No Woman Is An Island — Not Even Emily Byrd Starr

Reading Emily’s Quest for the umpteenth time, I was struck by a thought about the social nature of L.M. Montgomery’s heroines.  Many of her heroines – including her most famous, Anne Shirley – have a rich inner life, where they dwell in “marble halls” of their own building.  A Montgomery heroine’s inner sanctum is a rare place, and to be admitted there is no common favor.  Emily Starr is no exception.  As a poet, Emily has a keen eye for natural beauty and she is prone to experiencing bursts of creative energy that she calls “the flash.”  You’re less likely to find Emily neglecting chores around the house in favor of daydreaming – like her literary sister Anne would and frequently did – but Emily will travel worlds in her mind while pulling onions from Aunt Elizabeth’s garden.

Yet as inwardly-focused as a Montgomery heroine can be, they are not solitary creatures.  They may often be found alone, conjuring up fanciful worlds, but they are just as often found in a group of friends.  Anne Shirley and Sara Stanley are, I think, the most social Montgomery heroines.  Sara runs in a pack throughout The Story Girl and The Golden Road.  And Anne’s life is immeasurably richer because of the bonds she forms, not only with Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, but with all the people of Avonlea – her “bosom friend” Diana Barry; enemy turned friend turned love Gilbert Blythe; college pals Stella, Priscilla and Philippa; fellow Avonlea girls Jane and Ruby; even Mrs. Rachel Lynde and all the many people she meets as a young wife.  When a Montgomery heroine is missing those social bonds – like Jane Stuart during her winters in Toronto in her grandmother’s big unfriendly mansion – she feels the lack very deeply.

Warning – spoilers!

Emily spends most of Emily’s Quest feeling very lonely and solitary indeed.  When the story opens, she has returned to New Moon after three years at Shrewsbury High School, and the solitary life she dreaded in Emily Climbs, when it seemed that all three of her closest friends would be going to high school without her, is now upon her.  Teddy and Ilse have moved to Montreal to study for their chosen careers as artist and actress, respectively, and Perry is an apprentice lawyer in Charlottetown.  Emily, meanwhile, has declined Janet Royal’s offer of a position on a magazine in New York City, and is back in her old room at New Moon, looking to climb the Alpine Path.

Of course Emily is not completely alone.  Aunt Elizabeth, Aunt Laura and Cousin Jimmy all remain at New Moon – although everyone is getting older.  The people of Shrewsbury make sure to include Emily in the town’s social life, since they’re all concerned she’ll “put them in a book” if they offend her.  And creeper Dean Priest is still coming around, sometimes seeming like the only friend Emily has left.  He’s far from a friend, though – jealous and possessive, he lies to Emily about the merits of her first book, telling her that it is, basically, clunky and wooden – because he hates and is jealous of her writing.  (A very Mrs. Kent-ish thing to do, although neither Emily nor Dean seems to realize that.)  The result is that Emily burns her book and then takes a near-fatal fall down the New Moon stairs.  When she recovers, Dean proposes to her and she accepts, even though she knows she does not love him.  The only person who is really happy about this turn of events is Dean.  The New Moon elders aren’t thrilled but don’t feel they can do anything to prevent it.  Emily herself is determined to make the best of things and insists that she will be contented as Dean’s wife and mistress of the Disappointed House, which he buys for her.  Yet after a supernatural episode in which she prevents Teddy from sailing on a doomed ship, Emily realizes that she cannot marry Dean, because she loves Teddy – even if he does not love her.  She breaks the engagement, and then Dean confesses that he lied to her about the merits of her first – still burnt – book.

Emily was solitary throughout her engagement to Dean – cut off from her friends, bearing alone the pain of knowing that she was engaged to marry a man she did not love – and she is solitary after it ends.  She feels freer once the engagement is broken, but she is soon burdened again by sadness – this time brought about by her misunderstanding of the relationship between Teddy and Ilse.  Believing Teddy to be in love with Ilse, Emily draws back from both old friends, but Teddy in particular.  There are several misunderstandings that contribute to the situation, and Emily’s “Murray pride” makes everything worse.  When Ilse announces her engagement to Teddy, Emily makes a heroic – Elinor Dashwood-style – effort to be happy for her friends, silently heartsick with the prospect of a lonely life for herself.  Of course, enough misunderstandings and you’ll find yourself back on course; when a wedding guest blurts out that Perry Miller has been killed in a car crash in Charlottetown, Ilse – with ten minutes to go before she is supposed to become Teddy’s wife – bolts to the side of the man she has always truly loved, leaving Teddy free and Emily to pick up the pieces and smooth over the scandal. (Don’t worry – Perry is actually fine.)

