Sunday, 22 September 2013

Myths of Nineteenth-Century Adolescence, or Emily Byrd Starr as an Academic Inspiration

My extremely well-loved copy of the first Emily book. 

I first read Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Emily trilogy (Emily of New Moon, 1923, Emily Climbs, 1925, Emily’s Quest, 1927) when I was twelve years old, and since then, I’ve re-read it many times. I’ve found it increasingly helpful to come back to it while writing my PhD on intersections in Victorian fantasy.  This may seem odd – why should a Canadian trilogy written in the 1920s, which has often been marketed as young adult literature, be helpful to a woman writing a PhD thesis on Victorian British adult fiction? First off, although children and young adults enjoy the books, they’re certainly not just for children. The trilogy encompasses a powerful dramatization of artistic development, psychological turbulence, and witty social satire (Montgomery balanced her literary career with an often frustrating role as a minister’s wife, and her experiences certainly show in Emily’s shrewd observations about the vagaries of her own church-going community).  I don’t wish to focus on that subject in detail in this post, so for more about why Montgomery’s works are not merely for children, search the L.M.Montgomery Research Bibliography for articles on her texts and you will find ample explanation in these scholarly studies.  Sian Harris perhaps best summarizes the specific appeal of the Emily trilogy for writers, with its dramatization of Emily’s hard and constant writing work and her struggle up ‘the Alpine Path’ for success, in her comment on Irene Gammel’s observation that Emily ‘has won a special place in the lives of today’s Canadian women writers, editors, academics and journalists, including Margaret Atwood, Lillian Nattel, Alice Munro, Jane Urquhart, Kit Pearson, Elizabeth Epperly, Ann Shortell and Vall Ross’. [1]  Harris ascribes the long-lasting appeal of the Emily books to their ability to ‘strike [ . . .] a chord of recognition with the reader who loves reading, writing and words’. [2] In addition to these general chords of writerly recognition, I’ve found that the trilogy has helped me to strike chords of nineteenth-century recognition. It’s a little difficult to pin a particular date setting for the Emily books, but the fact that Victoria’s son Bertie/King Edward VII is referred to in Emily Climbs as ‘the King’ places it within the long nineteenth century, as does the fact that the First World War is never mentioned. Due to this setting, and to the fact that many of the texts which Emily reads and discusses are published in the nineteenth century, the trilogy offers a portrayal of long nineteenth-century culture which can be enjoyed by readers of all ages, and this background has been an invaluable introduction to the era.

