Emily of New Moon by L M Montgomery

When I wrote about my disappointments with the Anne of Green Gables sequels, lots of people told me that I’d love Emily of New Moon much more, and that it was better than Anne of Green Gables because Emily is a much less traditional character, and more ambitious. I was intrigued by this, and swiftly snapped up a beautiful copy of the first volume in the trilogy, which I promptly let languish on the TBR pile for several months until I decided that this week was the time to add some more L M Montgomery into my life.

In short, Emily of New Moon is simply charming. It tells that all too familiar, typical L M Montgomery  tale of a poor orphan girl going to live with strangers, her vivacity and goodness of heart winning their love despite many difficulties and her beauty and unique personality earning the devotion of a motley crew of locals, while also managing to find the time to develop a precocious writing talent and spend hours sitting at windows, looking across the beautiful P.E.I landscape and dreaming wonderful dreams of fame and fortune without forgetting to be humble and appreciative of her blessings. It sounds terribly trite and twee and it is, I suppose, but that doesn’t make it a bad book, somehow. This is Montgomery’s skill. Emily might be lovely and earnest and adored by everyone she meets, but she’s also a grieving orphan, a frustrated artist, a sensitive soul tortured by her own mistakes and incredibly eager to earn the love of her Aunts who have taken her in. Her mixture of vulnerability and daring boldness make her wonderfully endearing from the very first page.

As the novel opens, Emily, whose mother died years before, is faced with the impending death of her father, who has that classic Victorian illness; the dreaded consumption. His death is a devastating blow, not the least because Emily is to be farmed off to one of her beautiful, enchanting mother’s much older siblings, none of whom particularly want her. After the funeral, lots are drawn, and Emily ends up going with Aunt Elizabeth, Aunt Laura and Cousin Jimmy, two spinsters and a simpleton, who live together at New Moon, a rambling farm on the other side of the island. Aunt Elizabeth is cold, caustic and totally lacking in any affection; she will do her duty by Emily and nothing more. Aunt Laura, dominated by her older sister, is warm and maternal, and dotes on Emily behind Elizabeth’s back. Cousin Jimmy is sensitive and understanding, and while he may be a little slow due to a serious head injury as a child, his imagination and gift for writing poetry echoes Emily’s own, and they become fast friends.

For the first time, Emily goes to school, and suffers the torture of being the unfashionable new girl, who misunderstands the social cues and finds herself lonely as a consequence. Her teacher is a horrible woman, undeserving of the name ‘teacher’, who lives to mock her pupils and bestows her favours only on the rich and prettily dressed little girls. Emily falls foul of her straight away due to her unfortunate knack of daydreaming during lessons and her unstoppable urge to write poetry rather than solve arithmetic puzzles. However, this isn’t enough to stop Emily’s zest for learning, and her friendships blossom after a few initial false steps; the fascinating, blazing Ilse, the lively Perry and the charming Tom become her permanent companions, and though the sadness of her father’s death still hovers, with the joy of these friendships and the love of Laura and Jimmy, Emily quickly finds happiness in New Moon.

Emily’s delight in life is also due to her joy in writing – she cannot help but write. She writes letters to her father about her life in New Moon, from scathing character studies of her Aunt, teacher and friends, to her dreams and ambitions. She bares her soul on paper, and writes wonderfully juvenile stories and poems that run as far as her imagination, and her pen, can go. Her writing gives her a much treasured outlet for her rich inner life and I adored reading her scribblings – so much of what she wrote reminded me of the awful things I used to write in my old childhood diaries, and the earnestly written, terrible stories about twins (was anyone else obsessed with twins?) and wonderful houses I wished I lived in, and children who lived on farms, which was another obsession of mine. What I loved the most though was how Emily matured over the novel, and how what she chose to write reflected that process. By the end of the book, she can look back at the letters she wrote when she arrived at New Moon, and recognise how juvenile and silly they are. However, she is not discouraged by this; she just sees how far she has come, and how much further she will go.

