The Emily Series by L.M. Montgomery

Last summer- or maybe it was the summer before – I was reading the four huge volumes that make up the journals of Lucy Maud Montgomery.

She is my favorite author and I don’t give a damn who knows it.

The reason is – although she was only a ‘childrens/young adult author’  her books managed to contain every single thing about being human that is worth anything. I don’t know how she gathered up the simple fact that the only really interesting things in the world are (in her words) births, deaths, scandal and marriages, but she did and was able to weave her stories in such a way that they remain relevant and true to us 90 years later.

Every copy I have of all 20 of her books are dog-eared and pen-marked and well-worn. I have whole passages memorized and I believe that the only man for me is actually a conglomeration of Barney Snaith in The Blue Castle and Jane’s father in Lantern Hill.

Yes, yes, Jane’s father, but oh, Barney Snaith. You guys have no idea. Or, if you do, then you must agree with me.

In the Emily series, L.M. wrote what I consider the best of all her works. They were certainly the most autobiographical of all her books.

Reading Montgomery’s journals was an odd experience. Finding the woman behind the characters I love was often surprising. In her journals, she is lively, funny,  fond of society and people, interested in daily happenings, even weirdly snobby and racist, and always prone to fits of sadness and isolation.

She was very young when her mother died.

Interestingly, in all of her books, there is no real mother figure. If the mother exists, she is a shadow with no real character. More often than not, Montgomery’s mother-figures are Aunts and Grandmothers and older sister’s.

The character of the father is always the ideal father; loving, wise, understanding and compassionate. Lucy loved her father very much, even though he actually abandoned her to the care of her strict grandparents and moved away from her to re-marry.

It seems odd that she loved him so much, when he outright rejected her, but perhaps this was just the textbook example of the woman who idealizes the father no matter what he does.

When she was older she went to college and taught school. She was always moving from place to place, teaching and meeting new people. She had several love affairs, but her curious, intellectual snobbery pushed her to marry for intellect and not love. This turned out to be a bad decision, as the man she chose for his brains ended up making her life miserable.

When Lucy’s grandmother became ill, she went home to take care of her. Because of Montgomery’s unwillingness to turn her ailing grandmother out of the only home her grandmother had ever known, poor Lucy ended up waiting thirteen years to marry her fiance, Ewan McDonald. It was during this time, isolated on a farm in Cavendish, when she wrote her first novel and was rocketed to instant literary fame.

When she finally did marry the Reverend Ewan he turned out to be mentally ill – given to fits of ‘religious melancholy’ and erratic behavior. For the rest her life, Lucy would be stuck caring for him. His mental state, combined with the rigidity of being a minister’s wife in several narrow-minded communities, must have been extremely frustrating for the lively, educated, and sensitive Lucy.

Anne of Green Gables and the rest of her books made her a national celebrity and known all over the world, but Lucy Maud would end by committing suicide in 1942. It was a rather startling and gloomy end to an author who was always pinpointed as a ‘romantic and happy-hearts-and-flowers’ writer.

This reality, when measured against Lucy’s stories, is just what I find so interesting about her writing. The stories are light and humorous and often romantic, but when you really delve into them, there exists a much darker side.

Of course, measuring her books by our standards today, they can be passed off as a by-product of the era; a very ‘Victorian’ style with morals about temperance and an overlay of prudishness, but underneath that, there are human passions; love, jealousy, hate, grief and loneliness. Here are the things that make people really live, and, always, Montgomery’s sly and sardonic humor to give it that light feel.

In Emily of New Moon you meet Emily Starr, who is ten years old and orphaned by the recent death of her beloved father. She has to go live with her two Aunts and her odd Cousin Jimmy at New Moon Farm. She has a flare for writing and the book is made up of a series of letters to her dead father as well as anecdotes. Emily goes from little girl to young girl, establishing her world of New Moon, her strong personality full of pride, her circle of friends and family, and her ambition to write.

This book sets up Emily’s personality. She is stubborn, smart, sensitive, and imaginative. We are introduced to Ilse, wild and neglected, who becomes Emily’s best friend. We meet Perry, the hired boy, who is full of ambition and will spend the next ten years openly asking Emily to marry him every so often. She always refuses. We meet the dreamy Teddy Kent, a natural artist, with whom Emily instantly feels kismet.

Teddy’s mother, Aileen Kent, is a most interesting character. She is a widow and Teddy is all she has, so she loves him to the point of unnatural obsession. His mother has been badly burned by dropping an oil lamp. Her face is scarred, so she never leaves the house. From the start she sees Emily as a threat, and Emily feels this, but does not understand it. Mrs. Kent is a character that develops as the series goes on, and she goes from creepy to sympathetic as the reader watches her through Emily’s eyes. Indeed, as Emily goes from child to woman, her empathy for certain tragic figures in her life grows and evolves.