Firstly, the Emily trilogy represents an image of nineteenth-century readership which is both wide-ranging and of critical depth. Emily writes about an eclectic mix of texts to which she reacts strongly, and some of these texts are ones which, though known in the nineteenth century, have not always been ‘big names’ in the way that the Brontës, Tennyson, or Dickens  (to name a few examples) are. These less well-known texts may feature in academic studies, but by reading the Emily trilogy from age 12, I became familiar with them before I was of an age to embark on my own scholarly investigations into the nineteenth century. For example, Emily’s reflections on the work of English-Irish poet Felicia Hemans in Emily Climbs extend the nineteenth-century assessment of Hemans as a “‘parlour poet’ and the very type of the ‘sentimental poetess’”. [3] Though observing that Hemans can be critically ambiguous, Emily celebrates her ability to capture her imagination, despite her teacher’s opposition, using poems by Hemans:
 ‘The things Mr. Carpenter said about Mrs. Hemans were not fit to write in a young lady's diary. I suppose he is right in the main--yet I do like some of her poems. Just here and there comes a line or verse that haunts me for days, delightfully. "The march of the hosts as Alaric passed is one--though I can't give any reason for my liking it--one never can give reasons for enchantment’.[4]
This introduction to Hemans’s poem ‘Alaric in Italy’ (from Tales and Historic Scenes in Verse, 1819) intrigued me, as did Emily’s subsequent quotation from another of her poems, ‘The Lady of Provence’  (1829) which stayed in my mind: 
 "The sounds of the sea and the sounds of the night
Were around Clotilde as she knelt to pray
In a chapel where the mighty lay
On the old Provencal shore.
 Though Emily feels ‘That isn't great poetry’, she qualifies this criticism: ‘but there's a bit of magic in it for all that--concentrated in the last line, I think. I never read it without feeling that I am Clotilde, kneeling there--'on the old Provencal shore'--with the banners of forgotten wars waving over me.’ [5] Emily’s reading of Hemans’s work immediately presents her in a critical context, and one which dramatizes the act of forming one’s own critical opinions. Does the reader agree with Mr. Carpenter, with Emily, or with his/her own assessment? Extending this, how should one assess poetry? Emily’s comments propel the reader to find out the answers to these questions by examining Hemans’s poems, and then reflecting on them. (Especially since, as Hilda Tiessen and Paul Tiessen observe, Montgomery’s texts misquotes the poem slightly by merging lines together.)[6]  The trilogy extends Emily’s readerly identity still further beyond Hemans’s European poetics by linking Emily with the late nineteenth-century Canadian poet Bliss Carman as ‘one of "the eternal slaves of beauty," of whom Carman sings, who are yet "masters of the world”’[7]: Bliss Carman was a ‘confederation’ Canadian poet who gained both national and international fame. [8] [The allusion is to ‘A Captain of the Press Gang’ from Carman’s Vagabondia (1894).]The identification of Emily with Carman celebrates Canadian literary identity as an international experience of transcendent beauty which can represent both male and female writers.  
Emily doesn’t simply express enjoyment of texts, but also reflects on her reading experiences of various texts, and how these texts intersect with her surrounding community.  For example, Emily’s account in Emily of New Moon of reading a popular novel of religious proselytism, The Memoirs of Anzonetta B. Peters (1836),[9] dissects the social interpretation of moral ideals (Emily gives a pithy flavour of Anzonetta with her comment ‘I am sure I can never be as good as Anzonetta was and I don’t believe I want to be because she never had any fun’). [10]Emily discovers that although her aunts have recommended Anzonetta to her as a Christian ideal for young Presbyterian girls to emulate, her relatives aren’t so impressed when she experiments with emulating Anzonetta’s habit of answering questions with hymn verses: ‘Aunt Laura said was I crazy and Aunt Elizabeth said I was irreverent’.  This experiment provides a humorous dramatization of interpretative practices around moral texts in her community: one is supposed to uphold moral values, but not so fervently that they become a social embarrassment. 

Secondly, the Emily trilogy embodies intersections between romance and realism, a mixture which runs throughout many Victorian texts, as Rosemary Jackson, Stephen Prickett, and Francis O’Gorman have observed (again, just a few examples).[11] Her anthropomorphic portrayal of Romantic imagination, the Wind Woman, recalls the creative imagination of the Romantic poets: compare Emily’s Wind Woman with John Keats’s’ light-wingèd Dryad of the trees’ from ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819) or with Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘breath of Autumn’s being’ from ‘Ode to the West Wind’ (1819-1820):
‘The Wind Woman is going to be out in the fields to-night. She is tall and misty, with thin, grey, silkly clothes blowing all about her – and wings like a bat’s – only you can see through them – and shining eyes like stars looking through her long, loose hair. She can fly – but to-night she will walk with me all over the fields. She’s a great friend of mine – the Wind Woman. [12]
Like Keats and Shelley, Emily personifies nature as a powerful ideal of imaginative freedom, yet Emily’s version offers something different: a sense of companionable friendship and physical, even sartorial, femininity.  
As well as evoking an early nineteenth-century romantic imagination, Emily struggles with Gothic inheritances which recall similar resonances in Victorian fiction. She experiences discomforting supernatural eruptions: in her fever in Emily of New Moon, she demonstrates uncanny ‘psychic’ knowledge which solves a long-hidden mystery and reclaims a woman’s wronged reputation, in Emily Climbs, her uncanny side wakes from sleep to uncover the location of a lost child, and in a dream episode in Emily’s Quest, she travels the Atlantic to stop Teddy, the man she loves, from boarding a doomed ship:
‘Did she sleep? Dream? Emily herself never knew. Twice before in her life – once in delirium – once in sleep she had drawn aside the veil of sense and time and seen beyond [ . . .] She was no longer sitting in her chair [ . . .] She was in that strange, great room [ . . .] She was standing by the man who was waiting impatiently before a ticket window [ . . .] She saw that it was Teddy – she saw the amazed recognition in her eyes. And she knew, instinctively, that he was in some terrible danger – and that she must save him.
“Teddy. Come.” ‘[13]
These episodes of uncanny revelation evoke, variously, George Eliot’s 1859 The Lifted Veil (the compulsion to draw aside ‘the veil of sense and time’ to warn of impending death), Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 Jane Eyre (the ability to summon one’s beloved across physical distance), and Wilkie Collins’s 1868 The Moonstone (dramatizing supernatural ambivalence in sleep).

