Emily of New Moon – L.M. Montgomery/ Susan O’Malley

I read through just about all the L.M. Montgomerys last year, except for Emily. The main reason was that I simply couldn’t find Emily of New Moon (still can’t find the book). There was a small, faint secondary cause in that I never loved Emily Byrd Starr as much as Anne Shirley or Pat Gardiner or Valancy Stirling. I don’t know why. Perhaps the proto-sixties name? Perhaps the more strongly emphasized “queerness” of the girl – where Anne is queer in her intelligence and dreaminess, Emily is all that and more. (I always wonder if there really are children like Emily – or Anne, or Paul, or, straying outside of LMM, Jane Eyre. I mean, I think I can safely say I was what LMM often calls a “queer” child, but I don’t think I attempted the vocabulary these kids do.) Perhaps it is the tendency toward first-person narrative through Emily’s letters to her father; even when I was a child I was not fond of a child’s point of view.

Or it might have been the whole story’s beginning. It’s not fun, and it’s not fast. Young Emily’s father is ill; before he can tell her properly, Ellen Green (the Help) announces to Emily that he is dying; he spends a sweet week or so assuring her of his lack of fear and propping up her courage, and then dies. And the next several chapters dwell on the days that follow, on Emily’s pain and others’ inevitable misinterpretation of her brave front, and the negotiations amongst her mother’s kin about who will take charge of her. Six chapters later she arrives at New Moon (not a spoiler, since, you know, it’s in the title), and begins her new life. It was beautifully done, but where Anne’s story starts with hope and suspense and Pat’s starts with security and love, Emily’s starts with fear and death. And yet it isn’t a death like others in the Montgomery canon: we get to know Douglas Starr just a little before he’s gone. It’s a loss – he would have been a terrific character to spend more time with, especially since fathers are scarce in LMM’s PEI – and I confess to being moved by his explanation to Emily about what was happening, but if I cried (and I’m not saying I did) it was more out of sympathy for the bereaved child and the beauty of the writing than the grief that is such a part of other losses in Anne’s and Pat’s worlds.

Or, perhaps, it was the foreknowledge that however things work out, there will be pain for someone. Emily is the object of two of her friends’ affections: Teddy and Perry both, in their own ways, intend to marry her one day. And then of course there is Dean. (One of my favorite moments in anything I’ve read this year is when Dean tells her he will wait for her – and Emily interprets this in a much more immediate setting.) At least two of these as men will be disappointed, and it is fairly clear that it will not be a minor disappointment. The stage is set for a tragedy of anxiety on Emily’s part and crushed hopes for two people that she loves but is not in love with … Happily, while I have my strong suspicions, I can’t remember how it all does play out, and I can hold out hope for the one I think will be hurt most if he is not the one. (It is rather spectacular reading this as if for the first time – new Lucy Maude Montgomery! Rare and wonderful.)

I do like Emily, although … no. No, I don’t love her as I love Anne (or Valancy or Pat). I wonder if they would like each other; I think they both have the gift of friendship (as Anne is somewhere described) – Anne rather more than Emily – but I don’t somehow see them being deeply bound kindred spirits and bosom friends. They are, perhaps, too much alike while still – thank goodness – being very different. L.M.M. did not repeat herself. Despite the vocabulary, the cleverness, the orphan status, the dreaminess, the poetry, Emily is still very different from Anne, and it sets some expectations on their heads. What would have gutted Anne and kept her out of school for months or forever just makes Emily mad and determined to not be gotten the better of: she is knocked down, but bounces back up at once, writes about what happened in an outpouring of a letter to her father, and puts it behind her. (I wish I could do that so well.) Anne never lacked for courage, but her spirit was over-sensitive (I know whereof I speak). Perhaps it is partly her adversarial friendship with vivid, ferocious Ilse that helps Emily to put conflicts aside and move on; Anne’s best friend is mild and willing to follow where she leads, and not as quick and sharp as she. The two heroines’ trials and tribulations are not wildly different in essence – each has teacher issues, each has hair issues, each has a frightening experience in a spare room bed (leading me to wonder if Emily grew out of discarded drafts for Anne) – but the details and circumstances are very different.

I do love Emily’s companions, both imaginary and flesh and blood. I was never this creative in invisible friends; I had an invisible horse (in appearance and name taken from a book, I admit) who ran alongside the car when we went anywhere, and I could see her following the topography of the verge, jumping over obstacles and keeping up easily. I’m surprised I didn’t steal the Wind Woman. Emily’s flesh-and-blood friends, Ilse and Teddy and Perry, are well-realized and realistic, and I enjoyed all three of them: Ilse Burnley, the poor wild child whose mother vanished so long ago and whose father won’t forgive anyone for it, especially his daughter; hired boy Perry Miller (poor in a different way) who says he’s going to be Prime Minister one day and who is confirmed in this prediction by the narrator; Teddy Kent (poor in yet a third way), the dreamy sweet boy who draws even more fluently than Emily writes and whose mother is extremely alarming in this age of Criminal Minds and CSI.

Something that shocked me a little was how high kitten mortality is in this book. I don’t remember this in other LMM’s; I remember the cat Anne & co tried and failed to euthanize (Rusty), but otherwise all deaths are of natural causes. At New Moon and its surrounds, though, there is carnage. I don’t remember being bothered by it as a teen or tween or whatever I was when I read this first, though, which surprises me; I would have thought it would leave scars.