Emily of New Moon is an intriguing book, and Emily is an intriguing character. She is lively, soulful, ambitious, and very real, but she lacks the breathless charm of Anne in the first of the Green Gables books. As much as I liked her, I didn’t love her. The supporting cast are not as strong as Anne’s, either; Aunt Elizabeth may thaw a little towards the end, but she is no Marilla, and Cousin Jimmy is wise and encouraging, but there is a slight air of menace about him that makes it difficult to adore him as I did Matthew. I found the treatment of the women in the book rather simplistic; they are either frustrated spinsters or angelic married women who got killed off young for obviously being too happy and too lovely, but all of the little girls have beaus and it’s clear that Emily’s future husband is already in the wings. From these portrayals are we to gather that marriage is a curse? Is spinsterhood a curse too? If so, then what is the alternative? Montgomery doesn’t appear to present one. As such, I was left a little confused as to what L M Montgomery was trying to say about a woman’s place in her society, and the feminist in me rankled at many of her depictions of female behaviours and the consequences of their lifestyle choices. Emily’s writing ambition is the main thrust of the novel, and I was thrilled to see her get ready to go to college by the end, but judging from the fate of the other women around her, and from her obligatory very early love interest, I have my doubts as to whether the sequels allow her to have the magnificent career she dreams of.

It’s very charming, and definitely worth a read as it really is a lovely, and funny, portrayal of a girl’s growth to maturity, but there was just *something* missing that I can’t quite put my finger on. Other people’s thoughts on the Emily series would be very welcome! Is it worth reading the sequels?

48 comments

  1. I read this books when I was a kid, so I don’t remember the details very well, but I do remember not liking them as much as the Anne of Green Gables books. I think your description of something ‘missing’ describes it quite well. Then again, my favourite Anne of Green Gables book is one of the sequels, Anne of the Island. I kind of want to go back and read them all again now to see how they all stack up…

    1. I do want to read the whole series and see how it pans out, but I can’t see myself being charmed by it in the way I was by Anne of Green Gables. However, saying that, I felt the sequels slacked off rather, especially after Anne of the Island, which I really enjoyed as well. A reread should be in order – they are such good comfort reads and perfect for hot sunny days.

  2. Oh, I loved Emily so much more than Anne when I was a girl. (They weren’t published in the US back then (and there was no internet, poor me!) but I snagged one from a Canadian publisher in a bookstore in northern Maine.) Anne was so annoying by contrast! I got so tired of her gushing mannerisms and overly-dramatic ways. I liked the darker elements of the Emily books, and without giving spoilers, I think you will be surprised by the sequels. Emily’s life isn’t all beaux and bouquets, and her writing NEVER is the hobby it becomes for Anne.

    Every time I read these books (and I love all the Montgomery novels), I am disturbed by how nearly-impossible women’s lives were back then – and it wasn’t really very long ago. Without an inherited income or overwhelming talent, their only hope for a decent life was to marry. If they were able to marry someone they loved, so much the better, but in the end they often had to accept men who fell far below their standards. Imagine the choice: forced into sexual intimacy with a man who at best bores you, and at worst despises and abuses you, but at least you control your household; or else become the “poor relation,” dependent for your food and bed on whichever relative will take you in. Montgomery, a gifted writer, still made the first choice. A tough life. Personally, I think what lifts the Montgomery novels out of the ordinary is her sly wit; I still find some scenes (like the family dinner scene in THE BLUE CASTLE) laugh-out-loud funny

    1. Mumsy, thank you for your wonderful insight. If you say the Emily books are better than the Annes, I will persevere. Anne does gush but I love the lightheartedness and joy of the books – perhaps I was expecting too much of the same from Emily and that’s why I found it lacking in comparison. I shall have to try and judge her on her own merits.