Thirdly, Emily’s narratives offer a portrayal of the hardships of writerly refinement, which is helpfully abstract yet sympathetically familiar to a PhD student.  She dramatizes commitment to continuing with and developing her writing skills despite setbacks. Her reactions to her mentor’s comments on her work will sound familiar to students receiving constructive criticism on their own writing: ‘Criticism was something Mr. Carpenter could give with a right good will and he never minced matters; but he was just, and Emily had confidence in his verdicts, even when he said things that raised temporary blisters on her soul.’[14] Emily’s disappointed yet determined response to rejected story submissions will resonate with students who have had submitted articles rejected:
‘Tears of disappointment would come. But after a time she got hardened to it and didn't mind--so much. She only gave the editorial slip the Murray look and said "I will succeed." And never at any time had she any real doubt that she would. Down, deep down, something told her that her time would come. So, though she flinched momentarily at each rejection, as from the flick of a whip, she sat down and--wrote another story.’[15]
I certainly found Emily’s words helpfully empathetic when I had my own experience of article rejection.

Finally, Emily really knows how to work a title, as can be seen from her first international success, her short story ‘The Woman Who Spanked the King’. Someday, I’m going to steal it for a conference paper, if someone else doesn’t get to it first . . . .

You can find out more about the Emily trilogy and Lucy Maud Montgomery at the Lucy Maud Montgomery Research Centre, the Lucy Maud Montgomery Literary Society and the L.M.Montgomery Research Group.

[1] Irene Gammel, ‘Safe Pleasures for Girls: L.M. Montgomery’s Erotic Landscapes’, Making Avonlea: L.M. Montgomery and Popular Culture, ed. by Irene Gammel (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), pp.114-131 (p. 120).

[2] Sian Harris, ‘The Canadian Künstlerroman:the creative protagonist inL.M. Montgomery, Alice Munro and Margaret Laurence’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Newcastle, 2009), p. 29.
[3] Nanora Sweet, ‘Hemans , Felicia Dorothea (1793–1835)’,Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2008 [, accessed 21 Sept 2013] Sweet observes that ‘most Victorian editions and reissues of her work omitted her learned notes and long poems, however, and helped to cast her as a ‘parlour poet’ and the very type of the ‘sentimental poetess’’.
[4] L.M.Montgomery, Emily Climbs (Toronto: Seal, 1992), p. 253.
[5] Emily Climbs, p. 253.

[6] See Hilda Tiessen and Paul Tiessen, After Green Gables: L.M. Montgomery’s Letters to Ephraim Weber, 1916–1941 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), n. 16, p. 119.

[7] Emily Climbs, p. 151.
[8] D. M. R. Bentley, “CARMAN, WILLIAM BLISS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 21, 2013,
[9] Actually published as The Young Disciple, or, the Memoirs of Anzonetta R. Peters.
[10] Emily of New Moon (Toronto: Seal, 1992), p. 100
[11] See Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion ( London: Methuen, 1981), pp. 124 and 140 in particular, but also see pp.125-139,  Stephen Prickett, Victorian Fantasy (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2005, and Francis O’Gorman, ‘Realism and Romance’ in The Cambridge History of the English Novel, ed. by Robert L. Caserio and Clement Hawes (Cambridge: CUP, 2012), pp. 485-499.
[12] Emily of New Moon, p. 5.
[13] Emily’s Quest (Toronto: Seal, 1992), pp. 88-89.
[14] Emily Climbs, p. 90.
[15] Emily Climbs, p. 262.

No comments:

Post a Comment