Montgomery was something of a genius when writing characters with tragic histories. She understood very well how things can happen to us; things that mess us up forever. It was her gift. She really saw people. Not just their surface exhibition of what they wanted to show the world, but the layers that they hid behind. It is another reason I think she was so successful as a writer.

Emily is particularly sensitive and has something she calls the flash, which she gets from time to time when she is really happy. She has psychic experiences where she sees visions. In each book, there is an episode where Emily has a vision and changes the life of someone around her. She doesn’t like these episodes, and tries to forget them when they happen, but it is a trait that lends to Emily’s special sensitivity to the world around her.

I always wonder if L.M. Montgomery wasn’t a bit of a sensitive herself. She did write about an experience she had when her best friend passed away. She was sitting in her parlor – they had parlors back then – and she suddenly felt she was not alone. She said aloud to her cat: If (her best friend) is here, then make (the cat) come and kiss me. The cat immediately got up and walked over and licked her hand. According to L.M., this was unusual, as the animal was not usually affectionate.

The second book, Emily Climbs, is set in a nearby town where Emily goes off to high school. In school, she develops as a writer, gets her first poem published, learns to live with a detestable family member, and realizes she’s in love with Teddy Kent, her childhood friend.

Aunt Ruth is another character that develops into a sympathetic person. She is crotchety, suspicious of Emily’s every move and motive, and endlessly invades her niece’s personal space. Emily has a hard time learning to live with her, but an education is important, so she toughs it out.

Then there comes the scandal. Emily, Ilse, Teddy and Perry are trapped by a blizzard one night and forced to spend the night in an abandoned house. To their families, the incident is a minor one. The ‘children’ did what they needed to do to weather the storm and no one thinks much about it, but in the town where Emily goes to high school, the gossip begins cruelly and increases. Emily is ostracized by people and asked to resign from some local charities that she has volunteered for.

It’s here that I sort of love Aunt Ruth. She goes to battle, sweeping in and calling down all those stuck-up people who would talk smack about her niece. It’s a lovely moment in the book, and although Emily doesn’t feel she will ever ‘love’ her aunt, she comes to respect her.

Teddy and Emily. Never fully got it. Teddy is not a strong character in the book. For me, he just didn’t have enough of a personality. There are many, many references to him, but Lucy Maud never really draws a full picture of him the way she does with Dean or Perry or Ilse. His figure remains this ideal of all that Emily wants in a man, but you never really understand why he’s so great. Unless it’s that he’s an artist and sensitive to beauty just like Emily.

For me, just sharing some things in common isn’t enough. There has to be something else. A contrast, if you will, so that there is a mutual sharing of one another’s strengths and weaknesses. In other words, the person should be strong where you are not, and vice versa.

I get the feeling that L.M. was trying to create a soulmate for Emily, in the sense that he’s so perfect for her we don’t even need to know why. It should be obvious. But it kind of isn’t. So no, I never liked Teddy as much as I should.

Teddy is madly in love with Emily too. He paints her face into all of his paintings of women. Despite this obvious sign that he loves her, everyone just goes about saying: Oh well, it must just be a quirk of his – left over from an old, unconscious, emotion. No big deal. I don’t know, but I’d be a tad suspicious if an artist painted everyone to look like me.

But Emily is too blind to see it, and too prideful to say anything until he says something first. The book ends with nothing said between them as Teddy goes off to Montreal and Emily gives up a chance to go to New York and work on a newspaper.

Emily stays home to write. This is a fine example of Montgomery. You might think that she arranges matter thus because Emily has to be the typical early twentieth century woman and stay home and wait for Teddy. In a way, you’d be right, but there is one very important thing about L.M.:  She has a thing about homes and about Prince Edward Island.

In her books, simple home life always wins out over glamorous big city lights.

It’s very romantic. I don’t totally agree with the idea that home is best, but I’m not Montgomery. She loved PEI. It was ‘her place’ and every one of her books is set there.She was always homesick for it; the beauty of it. It’s interesting how one can be homesick for places that one has spent very little time in. I am always a bit homesick for Paris, France, for instance, even though I have only spent a few weeks there altogether. But both times I have flown in and out of it, I have cried to leave it, and cried to touch down in it. It’s a place I will always feel is ‘home’ to me, no matter where I was born.

Montgomery always felt that about PEI, even though she actually did not live there her entire life. Certainly, as I grow older, I note the longing for ‘place’ that naturally occurs in us all. The lure of the horizon is all very well, but the world can be empty and cold, too. There is something to be said for roots.

Book three! Emily’s Quest is my favorite. In it, we have Emily, left alone on the farm while all her friends go off to Montreal and college. The book is starkly honest about her depression and despair when she is stuck home writing and getting rejected all over the place. We have her friend, Dean Priest, the older man who knew her father just hanging around and biding his time until he can catch her on the rebound.

