How Emily of New Moon Inspired (And Continues To Inspire) Me
Updated: Dec 9, 2020
Many people know L. M. Montgomery best for her much-loved and cherished novel Anne of Green Gables and its succeeding sequels. But many people do not know about another heroine she created, one who she admitted was more like herself than even Anne Shirley. I first encountered Emily of New Moon when I was in middle school. I can still recall to this day being captivated by it; I could not stop turning the pages. Never had I felt so deeply invested in a character’s story, and never had I felt more understood by one. Emily was all of the things I most wanted to be, fiercely individual, remarkably creative, and passionately courageous. Emily took firm hold of my heart and didn’t let go.
Emily of New Moon was born when L. M. Montgomery had met already with success as an author. It is easy at first to see how some of Emily’s characteristics remind one of Anne; bright and imaginative, Emily exemplifies in many ways what readers had already come to expect of a Montgomery heroine. But though both Anne and Emily share many similarities and find refuge in the lands of their imaginations, there is a darkness in Emily’s story that isn’t as apparent in Anne’s. Though Emily never lived in an orphanage or was hired out for work as Anne was before being adopted, Emily is forced to grapple with the trauma of losing her beloved father, whereas Anne, who had never known her parents, has nothing but wistful imaginings by which to remember them. Anne finds loving parents in Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, and, though Marilla can be stern, readers come to learn soon how much she truly cares for Anne. Emily, though she is taken in by her aunts and they are her blood relations, must struggle more to find her place in a family that, in many ways, she feels shut out of.
In Emily’s story, Montgomery doesn’t shy away from exploring the emotions and anger Emily experiences that are the result of abandonment and loss. Aunt Elizabeth in particular seems unable to know how to handle Emily’s grief with compassion and instead views all of Emily’s actions as being symptomatic of a child overindulged. Her myriad of rules only makes Emily grow more resentful and rebellious, forcing her to retreat further away from her.
Montgomery probably had some idea of what it felt like to feel neglected and misunderstood. Her mother having died when she was quite young and her father remarrying, she was sent off to live with her grandparents. She wrote years later about how she felt abandoned by her father, who rarely visited since he was occupied with his new wife and family. The characters then of Emily’s beloved father and forbidding Aunt Elizabeth seem representative of the complex emotions she felt toward her own father and grandmother. By her characterizations of the idealized father she felt she lacked in her own life, and the rigid aunt who mirrored her own grandmother, she is able to construct a story that embraces not only the fantastic view of the life she wished was, but also reflected her own reality.
Emily sought refuge in her imagination but also in the company of her friends. With Ilse, the rough-and-tumble tomboy and aspiring elocutionist, Perry, the hilarious, if a little irreverent, hired hand, and sensitive, artistic Teddy, Emily was never alone and was free to be who she truly was. This sense of camaraderie also echoes the friendships that Anne shares with Diana, Ruby, and Jane. This novel then also carries through a persistent thread that runs through many of Montgomery’s novels: that kin can be extended to include friends and chosen family as well as those related to someone by blood. Matthew and Marilla, for example, do not love Anne less because she is not their blood relation. The novel then further drives home the idea that “kindred spirits”, as Anne would call them, can manifest in many ways and forms.
Emily, much like Anne, copes with her reality by escaping from it in the world of books and words. But where the two characters differ is in the centralization of Emily’s writing talent. Emily’s writing is expressed as more of an integral part of her very being. To Emily, her writing is more akin to a spiritual calling. Her romanticized description of “the flash” or moment of inspiration takes on a fantastical symbolism. The source of these revelations Emily seems to view as existing outside of herself, and that she must surrender herself up to them. Whereas in the Anne novels Anne aspires most to love and family, in the Emily novels Emily’s writing is her muse and greatest love.
Emily’s dedication to her craft will become a source of conflict, though, between her and Aunt Elizabeth, who is frightened by this part of Emily which she does not understand. Aunt Elizabeth is unable to love Emily as she wishes to be loved because she is not able to see Emily as she really is. Emily’s passion, her ambition, strikes her as unnatural and unnerving. But Emily’s conviction, despite her aunt’s disapproval, never wavers. She persists and, ultimately, triumphs. Emily will always remain a role model for me because of the values she embodied of resilience, creativity, and strength.
Emily will always be one of my very favorite heroines from my childhood. Even as an adult, I know that whenever I need to escape from the world of reality, just for a little while, her story will be there waiting for me, ready to enchant and take me back to a more magical, simple time. Within its pages, I can still laugh with Ilse and Perry, walk the twilit fields of New Moon Farm, and sit with Saucy Sal, the imperturbable cat, in the fading light of Emily’s little room. No matter how old I get, the memories Emily brought to my childhood will remain forever to comfort, to cheer, and to inspire me. L.M. Montgomery gave me a novel that I will cherish for the rest of my life.