I picked up where I left off in Emily Byrd Starr’s story with Emily Climbs for the 2014 L.M. Montgomery Reading Challenge. I enjoyed this volume in the Emily series because of the format–I enjoy reading excerpts from Emily’s “Jimmy books,” especially because she has such a sharp wit, which even verges on being slightly sardonic. This is a trait I’m afraid I also possess (and not one that I’m always happy to have mastered so well), but still–it makes for an entertaining story. I thought often of Anne of Windy Poplars while I read this volume this time. Windy Poplars is comprised of Anne’s letters to Gilbert while she teaches at Summerside and he is in medical school, so she is much older than Emily is in Emily Climbs. Still, the perspective is very similar–we get each girl’s opinions and experiences in their own words, and while I’d argue that perhaps Anne isn’t quite as cynical as Emily (though it has been a long while since I’ve read Anne), their voices are also similar.
Something else that occurred to me frequently as I read this novel, particularly as Emily grows older and more skilled at writing, is that perhaps this novel is at least semi-autobiographical. Emily’s passion for writing, which she is willing to sacrifice even her happiness for, is a major theme in this story. I was struck by just how passionate she is about it, and I noted in Carrie’s post about the Lucy Maud Montgomery Literary Society that the literary society’s newsletter (which later became a periodical) is called The Shining Scroll “after a line in the poem that inspired Montgomery to persevere in her dream of becoming a successful writer.” I couldn’t help but note that Emily herself often quotes a poem that inspires her–“The Fringed Gentian,” which she first cites in Emily of New Moon. Just a tiny bit of internet sleuthing (it’s the only kind I do nowadays, unfortunately) has led me to conclude that yes, indeed, there are many similarities between Emily’s own “climb” to success as a writer and L.M.M.’s. In fact,Emily longs to climb “the Alpine Path” of the poem
“And write upon its shining scroll
A woman’s humble name.” (qtd. in Emily Climbs p. 41)
L.M. Montgomery titled her own autobiography The Alpine Path, so again, I assume that Emily’s life in some way mirrors Montgomery’s, or at least in the way she perceived herself. (That’s my very convoluted way of saying that some aspects of this novel must be autobiographical, which is really no surprise to anyone, except for me because apparently I have an exceedingly short memory.)
The Emily books are often described as being darker than the Anne books, and I agree with that. In fact, I would guess that this is one reason that some people like Emily better than Anne–she’s less “sunshine and rainbows” (though I really don’t see Anne so much that way, either). One thing that struck me this time through Emily Climbs is that in this volume we get what I think is as clear a picture as we’ll ever get to L.M.M.’s take on religion, the one thing that I think makes her books “feel” dark. Emily writes what she knows is a good poem, different somehow than all her other work so far, and she takes it to her old teacher, Mr. Carpenter, for his critique:
“Perhaps it is his rheumatism that made Mr. Carpenter rather crusty over the poems I took to him for criticism. When he read the one I had composed that April night on a hill-top he tossed it back to me–‘a pretty little gossamer thing,’ he said.
“And I had really thought that the poem expressed in some measure the enchantment of that evening. How I must have failed! Then I gave him the poem I had written after I had come in that night. He read it over twice, and then he deliberately tore it into strips.
” ‘Now–why?’ I said, rather annoyed. ‘There was nothing wrong about that poem, Mr. Carpenter.’
” ‘Not about its body,’ he said. ‘Every line of it, taken by itself, might be read in Sunday School. But its soul–what mood were you in when you wrote that, in heaven’s name?’
” ‘The mood of the Golden Age,’ I said.
” ‘No–of an age far before that. That poem was sheer Paganism, girl, though I don’t think you realize it. To be sure, from the point of view of literature it’s worth a thousand of your pretty songs. All the same, that way danger lies. Better stick to your own age. You’re part of it and can possess it with its possessing you. Emily, there was a streak of diabolism in that poem. It’s enough to make me believe that poets are inspired–by some spirits outside themselves. Didn’t you feel possessed when you wrote it?’
” ‘Yes,’ I said, remembering. I felt rather glad Mr. Carpenter had torn the poem up. I could never have done it myself. I have destroyed a great many of my poems that seemed trash on successive readings, but this one never seemed so and it always brought back the strange charm and terror of that walk. But Mr. Carpenter was right–I feel it. (252-253)
Through this little exchange it seems to me that Montgomery is depicting this “Paganism” as something on a higher plane than the one on which most mortals live, certainly richer than the mere Sunday School rhymes Mr. Carpenter alludes to. This “mood” is one that I think is what gives most of Montgomery’s works their edginess–as Mr. Carpenter says, it’s in their soul. For me it is nothing so much as a feeling I can’t really put my finger on. It’s interesting to me that Mr. Carpenter tells Emily to not “go there,” especially since her “diabolical” poem is “worth a thousand” of her other poems. I think most of Montgomery’s works walk this very fine line.
Most of my thoughts on Emily of New Moon focused on Dean Priest, and I’ll again confess that I really, really dislike him in the first book. My feelings about him haven’t changed much in Emily Climbs, though I’m not quite as scandalized by him just because Emily herself is older (she’s seventeen or so at the end of the novel). The main feeling I’m left with at the end of this one is one of being somewhat incredulous that Emily doesn’t seem to get what he’s after, and none of her oh-so-opinionated family members spell it out for her.
I’ve written at least one long critical research paper on L.M. Montgomery, but alas, I cannot remember much about what I wrote now. The last one I did about a decade ago and I focused on the Emily books as an example of realism/regionalism, which we studied in the graduate class I took. (I wish I still had that paper!) It was very interesting to me to look at the series in the light of the age in which it was written. Despite the fact that I’ve read Emily several times (this is at least the third, if memory serves me correctly) and despite the fact that it is a wee bit dark (and I still don’t like Dean Priest one little bit!), I did enjoy the tale. There are moments of sarcastic humor that I love, and several little vignettes that are as good as any in any book Montgomery wrote. I’ve already shared a couple of excerpts that made me chuckle (here and here), but I have to share just one more, an exchange between Aunt Ruth and Emily:
” ‘. . .Andrew [Murray] wanted you to go for a walk in the park last Friday evening and you refused–I heard you. That would have been too respectable, of course.’
” ‘Exactly,’ I said. ‘That was the very reason. There’s no fun in anything that’s too respectable.’
” ‘Impertinence, Miss, is not wit,’ said Aunt Ruth.
“I didn’t mean to be impertinent, but it does annoy me to have Andrew flung in my teeth like that. Andrew is going to be one of my problems. Dean thinks it’s great fun--he knows what is in the wind as well as I do. He is always teasing me about my red-headed young man–my r.h.y.m. for short.
” ‘He’s almost a rhyme,’ said Dean.
” ‘But never a poem,’ said I. (219)
There doesn’t seem to be a good way to end this very long, convoluted, and disorganized post (which I’ve worked on no fewer than four days, I’m sure). I’ll just end it by sharing a few neat L.M.M. related resources I’ve discovered through my poking around while reading this book:
- Emily Climbs in the L.M.M. book cover gallery
- Other works that mention something by L.M.M. in them
- More details about the novel, especially about how it’s reflective of L.M.M.’s own experiences
(Go here for links to all my previous L.M. Montgomery Reading Challenge posts.)