughtful, powerful post on rereading Emily. You’ve described the experience of rereading a childhood favourite beautifully — that desire to be like the heroine, as she used to be, in the playhouse where order and beauty can be and will be restored. And the reality of discovering that the story, the heroine, the author, and the world she describes are all far more complicated than one’s childhood self could have known.

    • Buried In Print May 23, 2017 at 7:14 am - Reply

      Thanks, Sarah. The experience of reading her journals has affected my rereading in addition to the usual rereading issues, but even more so following the revelations about the nature of her death (several years ago now). I’ve reread several of the books since then and still have one fresh read remaining (The Tangled Web).

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