Friday, September 16, 2011

Emily of New Moon and Portrait of the Artist as a Child

42. Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery

Recently, I discovered on Netflix that Canadian TV had produced a television series of Emily of New Moon. I had gobbled up the Anne of Green Gables books as a child and when those were done, I turned next to the Emily trilogy. What a treat! If Anne was exquisite, Emily was divine. Anne and Emily are both aspiring child writers growing up on Prince Edward Island, but the Anne stories are really about Anne's adventures and friendships more than her writing. Not so with Emily. While there are still delightful childish adventures, Emily is very much a book and a trilogy about a writer coming of age. Some chapters are written entirely in Emily's voice, in her Jimmy-books, notebooks given to her by her cousin Jimmy in defiance of her tyrannical Aunt Elizabeth. We get to see some of her poems and hear about the stories she is writing. One can only imagine that the more subdued Emily is a closer portrayal of L.M. Montgomery's own development as a writer, especially since they share many of the same flaws, including overly "fine" descriptions and a prolific use of italics!

Upon discovering the TV series, I had to watch it. And upon watching the TV series, I had to reread the books. Within one week, I had watched more than half of the 13-episode first season and re-read the first book. I am now in the middle of the second book, Emily Climbs, which has been a more daunting proposition for me as I don't actually own it. I remember procuring the second and third books from the library as a kid, but the library near me doesn't seem to have it anymore, so I am reduced to reading it online. Thank goodness for Gutenberg Australia, who seem to love L.M. Montgomery as much as I do. I am happy to report that the TV series sticks very close to the spirit of the books, and while it does take liberties in embellishing stories from the book or inventing its own stories, the story arcs fit in almost seamlessly with Montgomery's style and themes. The characters and overarching plot remain the same.

All this brings me to my central question. What should the childhood of an author look like? Emily is relentlessly fanciful and invents all kinds of imaginary friends, like the Wind Woman, and assigns personalities to trees and houses. Imaginary friends and anthropomorphizing nature are also elements of Anne's character. Both girls are orphaned and oppressed by uptight, domineering women, though Aunt Elizabeth is certainly more formidable than Anne's Marilla. Emily is forever scribbling, she describes a sense of rapture that she calls "the flash" that occurs when she views a particularly beautiful natural spectacle or meets someone fascinating. She writes poetry and epics, favoring absurdly romantic plotlines. [Aside-While L.M. Montgomery's style of writing could certainly be called romantic in its emphasis on sensitivity to nature and beauty, she writes about the ordinary life she must have known, not the knights and ladies, priests and nuns that Emily invents. In that way, she learned well the lesson that Emily's mentors try to teach her, though it looks like she never could curb all of the "fine" detail. It's funny, because in some ways I do consider it a weakness in her writing, that she has to describe every sunset and every field, on the other hand it's as if the text itself is aligned with the mood of the characters.]
Emily's gift in writing is acknowledged repeatedly throughout the book by characters who know what they are talking about; Emily's father, a failed journalist, a Catholic priest she encounters, a family connection and older friend Dean "Jarback" Priest, her friends Teddy, Perry, and Ilse, and of course Cousin Jimmy. What I wonder is: did Lucy Maud Montgomery believe that only fanciful, sensitive children could be writers? Did she believe that suffering in childhood was necessary to a budding writer? Did she believe that writers were born and not made?

Another interesting angle to explore is another author's portrayal of a young writer's childhood; James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen is shown as unusually impressionable and sensitive, and the book ends with writing from his journal. Stephen does not consciously scribble like Emily, but the thoughts in his head often sound wild and romantic. He is obsessed more with the sounds and sensations of the city of Dublin than those of nature, but that reflects his urban upbringing. Why did both authors seem to arrive at the conclusion that sensitivity is intrinsic to the nature of the artist?

As an aspiring author, I've often compared myself to Anne and especially to Emily and fallen short. While there are numerous childhood scribblings, none of them, I feel, have really any merit whatsoever. In recent years, I've barely written anything creatively and what I have is mostly drivel. I have lots of ideas, but not the time or patience thus far to put them into practice. Was I sensitive as a child? Yes, but in a way that simply resulted in me being very hurt all the time and no good poems to show for it. I was less tuned in to people than I was terrorized. As I got older, I developed a rather thick skin, which I think has been very good for me. However, I do very much admire L.M. Montgomery and consider her a model for things that I would like to write someday. I hope my lack of a tragic, overly imaginative childhood hasn't doomed me.

What do you think a writer's childhood should look like? Do you agree or disagree with Montgomery's portrayal?

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