      Yes, it was absolutely terrible, wasn’t it? It makes me so thankful I was born in 1986 and not 1886. Having to marry someone you didn’t love just to be able to have any semblance of freedom and status is a terrible life to contemplate, and yet so many women had to suffer through this and have their personalities and dreams stifled because of it. And being a spinster must have been even worse, in many respects; having to rely on male relatives for charity must have been so humiliating and limiting. That bitterness of spirit in the Emily books is perhaps a result of Montgomery’s own unhappiness, and her concerns over the potentialities of women’s futures in such a male dominated world.

  3. Keep reading, keep reading!! You’ll see, Emily’s life at college and afterwards isn’t as predictable as you think, and Montgomery focuses interestingly on the problems of a writing career for a woman at the time. I have always loved Emily far more than Anne – in my opinion, Anne’s raptures about things that have “scope for the imagination” are more twee than Emily’s quiet earnestness. And there is a sadness and bitterness in the Emily books which is absent from the Anne books, and that make them more adult. Things don’t turn out as you’d expected or hoped – it’s so much more like real life in its attention to missed opportunities. Please read the rest of the trilogy!

    1. Miss Darcy, you have piqued my interest! I definitely agree with you on the sadness and bitterness, and maybe because I wasn’t expecting that angle, I found it unsatisfying compared to the lighthearted jolly feel of Anne of Green Gables. I like the idea of the attention to missed opportunities….I will endeavour to get around to the sequels at some point, thank you for convincing me!

  4. I’m not sure if this has put you off L.M. Montgomery for good, but if not, I recommend The Blue Castle. It explores some familiar L.M.M themes such as being misunderstood and downtrodden, but Valancy is an adult character, and seizes her adulthood to her advantage. It isn’t a very sophisticated book, but I’ve always found Valancy a very sympathetic character.

    This post has me thinking I should reread the “Emily” books. As a kid, I was much more attached to Anne (even her sequels). I always found a vaguely threatening undertone in the Emily books, and I never identified with Emily. I wonder now if I was missing something enormous. Thanks for the rereading prod.

    1. Absolutely not! I love the charm and comfort of her books and I want to eventually read them all. The Blue Castle was actually the first Montgomery I read and I absolutely loved it – very uplifting and the perfect read for me at the time.

      I hope you’ll reread the Emily books and find something else in them. I wonder what I would have thought of them as a child. I often regret not having read these classics when I was younger. While it’s lovely to discover classics as an adult, you do miss out on having that childhood perspective to draw on your experience of reading it later in life.

  5. Oh, Rachel, of course I’m sitting here gushing over the beautiful edition you have and know I would have snatched it up for the cover alone, not to mention that I have not read the “Emily” books. I would want to hold this treasure and ponder the young hands of all that read it before. You have an eye and a penchant for finding these books, don’t you?

    A wonderful review and the comments thus far have me as intrigued as you found Emily to be. Onto to the list it goes.

    By-the-way, I’m reading an fun and light book, Summer at Tiffany, which is a memoir of two college girls who head to Manhattan from Iowa to find a summer job and have some fun in NYC in 1945! The war is on, there is rationing, but, they are up for adventure and end up being the first female pages at Tiffany’s. Marjorie Hart writes this in her 80’s (I think she is still alive) and it is a dear little slice of history and a book you may want to check out.

    1. It’s lovely isn’t it, Penny? A cheap find on ebay no less! I am a bit of a magpie, I have to admit!

      Thank you – I hope you will manage to track down a copy and enjoy it for yourself.

      That does sound very interesting and right up my street, penny, thank you! I’ll see if I can get hold of it at the library!

  6. Definitely, keep reading the series! As others have said here, they are darker and not so predictable. I agree that Emily lacks Anne’s charm from Anne of Green Gables, but I think the series as a whole might be better than the Anne series. Certainly I think it’s more dramatic, and while there’s definitely a love story (or three – Montgomery fills her books with love stories), Emily wrestles with the tension between happily-ever-after and living her own life, much more than Anne ever did.

