The project: The Incomparable Ms Montgomery. The raison d’être of this blog. 20 novels, 530 short stories, 500 poems, and 30 essays.
The framing and lens of childhood is a peculiarly unique thing. Thoughts, experiences and world views are constrained by a lack of knowing and conditioned by only a few powerful influences.
For me, it was my parents, and what ever books I could get my hands on, (we often had no television). Laura Ingalls, Lewis Carroll, C S Lewis, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Kathryn Kenny, Enid Blyton and a myriad of other authors subtly and not-so-subtly developed my frame of reference. But none so much as Lucy Maud Montgomery.
I’m not sure if it was just a matter of encountering them at EXACTLY the right time; or the surprise that someone had written out all the things I actually felt; or even just the introduction to a world that was so dissimilar, and yet populated with the same characters I encountered in real life.
(country churches y’all – they are a melting pot of the strange and the weird and the old…)
Whichever, they became touchstones.
My first introduction was to Anne. I was 9. Our school librarian, possibly at her wits end, because I had read every single child’s book they had and was still looking for more, alighted on it and thrusting this green-covered book into my hands, said, ‘Here, the heroine has red hair – like yours – you should like it.’
Lifelong friendships have been built on far less. And I wasn’t that picky: I was currently choosing school friends based on their lunch-break eating choices.
My grown up friendship picking hasn’t changed all that much really…
But whether it was because of the red hair simpatico or not, Anne of Green Gables came to lodge at my house, and shortly after, the rest of her green-backed family joined her. Avonlea, Windy Willows, Rainbow Valley, Ingleside. I read and re-read.
The covers helped enormously.
Margaret Power is the most AMAZING cover illustrator. It is like she tunnelled into my brain and found out exactly what I thought Anne and Emily should really look like…
Emily came along a little bit later. I found her mouldering away in a pile of books at a garage sale and recognised the cover-style
(see? there is something to be said for distinctive matching covers!)
I grabbed her and took her home and read her three times over the next week.
This is my first re-read in about 10years.
I always remember Emily of New Moon as being a book that you sink into…and Emily being a fiery and brave character that I admired and wished I was even the slightest bit like.
And the cats. I remember the cats. So many cats. I think I may only be a cat-person, because of the way Montgomery describes them in her books!
My re-read was SO interesting, and whilst I have, in the past re-read and found the stories wanting; this time round was fabulous.
Emily’s story starts with a tight knit family, which disintegrates around her. She becomes an orphan at age 10 and a problem for her clan. A Murray has to step up and take her in, but no-one really wants to. They think her impertinent and precocious.
So they draw lots. Actual LOTS, like they do in the Bible (!)
The spinster aunts and Jimmy of New Moon end up with her. Thus Emily’s new life, in a new house, with new people, begins.
SOO much happens in the book. A basic record of Emily and her various adventures from the age of 10 through age 12 or 13.
I won’t go through it all here (TOTAL spoilers) plus there is far too much, but there are certain elements and parts that really stood out, which I will list (SORT-OF spoilers…)
The book is interspersed with Emily’s diary-like entries initially written to the memory of her father. First on the blank sides of bills, and then later in her Jimmy-Books. Emily’s musings are a quaint combination of run-on sentences, daily happenings, story-like portions that she is pondering, and touches of her intrinsic sense of the magical and whimsical. The spelling starts off terribly, and as she grows and matures (and gets hold of a thesaurus), they improve.
Her writing is this delightful stream of consciousness that trickles through the book. It gives a depth and insight of character knowledge that would never be there otherwise. It’s clever and I remember on my first read, being a little impatient of the diary-bits. In my re-reads I tended to skip over them and I can’t understand why – they are SO good.
‘DEAR FATHER: I am here in the garret. The Wind Woman is very sorry about something to-night. She is sying so sadly around the window. And yet the first time I heard her to-night the flash came–I felt as if I had just seen something that happened long, long ago- –something so lovely that it hurt me. Cousin Jimmy says there will be a snow storm to-night. I am glad.
I like to hear a storm at night. It’s so cosy to snuggle down among the blankets and feel it can’t get at you. Only when I snuggle Aunt Elizabeth says I skwirm. The idea of any one not knowing the difference between snuggling and skwirming.’
‘Cousin Jimmy says that a man in Priest Pond says the end of the world is coming soon. I hope it won’t come till I’ve seen everything in it.’
‘Ilse’s Sunday-school teacher, Miss Willeson, gave her a Bible for learnig 200 verses. But when she took it home her father laid it on the floor and kicked it out in the yard. Mrs Simms says a judgment will come on him but nothing has happened yet…’
‘My pig died last week. It was a GREAT FINANSHUL LOSS to me. Aunt Elizabeth says Cousin Jimmy fed it too well. I suppose I should not have called it after Lofty John…’
Emily is such a vivid and daring person. Possibly her orphan-status makes her more intrepid? But she is so admirable and far braver at her age than I ever was. (Possibly far braver than I am even now…)
She says things I wish I could have always said when I was a kid.
Aunt Elizabeth jerked open the cook-house door.
‘Emily Starr, haven’t you learned by this time not to listen?’
‘I wasn’t listening. I thought you knew I was sitting here–I can’t help my ears HEARING. Why didn’t you WHISPER? When you whisper I know you’re talking secrets and I don’t try to hear them.’
