The Emily Books

Well, rather than editing, I finished Emily’s Quest, by Lucy Maud Montgomery, tonight. 

I, like so many other women, grew up with the Anne of Green Gables series of books. Or rather, they grew up with me. I’ve read them all, most of them multiple times. As I grew up, different books spoke to me, as I empathized with different times in Anne’s life.

The only other book I’d ever read by Montgomery was Emily Climbs. Again, I’m not sure how that particular book made it into my own personal library, but I loved it–possibly more so than the Anne books–and read it over and over. 

It’s the middle book of three: Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest. You can tell, when you read it. Many of the characters and relationships are not explained fully, and there are countless references to events in Emily of New Moon. It ends on a questioning note… the stories are not tied up completely, though there is a sense of where they are going. 

But mostly, it’s the story of a young writer. In the very first chapter of Emily Climbs, Emily sits in her room, “writing herself out” in her diary. In Emily of New Moon, the story is about Emily adjusting to her mother’s side of the family, whom she must go live with after her father passes away. The first chapter starts with a description of the home she shared with her father. 

But in Emily Climbs, the central conflict of the story is in Emily learning to be a writer. The phrase, “Emily Climbs” is a reference to a poem that Emily (As well as Montgomery herself) finds inspiration in… it tells of climbing an “Alpine path” to fame. The quoted lines:

Then whisper, blossom, in thy sleep
  How I may upward climb
The Alpine path, so hard, so steep,
  That leads to heights sublime;
How I may reach that far-off goal
  Of true and honoured fame,
And write upon its shining scroll
  A woman’s humble name.”

Emily is sent to Shrewsbury to attend High School with her friends… but in exchange must promise not to write “anything untrue” while she is there. She thinks it will be a very difficult thing, though her teacher and mentor thinks it will be very good for her writing. She is still able to write poetry, and character sketches, and essays, and almost everything that happens to her in the novel turns into fodder for her writing somehow. (Or it is not, which has its own significance.) She starts to gain some success as a writer, though it is not an easy path for her. 

I devoured Emily Climbs (which I greeted like the old friend it is) and Emily’s Quest, the third book in the series tonight. I have to admit that I don’t much like Emily’s Quest–it focuses far more on her romances, than on her experience as a writer. But there was a moment I did like, quite a bit. Montgomery clearly did quite a bit of planning for Emily’s Quest, because it follows through several throwaway references from Emily Climbs (at least, I’d thought they were throwaways). One of which was a letter from herself at 14 to herself at 24. In Emily Climbs, the contents of that letter are never revealed… she just mentions writing it in her diary. But in Emily’s Quest, when she turns 24, she reads it. It’s full of hope and dreams for her future self, a vision of herself married and a famous author, with everything she wanted at her feet. Emily at twenty-four, is none of those things, and had a rather bad year beside, and reads it, feeling very cynical about the letter, and her naive self who wrote it. And then something wonderful happens.

I’m 24 now, and at 14 I might have written exactly that sort of letter to myself. That moment in the story rang very true to me. 

Montgomery apparently saw much more of herself in Emily than in Anne, and in fact, apparently many of Emily’s experiences were taken from her own life. There’s sort of an interesting quality to the books, in that often the narrator addresses us as if we were reading the biography of, say, an author, and many of the stories are told as excerpts from Emily’s diaries.

A couple of links to finish us off… First, the text of Montgomery’s The Alpine Path: The Story of My Career, which I haven’t had a chance yet to read fully, but want to at some point. Second, though Emily Climbs was first published in 1925, meaning it’s not in the public domain yet in the U.S., it is in the public domain in places like Australia, meaning you can find the text online at Project Gutenberg Australia. (Most of the Anne books, by the way, can be found at the U.S.-based Project Gutenberg, if you’ve never stopped by.) Of course, if you’re not in Australia, or if you’d rather read the books on paper, you can probably find them just as easily at your local library, like I did.