When I was a kid, I adored Anne of Green Gables. I read those books over and over again, especially the first three. I loved Anne’s warmth, her spunk, her sense of humor, her big vocabulary, her love of reading and writing. In fact, I was so enamored of Anne that I never looked farther afield. I heard about the Emily books, but I never sought them out. Even later, when I read some of L.M. Montgomery’s books for adult audiences (The Blue Castle, Jane of Lantern Hill) and an excellent biography (Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings, by Mary Rubio) I never thought to read about Emily.
Recently, I found myself in a situation where the only books I had to choose from were the books in my daughter’s bookcase. Lo and behold, a pristine Emily trilogy! I figured this would pass the time — I wasn’t expecting to be completely drawn in and fascinated.
At first glance, Emily’s story looks a lot like Anne’s. Emily Starr’s beloved father dies at the beginning of the first book, leaving her an orphan. She must go and stay with her two unmarried aunts (Elizabeth and Laura) and her Uncle Jimmy, even though she is well aware that they are only taking her out of duty. She, like Anne, is a reader and especially a writer. She, like Anne, has a passionate adoration of nature, especially trees, and has a penchant for naming the places around her.
But these books, written almost 20 years after the first Anne books were published, are surprisingly different. Almost the first thing I noticed is that this is decidedly Emily’s story. We get to see her thoughts, read her diary, feel her outrage and her joy. The other characters in the book are well-drawn, but we get only glimpses of deeper understanding or motivation. Even her best friends are mostly there as foils for Emily. For instance, unlike Anne’s slow-growing and deep relationship with Marilla, Emily achieves a sort of detente with her stern Aunt Elizabeth. We get a sense of Aunt Elizabeth’s bewilderment, the way she feels out of her depth raising a child like Emily, and the slow shoots of pride that grow when Emily begins to earn money from her writing. But it’s Emily’s orphaned sadness that we really feel, her anger when Aunt Elizabeth refuses to hear her side of a story, her own growing sense of family pride.
These are books about ambition. Emily wants to be a writer — and not just any kind of writer. She wants to be a great writer. Her greatest thrills in these novels come not from friendship or romance (though there is plenty of both) but from the moments when someone reads what she’s written and tells her it’s good, whether that comes in the form of her teacher’s opinion or a poem being accepted to a magazine. She won’t accept anything less than the best from herself, and when a close friend tells her that her first novel is just “pretty cobwebs” instead of something more substantive, her reaction is radical. The “alpine path” that she has chosen to climb is difficult and sometimes heartbreaking; sometimes it reveals more about her friends’ and family’s insecurity than it does about Emily. Nevertheless, she persists.
Emily’s closest friends, Teddy, Perry, and Ilse, are also talented children (and, eventually, adults) with difficult families. Teddy’s mother is so attached to him that she hates anything he loves, since it might “take him away from her.” (Her psychology is one of the most interesting minor things about these novels.) Ilse’s father ignores her for the first twelve or so years of her life because of something her mother did. Perry was born in “Stovepipe Town” and has ground to make up because of his class. The four of them forge ahead, supporting each other and watching each other’s talents grow.
The Emily books are significantly darker than the Anne books. Montgomery allows grown-up secrets, about adultery, death, the way trauma can warp our relationships, and the limitations of class and gender, to penetrate and inform the children’s lives. There is willful cruelty here, and deliberate manipulation, and stubborn rejection of love. There are also a couple of brushes against the supernatural — Emily’s “flash” and her occasional ability to know something she has no reason to know — that give just a hint of strange forces.
These books are also more overtly feminist than the Anne books. Don’t get me wrong, I think Anne is a strong female character and that there are many in the Anne books, from all walks of life, including Marilla, Miss Stacy, and Mrs. Lynde. However, Emily’s ambition puts these novels on a different footing. She is determined to make money by her writing, and she does it. And while there is a certain “meant-to-be” romantic arc, it’s far more troubled than Anne’s, and I (for one) was not certain whether we would ever get to a happy ending. This signals to me that the romance is not the important part of these books — it’s Emily, learning who she is and who she wants to be.
I have enjoyed L.M. Montgomery so much in the past that I don’t know why these books surprised me so much. I hardly wanted to put them down! I’d love to hear what you thought of them.