She is determined to be a writer and nothing will stop her. Not the lack of paper, the ban from reading books, the burning of her manuscripts, the various punishments for being caught writing. She is relentlessly single-minded in her pursuit.
(because I couldn’t resist)
Emily collects a tightknit group of odd-one-out friends:
- Ilse, the doctor’s daughter, whose mother ran away with a sailor, and is consequently shunned by the town, and by her father (because she looks like her mother); she wants to be an actress;
- Teddy, an obviously talented artist, with a strange mother who would definitely have been described as having severe depression and mental-health issues (Dept of Children Services would totally have taken Teddy off her, today);
- and Perry, a poor-kid from Stovepipe (the wrong side of the tracks) who is big with ambition to become the next premier, or something political.
I love that all of them have AMBITION to be bigger than their circumscribed limits. They dream big. Far bigger than anyone else, and they support each other in that.
In a sense, they are all orphans, each only having one-parent-figure and that figure not caring for or loving them they way they should. Add Emily to the mix with her guardian spinster aunts, and they are all suffering from some form of love-depredation and loss. So unconsciously, they become their own family.
There is a suspense element (involving Ilse) to the story arc, which I did not even remember, and the solving of this is (of course) tantamount to Emily and her intrinsic sense of other-worldliness. In fact, in most things, Emily usually comes up trumps. Not only is she a special snowflake with talent, but her determination to ignore all nay-sayers, usually works out well for her.
I have to admit, my first reintroduction to Emily, was a little off putting; the first chapter has her (and her father) scorning the live-in housekeeper in a horrid way:
Emily muttered under her breath for her own satisfaction, “You are a fat old thing of no importance!”
Douglas Starr was silent for a moment. Then he said under his breath, “The old fool–the FAT old fool!”–as if Ellen’s fatness was an added aggravation of her folly. Again, for the last time, Emily hoped. Perhaps it was all a dreadful mistake–just some more of Ellen’s fat foolishness.
Emily, with an eloquent glance at Ellen’s hands, went and got a dish-towel. “Your hands are fat and pudgy,” she said. “The bones don’t show at all.”
But, this is only instance of fat-shaming I can remember in the book. Plus, given that her father was dying (of the dreaded consumption) I can understand the emotional upheaval they were all going through.
Interesting side note: Characters dying of consumption crops up a lot with Montgomery: there was one in The Blue Castle, another in the Anne series (Ruby?) plus Emily’s father now; as well as the additional fears about Emily herself… quelle intriguing non?
The other thing I wanted to mention:
Dean Priest. Also known as Jar-Back Priest. Emily’s initial encounter with him happens towards the latter end, when he rescues her from falling off a cliff.
I remember him as a romantic anti-hero with biting wit and a kindred soul to Emily. He always seemed haunting and sad in a poetic way.
My reintroduction to him makes me feel a little sqwicky to say the least. Dean Priest comes off as creepy and leery and controlling. When he first meets Emily, he calculatingly decides that she would do quite well for him, in about 10 years of so, so would wait.
He was 36.
She WAS 12.
That is not romantic. That is wrong. Even in 1923.
The encounters that follow (which when I was 16 seemed oh-so-fairytale-like and I used to swoon over) now seem manipulative and assessing:
‘Well, do you think me handsome?’ he said, sitting down on another stone and smiling at her. His voice was beautiful–musical and caressing.
‘What worries me about writing novels,’ confided Emily ‘is the love talk in them. I’m sure I’ll never be able to write it. I’ve tried,’ she concluded candidly, ‘and I can’t think of ANYTHING to say.’
‘Don’t worry about that. I’ll teach you some day,’ said Dean.
‘Will you–will you really?’ Emily was very eager. ‘I’ll be so obliged if you will. I think I could manage everything else very nicely.’
‘It’s a bargain then–don’t forget it. And don’t go looking for another teacher, mind.’
‘Oh, I’m so glad I like you,’ said Emily impulsively. ‘It would be HATEFUL to think any one I didn’t like had saved my life. I don’t mind YOUR saving it a bit.’
‘That’s good. Because you see your life belongs to me henceforth. Since I saved it it’s mine. Never forget that.’
Emily felt an odd sensation of rebellion. She didn’t fancy the idea of her life belonging to anybody but herself-
But: what outweighs everything is Montgomery’s writing. It is so naturalistic and visceral. I think one of the most important things Montgomery did for my childhood (and reminded me again on my reread) was to make me aware of the the minutiae – the details. The anthropomorphisation of the natural world. The wind becomes a woman, the trees, characters.
Her books are filled with a creation that is edged into existence in a real, human way, which in turn makes me relate to it in a different way. It makes me CARE about it more and defies me to forget about it.
Nature as visual markers, partnering with people in witnessing the events of life that pass them by.
I won’t ever forget that.
Next Up: Emily Climbs; probably about this same time next month…It is also available free on Project Guetenberg. It is a .html file, but you can save and convert to e-book via Calibre… (if you’re a little geeky like moi, and interested)
Valancy: now wanting to make cheese because:
‘Aunt Elizabeth had begun making cheese–New Moon was noted for its cheeses–and Emily found the whole process absorbing, from the time the rennet was put in the warm new milk till the white curds were packed away in the hoop and put under the press in the old orchard, with the big, round, grey “cheese” stone to weight it down as it had weighed down New Moon cheeses for a hundred years.’