    1. Ok Kristin! You have intrigued me now! I will endeavour to get hold of the other books and finish the series. I like the idea that these are more realistic and a bit darker. I suspect perhaps the books get stronger as the series continues which I find is not the case with the Anne books.

  7. I love Emily, too, but like you, have always felt like something is missing.

    LMM wrote that Emily was her most autobiographical character, and I feel sometimes like the deep unhappiness she felt in her life, as a child (and later mother, and adult) was definitely reflected in the tone of this book. You have the abandonment of Emily by her mother’s people, the loss of her parents, the feeling of differentness and aloofness, the deep, dark moods, the thwarted love affairs…all of it happened to Maud, and all of it is atmospheric but jarring when it happens in the same pastoral setting as happy Anne’s story. Anne and Emily are polar opposites, I think, which was hard for me because I love Anne so. Still, I’d finish the series, though–it’s worth it.

    After Emily, there’s The Story Girl books, which are very sweet, and Pat of Silver Bush, which is much more lighthearted, but if you read the book, be prepared to want to throttle her! She is the most insufferable of LMM’s heroines by far.🙂

    1. That’s very interesting about it being so autobiographical, Constance. I only know the briefest of sketches about her life and so I can see how, as it was a sad and disappointing life, she has made Emily a more conflicted and unhappy character. I’ll do my best to finish the series and see Emily through to the end – it would be a shame not to now I’ve started!

      I want to try and read all of her series – I am desperate to read Jane of Lantern Hill as I have heard great things but it seems to be very tricky to get hold of!

  8. Rachel, I totally agree that Emily of New Moon is not as good as Anne of Green Gables. You are right in saying that Anne is a much more enchanting character than Emily. It’s been years since I read any of the Emily books, but if I remember right, Emily is more reserved. There is something about her that she withholds from the reader which makes her less likeable than Anne. She is also very focused on her ambition; Anne, on the other hand, was a more rounded individual. It’s funny because I am also a reserved, focused, ambitious person, but I don’t really warm to Emily myself though I did enjoy these books. The books are really about two very different people.

    It’s interesting what you say about woman’s roles in Emily of New Moon. Maybe only allowing women to be unhappy spinsters and to encounter sad ends as married women reflects L. M. Montgomery’s life more than anything else. Her mother died young, and L. M. Montgomery married late, having lived a lonely life with first both her grandparents and then just her grandmother for many years. Possibly, she doesn’t write from any well thought out standpoint on the issue but more from the gut, her emotions, and her experience of life. Maybe, she was also following conventions to a certain extent? I’m not sure.

    I would suggest reading the other Emily books. They are comforting, rainy day reads that you will probably enjoy.

    And, just a question, but was one of Emily’s friends named not Tom but Teddy?

    1. Hi Virginia!

      I think you are totally right about Emily being reserved – she is not as whole as Anne is. There is something we never quite get at and that’s why I didn’t find her as endearing, I think.

      I think Montgomery’s own conflicting and unhappy life definitely comes out in Emily and I’d be interested to read more about her life and its effect on her work. Definitely a project I would like to pursue, especially reading through all those volumes of diaries.

      I will finish up the series one day – it’s finding copies that I’m having trouble with at the moment but I’m sure I’ll turn some up eventually.

      Oops yes you’re right! I don’t know where I got Tom from – you can tell I wrote this very late in the evening!

  9. I haven’t read this but maybe it reflects LMM’s own ambivalence. Not much fun being a spinster, which is low status/financially precarious, at best; on the other hand, LMM herself was married to a depressive religious nutcase who, if I remember rightly, ended up in a lunatic asylum.
    Not much of a choice, was it? There must have been days when the dear departed angel route seemed quite appealing!

    1. Yes – her life wasn’t exactly a bed of roses! I feel more and more sad for her the more I learn about her life and I wonder how she found the strength to create a character like Anne! Perhaps Anne was the dream and Emily more the reality?

