For Carrie‘s Lucy Maud Montgomery Reading Challenge and her Reading to Know Classics Book Club for January, I read Emily Climbs by L. M. Montgomery, the second in her Emily of New Moon series. In the first book (reviewed here), Emily’s father had died and she was taken in by his people, the proud Murray clan. They did right by her in taking her in and taking care of her, but she and her Aunt Elizabeth, with whom she stayed, clashed at nearly every turn. Finally toward the end of the book they came to something of an understanding.
In this second book, Emily wants to go with her friends to high school in another town, Shrewsbury. Aunt Elizabeth says she may if she will board with her Aunt Ruth and if she will agree not to write during the years she is at school. Aunt Elizabeth has always felt that Emily’s “scribblings” were a waste of time, but to Emily they were a much-needed outlet. Emily refuses this. Cousin Jimmy, always her friend and champion, suggests a compromise: that Emily not write any fiction during that time, but she would be free to write articles and poems and write in her journal. Emily doesn’t think this idea is much better at first, but finally she and Aunt Elizabeth agree.
Aunt Ruth is in many ways worse than Aunt Elizabeth. She is much harsher, suspicious of everything Emily does and not believing her explanations. Emily finds some consolation in the beautiful landscape outside her window and in her friends, despite the various scrapes they get into.
When some of her writing is actually published, her family begins to wonder if it might be worthwhile after all, and when it opens a possible opportunity to leave the area and write as a career, Emily is sorely tempted.
The Emily books are more autobiographical than the Anne books, and if much of what Emily went through is what Maud went through, I can understand a bit why she was so unhappy as an adult. To be honest, I really didn’t like this book much at all until the last few chapters. Of course I didn’t expect them to be just like the Anne books: they would be redundant if they were. There are similarities between the two: both are orphaned and taken in to live with a single older lady who is a bit stern, with an older male relative who softens the situation. Both have a love of nature and imagination. The towns of both are full of busybodies and gossips. Each has a close friend and an arch-enemy. But there is a charm and a winsomeness about the Anne books that is largely missing in the Emily books, in my opinion anyway. There is a harshness and cattiness in the books, and even in Emily herself. She is quite sarcastic and rightly earns her aunt’s accusation of being impertinent. Her friend Ilse’s primary characteristic is her temper. When someone questions Emily after hearing that Ilse had slapped a Mrs. Adamson, Emily replies, “Mrs. Adamson needed it. She’s an odious woman — always crying when there’s no need in the world for her to cry. There’s nothing more aggravating.” If I had read this when my kids were younger, I don’t think I would have recommended it to them, at least not without a lot of discussion.
There are also a couple of weird psychic experiences in the book. When a biographer of L. M. M.‘s talked about pagan influences and attributed much of the nature loving in the Anne books to paganism, I disagreed, but this book makes me think she might possibly be right. Even one of Emily’s teachers tells her one of her poems is “sheer Paganism.” Emily comments often that there seems to be a someone or something urging that kind of thing in her thinking.
There were a couple of things I liked. When Emily first comes to her room at Aunt Ruth’s house and doesn’t like anything about it, she looks out the window at a beautiful scene that gladdens her heart. She says to herself, “Oh, this is beautiful. Father told me once that one could find something beautiful to love everywhere. I’ll love this.” In a later chapter, while reading a book that had belonged to her father, Emily says, “The book I’m reading tonight is a wonderful one – wonderful in plot and conception — wonderful in its grasp of motives and passions. As I read it I feel humbled and insignificant — which is good for me. I say to myself, ‘You poor, pitiful little creature, did you ever imagine you could write? If so, your delusion is now stripped away from you forever and you behold yourself in your naked paltriness.'” It’s an experience I think every would-be writer probably has at some point and shows a rare glimpse of humility in her. She does determine to keep writing and do her best and improve along the way. I also was much amused by a later chapter involving a meeting with a famous author and a dog.
I was pretty sure I was not going to go on and read the last book in the series, but near the end of this one there were some improvements. It doesn’t exactly redeem itself, but there are signs that Emily is maturing and that her family is starting to see and appreciate her in new ways and vice verse, so probably by the next book that trend will continue. But if I do read it, I’ll save it for next year’s L. M. M. Reading Challenge.
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)