Dean Priest. He’s a fascinating sketch. He has one shoulder higher than the other, and therefore life has not been very kind to him. Because he’s slightly handicapped, he has spent his life reading everything and traveling all over the world. He is clever, rich, tragic and about twenty years older than Emily. He meets her when she is ten. He saves her from falling over a cliff, and the two have become good friends. His brilliance appeals to Emily’s smarts, and she looks on him as something of a mentor. Its obvious through all the books that Dean is just hanging around waiting for her to grow up so he can marry her. Despite his initial creepiness, I always liked Dean more than Teddy. He is so much more interesting and tragic.

Meanwhile, Teddy is off in Montreal with Ilse, forgetting about Emily and meeting other women. He only comes back every so often, and every time, he is more and more full of himself. Emily feels the connection between them fading, but she is too prideful to try and stop it. So all she does is write and wait rather hopelessly for Teddy to grow up and figure it out.

In short, it has all the elements of a woman waiting with no end in sight – and most women have some inkling what that’s like.

Because it’s Montgomery, the series ends happily enough, but despite everything coming right in the end, there was always an element to the books that left me vaguely unhappy. I suppose, it is because the books touch too closely to real life to be really happy.

Dean’s fate, for instance, always bothered me. He was so miserable his entire life, and suffered cruelly. He doesn’t ever get what he wants.  Emily’s silent loss of hope is so intense and personal that you get the feeling that she will always be scarred by it, even after it turns out all right. By comparison, Teddy does not seem to have suffered much, he only gets his ego nicely deflated.

I suppose that it may be why I think the series is the best of Montgomery’s.  It is a very real, very touching portrait of a woman and her stupid choices, as well as her good ones. Emily is pursuing her dream. She is ambitious and clever and working steadily away at becoming a famous author, but she is also experiencing the isolation that ambition and being clever can bring. Like when one of the Popes (can’t remember which one) was given a hand-carved bed. He said: “It is beautiful, but I shall die in it.” If the Emily books were true-to-life, they probably wouldn’t turn out so well.

Montgomery knew what she wrote. She knew about pain and being alone and being left behind. She knew about how choices can ruin your life or save it.

Montgomery was a master at character. She wrote character so well, Mark Twain called her Anne (of Green Gables) ‘the sweetest creation of a child since the immortal Alice” and as one master to another, he would know.

Character is a difficult thing to write, much less master. I think it is one of the hardest things as a writer to really create life on the page. Montgomery is my favorite author because she has mastered character. Although I haven’t been writing much lately, I study her style to see what I can take from it. She draws a fine portrait of people; she lets their flaws show as well as their beauty. She writes real people and not puppets. She lets people be themselves on the page.

Because of my initial, absent-minded, sort of dreamy gaze, I generally look at people with, most people think I am never really paying attention. They are often right. If I am coming up from the depths of a book, for instance, it might take me a few moments to figure out where I am. Same as when I’m writing. I might look at you in a puzzled, irritable, way, as if I am none to sure who you are. Which I am not. At least not for a few seconds. All this a character writer does not make. But I cant help it. There seems to be a sort of invisible blanket between me and the world – a lot of the time. I don’t know what to do about it at this point. I pay attention when it matters, I guess. Like in class. And while driving. But when someone is explaining whats wrong with my brakes or what the job I’m interviewing for involves…yeah, I tend to drift off into other realms.

Lucy Maud knew how to pay attention to people. She knew what made them work, and if she didn’t, she explored it until she did. Through literature and art and social happenings of the day. She read the newspapers and traveled as much as she could. She examined her world, wherever she was, whether it was large or small. I think its the secret to writing people. Pay attention to human frailty and human strength. Figure it out. Then make it fit.

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2 Comments

Filed under Autobiography, Children, Coming-of-Age Books, Girly Books

2 responses to “The Emily Series by L.M. Montgomery

  1. Hi. So, you obviously have read the Emily books as many times as I have. Here’s my question: in re-reading Emily’s Quest today, I came across a bit that I have never had a satisfactory answer to– what did Aileen Kent poison that made her husband so angry? I used to think it was the baby, but the baby is obviously Teddy, so that can’t be it. I’ve spent an hour on the net, and the only concrete answer I got was “his dog”, but the same blog said he died in Montreal, not Winnipeg, and it may have been linked to fan fiction anyway.

    And yes, I love LMM and don’t care who knows it either.

    • Sorry it took me so long to reply Jennifer! I obviously have been MIA. Aileen Kent poisons her husband’s dog and the husband finds out and is angry with her – hence the bitter quarrel before he leaves for his business trip.
      I think its easy to confuse it because in the first book Teddy gets a puppy and tells his mother if she poisons it he’ll hate her – and she cries for a week – but she leaves his dog alone.

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