Picture: Brassai, ‘Chat au rideau de dentelle’ (1937)
Over the past couple of days I’ve re-read L.M. Montgomery’s Emily trilogy, some of my favourite childhood reading. Unfortunately I had to read them online as I didn’t have my ancient Puffin copies to hand – the dark-haired girl in the photographs on the Puffin covers was definitely Emily to me, gradually growing older and more elegant (or maybe just changing her hairstyle) from Emily of New Moon (with the pink cover), Emily Climbs (yellow) to Emily’s Quest (blue – yes, I can still remember after about twenty years!).
It’s difficult to convey how much I loved L.M. Montgomery as a child, to the extent that I even occasionally dreamed about her books. I particularly loved The Story Girl and its sequel, The Golden Road, but the Emily books were my favourites. Reading the series again didn’t disappoint me. I think it’s because the reader enters such a vividly atmospheric, detailed and fascinating world, with a surprisingly gothic element. This world is always seen from the imaginative viewpoint of Emily, conveyed through her journals or just in the way her experiences are related. She is able to see intense wonder in the world around her, and I used to love the references to ‘the flash’, a kind of visionary experience Emily has, which happens very suddenly at moments of beauty and mystery.
Emily of New Moon opens dramatically with the death of Emily’s father from consumption, and her move to New Moon where she is brought up rather begrudgingly (at least at first) by Aunt Elizabeth, Aunt Laura and Cousin Jimmy. Emily wants to be an author, and her determination to write and struggles to develop her talent are a major part of the books. Her friends Ilse, Perry and Teddy are also very talented in their different ways – Teddy is an aspring artist, Perry a lawyer and Ilse an actress. L.M. Montgomery definitely chooses to write about characters who are unusually brilliant and undoubtedly idealised, but they are always flawed and interesting at the same time. The life of Blair Water, the town where Emily lives, is also full of various eccentric people, who seem to have lives filled with drama and romance. The characters all have their own complexities, passions and secrets, making them much more intriguing and adult than characters in other children’s fiction.
Emily of New Moon also introduces Dean Priest, a mysteriously damaged and compelling character who will play a major part in the heroine’s future; in fact he claims ownership over her life, after saving her from falling over a cliff whilst out walking one day (this episode gives you something of the flavour of the books…). Dean and Emily have a very intense friendship. He seems to fall in love with her when she is only twelve and waits for her to grow up so that he can marry her. I found Dean one of the most interesting characters in the series; he is cynical and intelligent, and somehow has more reality than Teddy, his rival for Emily’s love. I can see why it would be bad for Emily to marry Dean; he is very possessive, and he unfairly criticises Emily’s literary work because he fears it will take her away from him (tragically leading Emily to burn The Seller of Dreams!). And yet there is something in the novels that draws the reader (or just me!) to hope that Emily and Dean will be together. He is a romantic and I can’t help feeling sorry for his sadness and bitter disappointment in life. I wonder what will happen to him at the end of Emily’s Quest, but can’t believe he could find any happiness in life after losing Emily.
Emily Climbs, which follows Emily throughout her teenage years and high school days, has a similar charm and atmosphere to Emily of New Moon. However, I found Emily’s Quest, which takes her from seventeen into her 20s, to be darker and more melancholy. In this book, Emily experiences years of unhappiness and failure. She suffers illness which robs her of her desire to write. At certain points, her journals refer to depression and the desire for suicide. Although there is a happy ending for Emily, she has to wait a long time for it, and she is no longer the romantic idealist she was as a young girl. I read in one of Montgomery’s letters that she enjoyed writing the first two books, but didn’t feel the same about Emily’s Quest and felt it would not be a success. I think this final book does have a different atmosphere and is less joyful, but I think it is just as interesting as the earlier two. I don’t know if it’s really a children’s book; the age range the books are aimed at is difficult to identify, as they are both whimsical and quite dark and adult at times. I enjoyed the series as a child and I enjoyed them at 29, so maybe it doesn’t matter too much. In the end, the allure of the Emily books comes from their unusual and talented heroine, one who I’d find happiness in reading about at any age.