At times charming novel with sinister and sexist undertones
I have a confession to make: I don’t particularly like L M Montgomery. I read the Anne of Green Gables series as a child, but always found the characters a little hard to like, a little too earnest. But I suppose the fact that I kept reading says a lot. I came to read Emily of New Moon as it is on the 100 Books that Shaped Our World list, which I’m trying to complete as part of my 30 before 30 challenge. I’m trying to not just buy all 100 books, and Emily of New Moon was available through Prime Reading, so I overcame my reservations and snapped up a copy.
I went into it expecting to find it a bit sickly, and early signs weren’t great. References to ‘Fairyland’ and the ‘Wind Woman’ and so on were just the kind of saccharine stuff I was fearing, and are too far from my own childhood experiences for me to get into. I was, probably to my detriment, always a realist, and though I fell for fantasy and historical novels, I could never get behind the idea that they might really exist. I was more into Robin Hood (another kind of legend).
But, with a little perseverance, I found Emily of New Moon quite charming. There is a self-awareness to Montgomery’s writing that was clearly lost on me as a child, and Emily’s silliness is the source of gentle ribbing and teasing, not heartfelt sincerity. She is, for all her potential for exaggeration, quite a realistic character. The relationships between female characters are well-observed, and from the lovely Aunt Laura to the awful Rhoda Stuart, Montgomery seems to understand the key beats of female friendships. The strange intensity of childhood friendships are also well presented.
Where Montgomery falls down is in her depiction of male characters. Few of these get beyond caricature – they are almost all delightful and charming men drawn, quite creepily, to Emily’s winning looks. It is frankly disturbing reading about so many men who are attracted to this CHILD by her seductive eyes. For all its focus on women and their dreams, there is a strong shot of misogyny running through Emily of New Moon. There are no real male villains (although there aren’t that many villains full stop to be fair), and men are constantly the source of wisdom and comfort in a way none of the female characters are. The seductive quality of Emily’s looks is constantly commented on, and, the height of creepiness, one character (who we are clearly supposed to admire), asks her age, and then says he will ‘wait’ for her. Their relationship proceeds to be written in a way that clearly implies that this fully grown man is actually in love with Emily. I’m not quite sure how Montgomery wants us to feel about these interactions – even the Catholic priest is obsessed with how Emily looks. There is an awareness that Montgomery is paving the way for sequels, but overall it lends the book an uncomfortable undercurrent. Perhaps it’s a way of showing that, whatever her talent, Emily, as a woman, will be judged first and foremost for her looks. But Montgomery feels too complicit in these judgements for that to be her intent.
It’s not exactly surprising that a book of this period wouldn’t have a particularly enlightening approach to gender. It is by no means a lost cause; there is a lot to be pleased with in the book. Emily is an independent thinker at peace with and confident in her own intelligence, determined to make her own way in the world. But as for girls today reading it, I’m not sure I’d recommend it. The underlying message of male superiority is so subtly weaved throughout the novel that it’s hard to combat.
If it were a more openly misogynistic text you’d be able to call it out, and use it as a point of difference – an educational moment. But Emily of New Moon rather presents a sort of cultural misogyny, where men are great, and women, even the good ones, are no match for their wisdom, kindness, or understanding. The encouragement Emily receives in her writing is from men, and the angry, spinster teacher who derides her efforts is of course replaced by a likeable man, who does encourage her. It is only once she receives male blessing that Emily feels truly confident in her potential. Women are reduced to emotional gossips, and even charming Aunt Laura doesn’t ‘get’ Emily, or why she would want to write. Women view Emily with suspicion and uncertainty, whereas every man recognises something ‘special’ in her. Would it have been so difficult to include an intelligent and insightful woman? Perhaps this is a sort of proto-‘not like other girls’ moment – Emily needs to be contrasted to other women to make her special.
I’m not going to say I didn’t enjoy Emily of New Moon, because I did. It is a fun romp with a heavily nostalgic, idyllic tone to it. It is in places the distillation of #cottagecore in novel form. All very nice, all quite charming. But I’m glad I came to it as an adult, and not as a suggestible and susceptible child.
What did you think of Emily of New Moon? Do you like Montgomery’s writing? I think I’m in the situation of head versus heart. I know there’s a lot in her writing that appeals to me, and that I should enjoy, but I just can’t quite get over the things that irk me about it. I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please do share them in the comments below.