As the drowning of superfluous cats is a commonplace in this setting, and unthinkable here and now, so are a few other things through the book. Hopefully, for one, Mrs. Kent, whose attitudes are commonly known, would, today, have been helped or separated from Teddy. Another: the teaching methods of Miss Brownell would – hopefully – have been checked long ago. And for another – and this is not, I think, so positive as the rest – the amount of time Dean Priest spends with Emily wandering the countryside would be looked askance upon today. A thirty-six year old man simply can’t spend hours upon hours alone with a twelve year old girl without raising eyebrows, if not alarms. And it’s horrible that it has to be so – and it really does have to be so. Then, there was never the hint of a suspicion of an insinuation that the relationship was anything other than wholesome and happy and nurturing. Now the police and child welfare services would have been alerted after the first visit.

The writing is still a source of great joy for me. I’ve decided my attachment to adjective and description (and italics) goes back to early and prolonged exposure to (along with Tolkien) L.M. Montgomery:

Blair Water people thought Cousin Jimmy a failure and a mental weakling, but he dwelt in an ideal world of which none of them knew anything. He had recited his poems a hundred times thus as he boiled the pigs’ potatoes. The ghosts of a score of autumns haunted the clump of spruces for him. He was an odd, ridiculous figure enough, bent and wrinkled and unkempt, gesticulating awkwardly as he recited, but it was his hour. He was no longer “simple Jimmy Murray” but a prince of his own realm. For a little while, he was strong, and young, and splendid, and beautiful, a credited master of song to a listening, enraptured world. None of his prosperous, sensible Blair Water neighbors ever lived through such an hour. He would not have exchanged places with one of them.

Emily listened to him; felt vaguely that, if it had not been for that unlucky push into the New Moon well, this queer little man beside her might have stood in the presence of kings. But Elizabeth had pushed him into the New Moon well, and as a consequence he boiled pigs’ potatoes and recited to Emily.

Well, if over-using adjective helps me approach what LMM accomplished, so be it. The books would not be the same without the profusion of flowers and trees, of sunsets and seascapes, and I would never want them to be different.

As for the audiobook… Susan O’Malley is not my favorite of narrators. I’m wondering if her older Emily is a more pleasant voice than her eleven-year-old Emily, if she recorded the other books in the trilogy (note: she did not – the other Emily books are not up on Audible); I’m afraid I don’t admire her children’s voices. Or her men’s. Laura’s is nice, I have to say. Overall, though, I’m sorry to say she reminds me of someone I speak to fairly often at work, whose response to a courteous “how are you?” is always “*sigh* Oh, okay…” There’s an inherent discontent to that tone, and it doesn’t fit.

There are some audio typos which are extremely unfortunate, and I’m puzzled as to why a publisher’s recording was not … er, proofread. Errors like this in Librivox I can understand and pardon, but in something created for sale I don’t get it. I wonder, though, how it works; does it ever happen that some lackey with the publisher listens to the audiobook with the text in hand? Or does it all depend on whether errors are caught at the time of recording? Examples: Instead of “a can of bait” she says “bat”. A sky is powered with stars rather than powdered with them. One mistake which illustrates the desirability to use different initials for major characters was a reference to “Emily Green” instead of Ellen Green – that was startling. So was an instance of “Rhoda Starr” instead of Rhoda Stuart (and oh why are the only Stewarts or Stuarts in LMM this nasty little bint and Christine?). Other times a sentence’s meaning is shifted by emphasis: she inserts a pause after “autumn” in the phrase “her first autumn there”, which makes it sound as though it is Emily’s first autumn ever rather than her first at New Moon. There is a great deal of that throughout, a sort of lack of conviction at the end of a sentence undermining the conclusion of it; it’s just short of the obnoxious habit of a great many teenagers to end all sentences on an upward, questioning inflection.

Even so, I became used to it and I’m rather sorry there is no audiobook for Emily Climbs or Emily’s Quest. But … the book is still not one of my favorites among the LMM’s, for some reason I still can’t put a finger on. I love Cousin Jimmy. I love Dean Priest. I enjoy the foursome of children, and Aunt Laura. I came to admire Aunt Elizabeth. But somehow none of it connects as deeply.

I won’t make this a bi-fold review, but I watched the first episode of the Canadian TV series based on Emily, and it was bizarre: Emily befriends an Indian boy and protects him at school, and her father falls from a ladder while fixing the roof and slowly expires from that. Her mother haunts her, and so do other apparitions, and altogether it made me wonder what book the program’s writers were referencing (and whether they were mixing medications). Emily is a solitary and strange ten-year-old, and does not go to school. Her father is consumptive, and has been slowly dying for years. Her mother is a distant lovely memory, and her imagination never supplies such creations as shown. (And Stephen McHattie plays Uncle Jimmy – ? Whoa.) (Apropos of nothing, he was born in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. I’ve been through there – I love that name.) I do wonder why folk undertake to make films out of books when the films bear almost no resemblance to the books. And how on earth do people go from the lovely, warm, humane prose of L.M. Montgomery to the travesties I have seen on television? It is – pardon the jump to another old favorite – inconceivable.

(Well for heaven’s sake – why didn’t I find this when I was hunting? Emily is available on Project Gutenberg Australia.)

My review of Emily Climbs
My review of Emily’s Quest

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4 Responses to Emily of New Moon – L.M. Montgomery/ Susan O’Malley

  1. Pingback: Emily Climbs – L.M. Montgomery « Stewartry

  2. Pingback: Emily’s Quest – L.M. Montgomery « Stewartry

  3. Pingback: Anne of Green Gables – L.M. Montgomery / Karen Savage « Stewartry

  4. Pingback: Anne of Green Gables – L.M. Montgomery / Karen Savage | Stewartry

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