Sunday, February 2, 2014

Re-read review

Emily's Quest
by L.M. Montgomery

L.M. Montgomery's most famous character is Anne Shirley of Green Gables, but to me Anne was a far-distant second to Emily Starr, protagonist of a three-book series. Emily, like Anne, is an orphan living on Prince Edward Island, and both are intelligent and possess a strong sense of self, but their personalities and lives are quite different.

Unlike Anne, Emily lives with her father until the age of 8, when he passes away - her mother having died many years earlier. Upon her father's death, Emily moves in with her mother's family, strangers to her. The first book, Emily of New Moon, is her struggle to come to terms with her father's death and make a place for herself in a household that isn't entirely welcoming. The second book, Emily Climbs, tells of her years away at high school, although to modern readers it feels more like a college story. The final book, Emily's Quest, describes her attempt to build a writing career and find love.

It's her passion for writing that sets Emily apart from Anne, who, for all her intelligence and good cheer, doesn't actually have ambitions. (It always amuses me when screen adaptations try to make Anne a writer; aside from starting a youthful writing club, Anne has no ambitions to be or success at that endeavor.) Emily's friends - a much more closed circle than Anne's - are equally ambitious, and what's more, all end up succeeding at their chosen careers. Throughout all three of the books, no matter what else Emily deals with, her authorial ambitions are always present - with one important exception, as we'll see below.

As the book opens, Emily has moved back to New Moon after high school, having turned down a job offer with a big-city magazine. In modern U.S. terms, she's chosen to move back to the family farm in Montana instead of taking that entry-level job at The New Yorker. She settles down to write, while her best friends go to the big city chasing their dreams. She has several brief relationships of no significance; the reader knows her heart belongs to her friend Teddy, and we think he returns the sentiment, although both of them refuse to make the first move. Meanwhile, she begins to find commercial success as a writer.

As the "romance novel" of the trilogy, Emily's Quest could have been the book that undercut the message of the previous two books, a message that argues quite subtly for female independence. Certainly, this is the message many of its peer novels sent, such as Emily of Deep Valley (no relation) or A Girl of the Limberlost. Getting with the man of their dreams meant, for those heroines, giving up their own dreams and adopting their sweethearts'.

Emily tries this tactic. A manipulative older male friend undercuts her writing ambitions, and Emily hurts herself in an accident. She gives up writing and turns to him for comfort, going so far as to get engaged and furnish a house. While she breaks the engagement because she realizes she doesn't love him but her friend Teddy, the novel doesn't take the expected turn and get her and Teddy together. Instead, Emily rebuilds her life as a single person. She takes up writing again. She also suffers a great deal of loneliness - hardly surprising, for a woman of almost 30 living in a house of elderly relatives, with few people nearby she has much in common with. But the loneliness is bearable compared to the extinction of self she underwent during her engagement.

Nevertheless, it becomes even harder to bear when Teddy and her other best friend, Ilse, get engaged.

When I was a child, I thought this book was the most trifling of the trilogy, because it was just about boyfriends. When I was a little older, I realized how sad it was. There was a time, around my 30th birthday, beset by minor health issues and as single as it is possible to be, when I couldn't even re-read it. Only recently have I realized how progressive its message is, and how out-of-step with its time. First, the books tells us, you have to be yourself, who you are meant to be, and "you" includes women. Only after you achieve that can other people add to your happiness. It even makes a good argument for ladies making the first move, as that's how Ilse eventually gets what she wants - and Emily, in hindsight, could have saved herself a great deal of grief this way.

There were a lot of books I obsessively re-read as a kid, but this was the only character I really saw myself in - I sympathized with with many characters, but I identified with very few of them. This trilogy played a big part in developing my sense of what a female writer could be like. (It also made me extremely annoyed when everyone started naming their daughters "Emily" a few years ago, because, dammit, I wanted to use that name.) It goes into some surprisingly dark corners for a children's novel of its era, and is remarkably progressive for a novel about a woman's decision about who to marry. Even now, I'm not sure if the "quest" is to find a life partner, or to succeed as a writer, or to become a fulfilled human being.