At the Breakfast Table with "Emily of New Moon"
“She will love deeply, she will suffer terribly, she will have glorious moments to compensate.”
Oh, Emily. Above all of L.M. Montgomery's beloved works, it's Emily of New Moon that speaks to me on the most profound and poignant level. Though Anne of Green Gables will always have a piece of my heart, Emily has my soul.
Will you join me for breakfast at New Moon farm as we expound upon a deep, lifelong fascination for all things Emily, and all with a spoiler-free guarantee? I'll pop the kettle on; do grab a chair, and let us together have one of those rare and precious exchanges which only those of 'the race that knows Joseph' may attend.
Over the past month, it's been a treasure to revisit my dear soul-sister, Emily Byrd Starr, with a long-overdue reread of the beloved trilogy. I was seventeen the first time I read Emily of New Moon, and the profundity with which it then struck my soul has never been equaled by another book yet—perhaps barring Jane Eyre as the lone exception. I adore Anne of Green Gables, truly, and while I reread the saga more often than I do Emily, it's the latter that I feel belongs to me—or perhaps I, to it!
Somehow, I can never look back on Emily for the plot or the actual thread of events in her life—because, gripping as they are, it's the character, Emily herself, that feels more real than anything that took place in her fictional life. Mongtomery's heroines are all delightful and have an undeniable quality of relatability; it doesn't matter if you were sixteen when you first read The Blue Castle and had no personal experience of a romantic wilderness or impending old-maidenhood: you still felt like you were Valancy. With Emily, that effect takes shape seven-fold for me.
I have never in all my reading experience met with a character who has struck me as deeply, personally, intimately like myself as Emily Byrd Starr. Perhaps it's the INFJ in me—and she is the most undeniable INFJ character I've read of, admittedly—but I do believe it is partly due to Montgomery's writing itself. Apart from all her works, Emily feels like a story not written through mortal words passing from book to reader. It really feels like she's communicating from soul to soul—and you know Emily in a way that no fictional experience should ever be known. I am very sure this is due to Montgomery's own attachment to the story. She penned the following journal entry on Emily in February of 1922:
“It is the best book I have ever written—and I have had more intense pleasure in writing it than any of the others—not even excepting Green Gables. I have lived it, and I hated to pen the last line and write finis. Of course, I’ll have to write several sequels but they will be more or less hackwork I fear. They cannot be to me what this book has been.”
I'm inclined to agree with Lucy Maud—it's the best of all her books.
Emily is never understood, I believe, and though she has two dear friends in wild, untamed Isle Burnley and sensitive, romantic artist, Teddy Kent, I don't believe either ever learn what wells of depth and mystery of the soul is in their purple-eyed poetess. In fact, I believe we, the reader, and Montgomery herself, are the only ones who ever truly "understand" Emily; though I admit Isle and Teddy have a truly special relationship with her that seems to me more vivid and personal a friendship than Anne Shirley shared with Diana Barry or even the beloved Gilbert Blythe.
It seems to me that Teddy is the only one who ever strikes a real chord with Emily's soul that nobody else ever comes close to. It isn't in the conversations they share or the days of childhood glory spent roaming The Tansy Patch or treading the Tomorrow Road—it's the soulful moments of silence that pass between them, when nobody speaks, but both know. It's an indescribable bond of trust and belonging. When Teddy calls, Emily's soul would answer.
"That call always had an odd effect on Emily; it seemed to her that it fairly drew the heart out of her body—and she had to follow it. She thought Teddy could have whistled her clear across the world with those three magic notes.”
But before we get any further, I am sure you must be quite hungry by now, and after the promise of breakfast to hold you! You're in luck: I do believe the bacon's beginning to sizzle. Today I've prepared a menu inspired by Teddy and Emily's fond childhood fancy for the "Disappointed House" which they daydreamed of buying when they were "grown up." As children they dreamed of living there together, where Teddy would create his art and Emily, her world-famous poetry. They even went so far as to plan out their grown-up breakfast table!
“Teddy will paint pictures and I will write poetry and we will have toast and bacon and marmalade every morning for breakfast—just like Wyther Grange—but never porridge. And we’ll always have lots of nice things to eat in the pantry and I’ll make lots of jam and Teddy is always going to help me wash the dishes. . .”
What a perfect plan! Shall I serve you up a plate?
"Every now and then to-day Teddy would say to me “Toast and bacon and marmalade” in the most mysterious tones and Ilse and Perry are wild because they can’t find out what he means.”
Will you take coffee or tea?
The true spirit behind Emily is her will to write, which is the guiding force behind all her actions and decisions. She must write: and the importance it holds to her never fails to strike me for it's blunt, undeniable calling on her life. Her ambition to climb "The Alpine Path" is more than ambition itself: greater than her desire to be published and acclaim fame and fortune, writing was the operative thing: she had to do it. As Father Cassidy asks her,
“Tell me this—if you knew you would be poor as a church mouse all your life—if you knew you'd never have a line published—would you still go on writing—would you?'
'Of course I would,' said Emily disdainfully. 'Why, I have to write—I can't help it at any time—I've just got to.”
Emily's most sacred source of inspiration comes from "the flash," a term that I feel very sure defines a certain sect of L.M. Montgomery's readers. You either know and understand what "the flash" is as soon as you read of it, having tasted that most glorious "flash" yourself, or you are forever doomed to wonder and ponder and question in bafflement what such a thing means. I cannot explain it to you if you do not know—but I am certain I know what it is, all the same. The beauty of "the flash" is the rare, passing feeling itself, and though it compels Emily to use her words and write, the attempt to capture it is never complete: and I will not further my own cause for such an impossible quest of explanation.
Emily's world is not one of rose-tinted joys, sunny skies and comedic scrapes that we cherish so dearly in the Anne saga—it's one of unearthly beauty, darkness and moonlight, soulful communion where words and dreams meet beyond the outer bounds of the confines of P.E.I. And it's certainly not for everyone! There will always be those who dislike Emily because it's too deep—too dark—too real. Few readers like to have a mirror held up to their face and see somebody else in the glass instead! "Anne fans" will always have their collective terms of fellowship, from "kindred spirits" to the "race that knows Joseph," and while I am certainly among them, I believe my membership belongs more to those that know and nurture "the flash" and have "alpine paths" of their own to climb.
Thank you for joining me for breakfast and a bookish tête-à-tête this morning! Let me fill up your mug once more before you go—and do be sure to drop by again soon!
I'd love to hear from you, whether you're a firm Emily of New Moon fan or an "Anne-girl" hoping to explore more of Montgomery's works. Do leave a comment below if you fancy, and let me know which L.M.M. heroine is your favorite, and whether you adore Emily as much as I do!
Until next time,