  10. Exactly what Mumsy says. Emily is possessed by her writing and Anne just does it as another way of faffing about. Poo to Anne, I like Emily better, and I like Aunt Elizabeth better than I like Marilla. So, um, obviously I am biased, but YES, the sequels are worth reading. The second one, Emily Climbs, is LMM at her very best, in my opinion.

  11. Just found your lovely blog. I’ve always been an Anne fan but I’m always open to meeting new characters so will find Emily and introduce myself!

    1. Hi Caz! It’s lovely to meet you and I’m glad you found me!

      I hope you will give Emily a try and see what you think of her – I’d be interested to hear your thoughts!

  12. Sadly, no Anne or Emily has ever spoken to me…I’ve tried, but never found anything to connect to in them. Were they too girlie? nice? romantic? It’s odd, because I’m a great lover of girls’ books, from Little Women to Pollyanna to Laura Ingalls Wilder to Streitfeild. I feel pretty alienated since everyone else loves them so much, but all I’ve really liked by Montgomery is her Journals. That said, if Montgomery makes you interested in Canadian authors and history, I’ve just blogged about a book I enjoyed tremendously, called Early Voices: Portraits of Canada by Women Writers, 1639-1914. I think you would enjoy it. http://www.lightbrightandsparkling.blogspot.com.

    1. I’m sad that neither Anne nor Emily ever spoke to you, Diana! Perhaps they are just too twee and whimsical for you? Thanks for that link – I will pop over and read. I am very interested in reading more about Canada as I really have absolutely no knowledge of its history and only a sketchy knowledge of its literature – not good!

  13. I am a disgrace to my nation in that my knowledge of Miss Emily is limited to what I watched on television. But on a somewhat related note, I posted a photo of the old Runnymede theatre (playing hooky) which Susan is quite sure served Montgomery’s neighbourhood when she lived in that area.

    1. Oh Darlene, you bad Canadian!😉 I LOVE that theatre-come-bookshop – what an inventive use of space, though even better if it WAS a theatre still!

  14. I must admit, I am an ardent lover of both Anne and Emily, in all incarnations. This inspires me to break them out again as I don’t believe I’ve read them since high school (although I’ve read them all perhaps dozens of times over the years). I think the sequels are definitely worth the read!

    1. I’m glad you love them both so much Amanda! I am disappointed that I didn’t connect with Emily more – perhaps I just need to read the sequels. Hope you find time to have a rereading session soon!

  15. I agree with some of the other commentators that LMM’s own ambivalence about the lives of women (especially women who wanted more than marriage & children) is much more evident in the Emily books than in the Anne books. Montgomery cared for her elderly relatives for many years and did not marry until she was almost 40. Her children were born when she was in her 40s (almost unheard-of in those days). Both Montgomery and her husband suffered from depressive episodes (her husband’s was far worse than hers–or perhaps she just coped with it better); he was a pastor, although, apparently, not a very popular one. Sadly, recent evidence seems to indicate the Montgomery took her own life. When you consider some of the autobiographical details, it makes the creation of bright, spunky girls like Anne and Emily (among others) even more impressive.

    But I’m still an Anne girl all the way!

    1. Oh Deb, the more I read about L M Montgomery’s life, the sadder I become. I am in awe that she found the strength and hope to create such lovely characters considering her own life. Thank you for that information!

      I think I will always be an Anne girl but Emily does have her charms too!

  16. I am an avid Anne fan and I love Emily as well. Although, like you Emily was not as exciting as Anne. According to the letters of Lucy Maud Montgomery that I have read, She says that the Story Girl is the character that is most like the author herself. Sara Stanley is the Story Girl who enchants all of the other children. She can tell a story on any occasion. I love Story Girl as well so I guess I am just a Lucy Maud Montgomery fan. In August I am making my second trip to Prince Edward Island and am looking forward to seeing the haunts of all of Montgomery’s characters. It is a beautiful, peaceful, place. I hope you get to go there sometime.

