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?