Emily’s Quest is one of L.M. Montgomery’s darkest books.  No sun-drenched picnics with school friends here – Emily labors alone through her days, and much of the book takes place in the bleakest months of fall and winter, matching Emily’s emotional state.  Even as Emily racks up career successes – more thin envelopes containing acceptances than fat ones containing returned manuscripts these days – she feels the loss of her friends and her chance at love.  I have always thought of Emily as one of the more self-sufficient heroines in literature; I think she is – but she’s no hermit.  She may understand that walking the “Alpine Path” to fame as a writer is a solitary pursuit, but Emily needs to come down from her heights occasionally and bask in the love of her family and friends.  Ilse, bless her, does not realize this at all, believing Emily to be single-mindedly devoted to writing and without a care for any human of the boy variety.  Yet Emily wants friendship – she wants love – and she spends most of Emily’s Quest starved for both.  It’s a reminder to those of us (raises hand) who sometimes daydream about living the hermit life of a modern-day Thoreau – no woman is an island.

But I can’t close on a bleak note.  The writing in Emily’s Quest is just as evocative and transporting as the writing in the first two Emily books – and, indeed, in all of Montgomery’s work.  So I give you my favorite passage from this installment in Emily’s journey:

I picked strawberries on the banks of Blair Water this afternoon among the windy, sweet-smelling grasses.  I love picking strawberries.  The occupation has in it something of perpetual youth.  The gods might have picked strawberries on high Olympus without injuring their dignity.  A queen – or a poet – might stoop to it; a beggar has the privilege.

And tonight, I’ve been sitting here in my dear old room, with my dear books and dear pictures and dear little window of the kinky panes, dreaming in the soft, odorous summer twilight, while the robins are calling to each other in Lofty John’s bush and the poplars are talking eerily of old, forgotten things.

After all, it’s not a bad old world – and the folks in it are not half bad either.  Even Emily Byrd Starr is decent in spots.  Not altogether the false, fickle, ungrateful perversity she thinks she is in the wee sma’s – not altogether the friendless, forgotten maiden she imagines she is on white nights – not altogether the failure she supposes bitterly when three MSS. are rejected in succession.  And not altogether the coward she feels herself to be when she thinks of Frederick Kent’s coming to Blair Water in July.

That’s it for me!  Thanks very much to Naomi for hosting #ReadingEmily and giving me an excuse to visit with my favorite Montgomery heroine again.  It’s been fun not only to re-read the books, but to meet new friends and read others’ take on “that proud Miss Starr.”

8 thoughts on “No Woman Is An Island — Not Even Emily Byrd Starr

  1. Wonderful post, Jaclyn! Emily did have such a rough time in this book, but always managed to pull through. I imagine it reflects LMM’s own experience with depressive episodes, but I wonder if she gives her heroine more of what she wishes she could give herself. I would love to know.
    Even when Ilse and Teddy come home to visit her, it’s just not the same as it used to be – they’re awkward with each other, with Ilse babbling on to fill in all the spaces. But even that felt so real – more so than having everything stay the same all the time. The Emily books seem to dwell more on the dark side of change than the Anne books do.
    Thanks so much for joining in the Readalong! It was so nice to “meet” you! Sarah and I are now planning a readalong of The Blue Castle in November, if you’re interested…. 🙂

    • Thanks for your (as always) kind and insightful comment, Naomi! Time does march on, even on magical P.E.I. Those awkward scenes with Ilse and Teddy visiting were certainly real and cringeworthy – they reminded me of returning to my parents’ house on college breaks and finding that I had been growing apart from my high school friends. We had some awkward visits of our own…

      I’m absolutely in for a Blue Castle readalong in November! That’s actually one of the very few Montgomery novels I’ve never read. So it sounds great! Thanks again for hosting these events. Such fun, and I’ve loved getting to “meet” you and the others!

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  3. I like what you say about the rich inner lives of Montgomery’s heroines. They are so often in search of some form of balance between time spent with friends and time spent alone. Thanks for your thoughts on Emily here and in your earlier posts! I’m delighted to hear that you’ll join us in reading The Blue Castle in November. It’s been wonderful to meet you and I’ll look forward to future conversations about LMM.

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  5. So I know this three years olf…but Emily’s quest is one of my favourites beyond Rilla and Blue Castle. that said…Dean Priest as I read it now in the 21st century at 32 years old….oh my Dean Priest. Jealous of her writing, jealous about time spent doing things. Playing into some strange fantasy of his that Emily is his…and essentially grooms her in many ways from a very young age, to trust what he thinks of her and her writing. I used to think it was rather dashing as a teenager, he seemed to love her and yes times were different but 19 and 42!!!! 22 years! Still, the book is a favourite, the clothing that is barely described. Wondering if the war happened( and was ignored like the Halifax explosion in Rilla), or the war is just about to happen as Teddy and Emily get married. I adore it all. All the miscommunication, and awkward summers, all the learning that comes with adulthood. I loved it so much!

    • Agreed! When I first read Emily’s Quest as a teenager, I totally blew past the age difference between Emily and Dean. I was a Teddy fan and always rooted for Emily and Teddy to get together in the end, but it wasn’t until I read the book as an adult – and a mother – that I realized how deeply gross Dean Priest is. I have to agree with Emily’s aunt brigade these days! Your question about the war is really interesting and something I never considered. Now I’m thinking back to the timing of the books and wondering myself… Thanks so much for your comment, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

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