Confessions of an “Anne of Green Gables” Snob Part 1: L.M. Montgomery’s “Emily of New Moon” Trilogy

This image of a young Lucy Maud Montgomery looks exactly as I picture young Emily Starr working at her craft. KindredSpiritMichael, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.

This image of a young Lucy Maud Montgomery looks exactly as I picture young Emily Starr working at her craft. KindredSpiritMichael, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.

My Secret (Until Now) Misgivings about Anne Shirley

I have to admit, Anne of Green Gables has never been one of my favorite novels even though in general, I am a fan of the genre.  So many different people wrote variations on the story of the plucky orphan or near orphaned girl that makes her way on her own that you think I’d be sick of it by  now, but generally, I’m not. Anne, though…meh.   

In the first book, she is so over the top that I find her a bit annoying, and as the series goes on, I get bored with her as a character.  It just gets to be that she can’t really do anything wrong. 

When I was very young, the only Anne books I knew were the first two.  Eventually the rest of the series was reprinted, or at any rate were carried by my local Waldenbooks, and I eventually, I did read them. When more of her books came out, I assumed they were pale variations on a theme, so I never bothered. Honestly, by the time I got to Anne’s House of Dreams, I felt I had read too much of a good thing.

Thinking Anne is all L.M. Montgomery is about is a mistake. 

Discovering the Emily of New Moon Trilogy

Recently I was flipping through one of my favorite “Book books”, 1,001 Children’s Books you Must Read Before You Grow Up, and I noticed that Emily Climbs is included in it.  Now that’s interesting, I thought.  It’s not one of the Anne books, and I don’t think it’s even the first in the series (it isn’t). 

Well, over about four days I read all three books in the trilogy, and I have to say that they are really wonderful.  I liked them much more than Anne, and intend to read more of Montgomery’s books. 

That’s why I have optimistically labelled this post “Part 1”.  

On the surface, the plot of Emily of New Moon is not that different from Anne of Green Gables. Emily is orphaned, and she is sent off to live with relatives she doesn’t know. Like Ann, the Emily series is set on Prince Edward Island, in eastern Canada.

The big difference is that Emily is sent to live with her own relatives rather than with strangers.  The way they decide who is going to get Emily isn’t the best ever, but even so.  The fact that Emily IS living with her own relatives is a telling difference, I think, because Emily does have a certain amount of status from the beginning and is much more comfortable with standing up to her aunt (the bossy one). And you know how it is with relatives: you can barely know a cousin or something, and next thing you know you are seeing your mom. That’s kind of what happens to Emily’s aunts. They think they are getting this little stranger, and then they see their father’s eyes peering out of her face. 

As the series progresses, the interplay between the various relatives helps to balance anyone who might be a little too extreme on her (or occasionally his) own.   Quite often one aunt or another backs down before disciplining Emily too harshly because she knows she’s getting into territory of which the other aunts (or relatives) will disapprove. 

They also back down in the face of family traits that come through loud and clear.  There’s never any doubt that she’s one of the clan. 

So to me, from the beginning, Emily has at least some agency in her life. 

For that reason, these books seem to me more books about a child/adolescent than books for children and adolescents although I think adolescents will definitely like the second book, Emily Climbs, and others as well. But there is an awful lot here for adults. 

The biggest challenge for me was getting through the long passages from Emily’s “journal” although as a narrative device, it works quite well.  Narrating everything from Emily’s point of view would be tedious, but there are long periods in Emily’s life that are knitted together through the diaries to show her development internally, not to mention her development as a writer. So I get it, but I also skimmed a lot. 

I really  enjoyed the narrative device that Montgomery uses in Emily Climbs in which the narrator characterizes herself as Emily’s biographer, and uses it to great effect when she wants to make a conjecture but doesn’t want to “judge”: “Remember”, writes the narrator, “…that I am only Emily’s biographer, not her apologist” (Ch. VIII). 

How the Emily Books Were Ahead of Their Time

These books are also ahead of their time, I would think, in their depiction of mentally challenged and emotionally unstable individuals.  We have a doctor who neglects his daughter because he believes his late wife had run off with another man, a mother who appears to have depression and an unhealthy fixation on her son, and finally Emily’s Cousin Jimmy, who runs the farm at New Moon because he became brain damaged during childhood.  While he is a loving and thoughtful father figure most of the time, Emily discusses his “spells”; they are not imaginary, and no one hides them from her.  Cousin Jimmy even pokes gentle fun at himself sometimes.  This situation may not seem so strange to us now (except that they look out for the neglected child rather than calling CPS), but even 50 years after the setting of this book, people with problems such as Jimmy’s, in particular, were regularly institutionalized. In Emily’s world, damaged people are quietly supported but generally accepted as part of the community. 

Emily is set on being an author, and the theme of all three books is her quest to negotiate the constraints put on her by her time and place to become the person she feels destined to be. Even though I’m much older than Emily, it reminded me that dreams are worth working for.   

The most powerful people in Emily’s life fight her the hardest throughout the series, and it’s clear from the beginning that this reaction has no malicious intent but is simply because it is outside of the norm for them, so it doesn’t make sense.  On the other hand, if everyone fell over themselves telling her she’s a great author from the beginning, would she ever have grown into anything?  Or write anything worth reading?

The message of this trilogy is that success takes time, and that there are setbacks. It also shows the family gradually coming to accept Emily’s fixation with writing, especially when she proves, through hard work and judicious use of the resources that she does have, that she can be successful.

But it also shows long periods of time in which she has setback after setback, which she has to learn to cope with if she’s going to be successful.

The Emily Trilogy: An Overview

In Emily of New Moon, 11 year old Emily Starr goes to live with her two maiden aunts and her adult male cousin after her parents die of tuberculosis. In Emily Climbs, she completes her high school education while living away from home, much like Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables. In Emily’s Quest, she tries to follow her heart in her personal life while pursuing her career as a writer.

This novel struck me as so authentic, I started to wonder how much of it is autobiographical. If you wonder the same thing, there is a relatively short Young Adult biography, House of Dreams: The Life of L.M. Montgomery. The author references Anne more than Emily, but I imagine that is because more young readers are likely to have read the Anne books. You’ll see it, I promise.

Finding Copies of The Emily of New Moon Trilogy

Some of the L.M. Montgomery’s books are in the public domain in the United States, and some are not. They are all in the public domain in Canada, which leads me to assume that the very inexpensive digital versions on Amazon are not legal.

At Project Gutenberg:

Emily of New Moon (as of this writing, the other Emily books are not yet in the public domain in the U.S.)

Anne of Green Gables

The L.M. Montgomery Page at Project Gutenberg: The entire Anne series is there. Also take the time to check out L.M. Montgomery’s extensive short story collections.

The L.M. Montgomery Page at Faded Page in Canada Note: Any books published after 1925 cannot be legally downloaded in the U.S., but as soon as they go into the public domain in the U.S., it’s legal to download them from anywhere.

For help with Project Gutenberg: How To Download FREE Books with Project Gutenberg and Why You Should

For help with understanding Public Domain: What does “Public Domain” Mean?

Further reading:

If you love “Little Women” and “Anne of Green Gables”, have you read “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm”?
A graphic novel about summers on an Ontario lake: Step back in time to “This One Summer” with the Tamaki Cousins

Early Female Canadian Settlers: Why Women Wrote in the Canadian Wilderness: FREE reads from Colonial Canada