Thursday, June 07, 2012

Writers on Writing: Morgan Gallagher on "Emily of New Moon"

Emily of New Moon by Lucy Maud Montgomery
I don’t remember how old I was when I first read Anne of Green Gables. Early memories of it being a BBC television series mingle with the thrill of sitting on the couch reading it (wishing I was up a tree, covered in cherry blossom, both the tree and I). I know I read all the way through the entire series, and have read them all frequently throughout my life. From childhood empathy and association with being the chatter-box who was the ‘odd one out’, to the more adult empathy and appreciation of Lucy Maud’s writing; my life journey has always involved Anne, Lucy, and their collective world. In the pages of Lucy Maud, you will find the whole world and all its people; in a lyrical and poetic wonderland of delicate description and understated knowledge of the human condition.

Lucy Maud’s stories for children are not fairy tales and wishing wells and magical enchantment. Whilst they are delicately described they are stories of children who have been bereaved, troubled, dismissed as trash and who walk a troubled path of life. But they walk in that path with decent human beings around them, trying to construct a decent life. Poverty, hard ship and death linger in the stories, in the background, and her Tales of Avonlea reveal all the foibles of all the people in any village in the world. Anne herself is sent to an orphanage in her early weeks, both parents dead of fever. She is raised in a harsh world and sent out as a child worker, to earn her keep in the over populated families in need of a free baby sitter and cleaner. A wild spirit on the verge of being broken, Anne finds at Green Gables, the peace and understanding she needs. Anne and I were soul mates, and I never thought I could hold another of Lucy Maud’s creations with the same passion.

Then, in my mid-thirties, I was handed Emily of New Moon. Emily is five years old in the opening pages, and her beloved father dies and she is sent off to live with relatives that do not understand her strangeness. Her imagination, her love of beauty, and her ‘flashes’. Emily is written in the haunting, evocative prose that Lucy Maud excels at, which I can only look upon with green eyes and longing:

It had always seemed to Emily, ever since she could remember, that
she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it
and herself hung only a thin curtain; she could never draw the
curtain aside--but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered
it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting
realm beyond--only a glimpse--and heard a note of unearthly music.

This moment came rarely--went swiftly, leaving her breathless with
the inexpressible delight of it. She could never recall it--never
summon it--never pretend it; but the wonder of it stayed with her
for days. It never came twice with the same thing. To-night the
dark boughs against that far-off sky had given it. It had come
with a high, wild note of wind in the night, with a shadow wave
over a ripe field, with a greybird lighting on her window-sill in a
storm, with the singing of "Holy, holy, holy" in church, with a
glimpse of the kitchen fire when she had come home on a dark autumn
night, with the spirit-like blue of ice palms on a twilit pane,
with a felicitous new word when she was writing down a "description"
of something. And always when the flash came to her Emily felt that
life was a wonderful, mysterious thing of persistent beauty.

Whenever I fight with description or wonder if there is any worth in my writing, I return to Emily and her three books. Emily is a writer born. She struggles to write down the world around her, and fights as a female in a world of restricted, domestic lives, to be a writer. Like me, she goes to sleep at night knowing she has written the best piece of the prose the world has ever seen, and rises in the morning to discover it is dust and trickery. It led me to read Montgomery’s autobiography, a book I recommend to all writers: The Alpine Path: The Story of My Career. Unlike her fiction, her autobiography is sparse and spare, but so very worth reading when one is also trying to climb the alpine path of writing for a living. Emily inspires me, continually: whether I read it as an adult, a reader, a writer. It contains all the magic and wonder of Lucy Maud’s ability to look closely at the small detail in the world (in a garden, in a kitchen, in a sunset) and to see the world through the eyes of those who notice beauty and wonder in everything. It also makes me weep for longing that I could ever write one paragraph of description of a star filled sky looking down on the woods and fields of Prince Edward Island, as she does. Description, I’m not that good at: it does the soul good to read someone who is so brilliant at it.

Emily of New Moon is a book of childhood. But it is not only for children. If you have never read it, I recommend it now. Anne is wonderful, but Montgomery has many more girls to read about than Anne, and Emily is one of the finest.
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Morgan Gallagher is a writer of psychological horror in the modern world. Her new book of short stories, Fragments, is just out. Changeling, her first novel, is a brutal tale of a young woman kidnapped by a vampire. She lives in the Scottish Borders with her husband and her young son.

2 comments:

  1. I will never forget the way the Emily books made me feel as a child. And after reading this I cannot wait to revisit them as an adult.

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  2. I can see why a writer would adore Emily. I liked her, but I'll always be in love with Anne.

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