    I envy your copy of Emily.It is so much prettier than my paperback edition. I have The Story girl in a “Forgotten Books” edition. The cover is new, but inside, the words are a digitally remastered facsimile. It was quite fun to read.

  17. I would recommend the ‘Story Girl’ books- ‘The Road to Avonlea’ is the first I seem to recall. They are not so well know, but are really wonderful. Having said that, I haven’t read them since my teens and my older cynical self might not be so enchanted I guess….

  18. Constance Reader wrote: ‘LMM wrote that Emily was her most autobiographical character’

    I’ve never read that she said that? There are obviously a lot of details transferred from her own life to the Emily books, but the only time I’ve ever seen her acknowledge a character as her most autobiographical is when she wrote in a letter, of Pat from Pat of Silver Bush, that ‘I really put more of myself into Pat than into any other of my heroines’. (She wrote the Pat books after the Emily books.)

  19. That is the EXACT edition of the hard-cover book I read with rapture as a child. I don’t remember enjoying the sequels as much, but I must say when I tried the Anne books, they seemed far inferior to me. Maybe it’s because I identified closely with Emily, since I wrote poetry too (I’m now a professor and writer).

  20. from your review of the anne books i somehow knew you’d like anne more than emily. i have to say i prefer emily. she seems more like a real person. i actually found anne extremely annoying at times and rolled my eyes a lot, lol. i read the emily books first (before anne) ages ago and i absolutely loved her and even though i havent read them in a while, and she’d probably annoy me now, i think i’d still like her more than anne. i like how she was so passionate and intense inside but cold on the outside. and i like how she’s so set in writing and how everything is planned from the first book, how it was actually meant to be a real series unlike anne which was meant to be a standalone. i also think anne loses a lot of her character after the very first book already, while emily in the next books has some of her best moments. as for the other characters well idk, as an emily fan, i love the emily characters because they’re part of her world but i guess i can see how people would think marilla is more likable than aunt elizabeth, ilse is more interesting and fun than diana for sure, though. and perry is awesome. teddy does suck, but i wasnt a big gilbert fan either. my favorite of the romantic leads was barney. or maybe jingle from pat of silver bush.

  21. Emily of New Moon saved my sanity in my first year at a very strict, hostile boarding school. While I enjoyed the Anne series, I found them childish in comparison. Many of my teachers and other adults could have stepped into Emily’s world without a backward glance. The spinsterhood of so many was exactly akin to the steel-spined spinsterhood of early 20th cent Jamaican women, most of them teachers, teaching being virtually the only outlet for female intellect, independence, and earning power at the time. I was born in 1937 and read the first Emily book in 1949, in rural Jamaica. I have given the set to young girls facing hard times, and they have always helped. As an adult I was drawn to them again when I learned that this series is partly autobiographical, unlike Anne of GG. So I have re-read very carefully, with my teacher’s and writer’s eye, and been richly rewarded.

    1. I loved reading your story, Jean, and I’m glad that the series had such a profoundly positive effect on you. What a wonderful testimony to the power of literature. I must re read these and then get spare copies to give to my own students. Thank you for taking the time to leave your thoughts.

  22. Just wondering if you’re still going to review Emily Climbs and Emily’s Quest? I agree with the previous comment that Emily Climbs is the best out of the three (which is unusual for the second in a trilogy) but Emily’s Quest has some great moments. You really get to see Emily’s character mature and develop in the next two books, along with her ambition and determination. (I know you’ve been hacking your way through the The Luminaries, so I understand if you’ve had other things on the list.)

      1. Do, do, do read Emily Climbs and Emily’s Quest. I’ve read the series twice–both readings were years ago, but I just wrote my review for the series on Goodreads and my blog this week, and it took me delightfully back! Admittedly, it’s a review full of spoilers😀 but it felt good to finally process in words what I read. Emily is one of my all-time favorite fictional characters.

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