Friday, September 04, 2009

Emily of New Moon, by Lucy Maud Montgomery

This is the first in a series of three autobiographical novels by Lucy Maud Montgomery, about growing up in rural Canada. I don’t know much of the biographical details of Montgomery’s life, so I don’t know how much of Emily of New Moon is fact and how much fiction. In fact, I don’t even know if the novel is supposed to be autobiographical, it’s just that it very much reads that way.

The story is about a young orphan, Emily Byrd Starr (I know, what a name!), who goes to live with relatives at New Moon Farm (again, the sort of literary excess that Emily herself would be scolded for by her teacher Mr Carpenter.)

That accounts for Emily’s exterior life. As far as I know, Montgomery was not an orphan. So this can’t be an autobiographical detail. Yet she imagines it so much in her fiction (counting the newly exhumed and published 9th novel in the Anne of Green Gables series, that makes some 12 novels whose main character happens to be an orphan.) it seems that Montgomery may well have thought herself to be at least spiritually an orphan.

The interior life of Emily Byrd Starr is quite obviously autobiographical, for it tells of the young orphan’s desire to be a writer. This is, I would venture, what really drives the novel: the questing writer in search of herself.

Montgomery describes the naked desire of the writer to achieve wealth and fame. To be adored by the multitudes for your genius and creativity and sheer ability. Gertrude Stein put it better: when asked why writers wrote she exclaimed, ‘For the praise, for the praise.’

But at core, the real reason that Emily writes is simply because her daemon drives her. This is what the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer called one’s ‘will’.

Emily has this compulsion, the need to write everything down – everything from her day to day observations, right up to the flowery and affected poetry she indulges in. For Emily, the threat of running out of paper can almost bring on an anxiety attack.

As I was reading these passages, I was distinctly reminded of a passage I read in a biography of Charlotte Bronte. A local shop proprieter described the sisters -–Anne, Emily and Charlotte – on their frequent visits to pick up supplies. The one thing that made them anxious was that there should be enough stocks of paper for them to buy. In fact, as I read Emily of New Moon Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre kept coming to mind, and I was pleased when a line from Jane Eyre was actually quoted in the text.

So, in a way, this novel is very much about the process of writing, or more accurately how writers bring themselves into being. For the reader, the joy is to be invited along on this romantic quest. We get to be a part of the creative process by imagining along with Emily.

If you’re like me, and dabble in the occasional literary composition, you may find that Emily of New Moon prompts you to ruminate on reading as an act of creativity in itself. Again, I say this because the novel invites the reader to imagine becoming a writer. With no one to look over our shoulder and giggle at this flight of fancy, we as readers let ourselves go and imagine ourselves as artists in the act of creation.

I’ve long been a fan of the French artist Marcel Duchamp’s theory that the artist is only half the work of art – the viewer is the other half who completes the work. The artist and musician, Prince, has made similar statements in the liner notes of his albums. In the liner notes to Prince’s The Rainbow Children album he lists the instruments as being played by ‘Prince and ……U’. That is, he considers the listener to be equal in the technical and creative process of making the album. The Canadian writer, John Ralston Saul, notes that a good novelist makes the reader feel almost like they had written the novel themselves.

I felt that Lucy Maud Montgomery had a spirit of this in Emily of New Moon. The lesson that is drawn for Emily at the end of the novel is that she should only write about what she knows from personal experience. Only in this way can her writing be authentic. This is a somewhat painful but necessary lesson, for Emily and the reader alike. We don’t like to see Emily disappointed in her quest to be a writer. Yet we know the painful criticism of most of her work as rubbish by her teacher Mr Carpenter opens another door for Emily. It allows her to improve herself as an artist.
This is a novel about a young girl in the act of self-creation as a writer. It reminded me a lot of Charlotte Bronte’s Jayne Eyre, but without that novel’s unfortunate excesses. I look forward to reading the second novel in the series.

1 comment:

Vanessa said...

Bronte was one of Montgomery's favourite influences, and I'm sure she would have been pleased to have someone say her's was better except for the "excesses." Yes, I think she would have liked that comment very much. Enjoy the second one, and be prepared for disappointment in the third.