Books That Built Me

Books That Built Me: Emily of New Moon series by L.M. Montgomery

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a longtime fan of the Anne of Green Gables series, too. (Click the link for Gwenda Bond‘s excellent recent NPR piece about the Anne books.)

But not as many people ever seemed to know about the Emily books, and that automatically made them more appealing to me. That, and the fact that Emily, from nearly the very beginning of Emily of New Moon, was established as a writer.

I always looked for books with writer characters. Writers are often warned not to write about writers or writing, and of course it can be coy and cloying, not to mention putting unnecessary, distancing layers between writer and reader. But when I was a girl who wanted be a writer, a girl who wanted to be a writer was exactly who I wanted to read about. Here’s Emily writing about the Murray relatives she’s just met:

For a moment she thought she would throw herself on her bed and cry. She COULDN’T bear all the pain and shame that was burning in her heart. Then her eyes fell on the old yellow account-book on her little table. A minute later Emily was curled up on her bed, Turk-fashion, writing eagerly in the old book with her little stubby lead-pencil. As her fingers flew over the faded lines her cheeks flushed and her eyes shone. She forgot the Murrays although she was writing about them–she forgot her humiliation–although she was describing what had happened; for an hour she wrote steadily by the wretched light of her smoky little lamp, never pausing, save now and then, to gaze out of the window into the dim beauty of the misty night, while she hunted through her consciousness for a certain word she wanted; when she found it she gave a happy sigh and fell to again.

I also wanted to read about the aspect of Emily’s character that made her seem like a heroine from one of the other kind of books I loved, fantasies. Emily has a curious, never-explained ability to experience what she calls “the flash”:

Emily called it that, although she felt that the name didn’t exactly describe it. It couldn’t be described–not even to Father, who always seemed a little puzzled by it. Emily never spoke of it to any one else.

It had always seemed to Emily, ever since she could remember, that she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain; she could never draw the curtain aside–but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond–only a glimpse–and heard a note of unearthly music.

This moment came rarely–went swiftly, leaving her breathless with the inexpressible delight of it. She could never recall it–never summon it–never pretend it; but the wonder of it stayed with her for days.

Can I possibly explain how much I wanted to have “the flash”? At least as much as I wanted to be able to kythe.

When I reread the books now, their sweeping sentimentality and loving extended landscape descriptions can feel overblown. There are wince-inducing dated attitudes to be found as well. But the humor — often springing from the contrast between Emily’s dreamy, passionate nature and the flat bluntness of other characters — holds up. So does Montgomery’s gift for vivid and specific details of setting, as in this description of the kitchen at New Moon Farm:

Emily had never seen a kitchen like this before. It had dark wooden walls and a low ceiling, with black rafters crossing it, from which hung hams and sides of bacon and bunches of herbs and new socks and mittens, and many other things, the names and uses of which Emily could not imagine. The sanded floor was spotlessly white, but the boards had been scrubbed away through the years until the knots in them stuck up all over in funny little bosses, and in front of the stove they had sagged, making a queer, shallow little hollow.

And the characters themselves, not just Emily, but all of them, are still absolutely alive.

Postscript: In looking for links for this post, I discovered that there’s an Emily of New Moon anime series. I’m frightened but intrigued. Anyone seen it? Should I?

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