Emily of New Moon vs. Anne of Green Gables

Spoiler alert–Emily wins.

n59419 Sorry Anne fans, but if Anne Shirley is the boisterous poster child for all that is sunny and sentimental about L. M. Montgomery’s  Prince Edward Island, Emily Starr is the quiet and dignified young ambassador for its darker, lonelier, and sadder beauty. Both girls are orphans, both do, eventually, find their “rainbow gold” (critics often argue Anne achieves this only by lowering her expectations), but only one girl truly visits the “depths of despair” in her young womanhood, and for all her melodramatic theatrics, that girl is not Anne Shirley.

[Note – For the purposes of this post I am comparing the three Emily books (Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest) with only the first three Anne novels (Anne of Green GablesAnne of Avonlea, and Anne of the Island). There are two reasons for this. Firstly, I couldn’t bring myself to read past the third Anne book. Secondly, by cutting the Anne books off after the third, we are finishing with both heroines at a similar age and marital status, since their girlhood and young adulthood is what I’m interested in anyways.]

anne_of_green_gables1I suppose I can start with the obvious: the writing in the Emily trilogy is, quite simply, better. This isn’t Anne’s fault. After Anne of Green Gables was first published, L. M. Montgomery had 15 years to become a better writer before Emily of New Moon came into existence. One would assume that a writer would become better after 15 years, and Montgomery did–she managed to retain the charming characters and setting that made Anne of Green Gables so beloved, but with Emily the plot as a whole was stronger, the stakes higher, and the narrator’s sense of humour and pathos considerably sharper. Emily Starr inhabits her world, and is constrained by its constraints; she doesn’t simply overrule them the way Anne does.

Obviously, the perceived strengths of each character and their journey depend upon what you, the reader, feel is more important in a story. Despite its relative safety and domesticity, the story of Anne Shirley reads like a fairytale–somehow, despite an early childhood of abuse and neglect, a little girl is able to be infallibly romantic and optimistic, charm every single person she ever meets, win top honours in every academic trial she encounters, and eventually realizes that the man she spent years declining really is the man she wants after all (boring Gilbert from Avonlea was her dashing prince all along! Quelle surpise!). Interestingly enough, despite Emily Starr’s possession of her Grandmother Shipley’s “second sight” (used incredibly sparingly as a plot device), her life and world are simply more human–once an orphan, Emily is misunderstood and treated unfairly by the adults in her life, and teased and resented by her peers. The love she gains (and is able to give in return) is hard-won on both sides, the outcome of conflict and compromise and not simply “charm”. Essentially, if you want the endearing dew-bright fairytale, Anne Shirley is the heroine for you. But if you want a character that’s a little more human (whose failures and disappointments make her triumphs that much sweeter), Emily Starr will deliver.

Still not convinced? If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool devotee of “that Anne-girl” you probably never will be, but just for fun, consider the following:

  • Anne and Emily share a similar character flaw (pride), but Anne’s is literally only skin deep. If you’ve read Anne of Green Gables (or watched the CBC mini series) you will remember the time Anne broke a slate on Gilbert’s head (and refused to forgive him for years) because he called her “Carrots”, or the time she dyed her hair green, or her nose purple (later book). One could say Anne is beset by pride, which can make for an interesting character flaw, but in actuality she merely suffers from pride’s annoying little cousin–vanity. BORING. Emily, though not at all vain, is acutely proud–proud of her late father (who is despised by her new guardians in her extended family), proud of her extended family (despite their sometimes unjust treatment of her), proud of her friends (despite their occasionally spotty reputation), proud of her composure (even to her detriment), and proud of being a writer. These various kinds of pride clash with the desires of her community, her family, her peers, and her heart in ways that are important to Emily’s growth as a character, a woman, and a writer, but they are also integral to the plot. The consequences of Anne’s vanity are as superficial as the flaw itself–hair grows back, forgiveness is granted, love restored. The consequences of Emily’s pride are lasting, and she must learn to live with them.
  • Anne Shirley writes, but Emily Starr is a writer. Sure, Anne scribbles down a few hilariously flowery romances (remember “Averill’s Atonement”?), and eventually pops out a little book about Avonlea, but she is hardly ambitious and seems mostly to write for amusement. Conversely, the first book in the Emily trilogy ends with a realization of her commitment to her craft (described as a “jealous goddess”) despite the pains it will and does give her. As you watch Emily grow as a person you also watch her grow as an artist–the rejection letters sting, the first acceptance is a thrill, and nothing will ever fill the hole in her that writing occupies.  Though obviously Emily the Writer is specifically relevant to me, I wouldn’t require Anne to share that goal if she at least wanted something. But she doesn’t really. I suppose I could rephrase my point in a more general way:
  • Emily has a goal, but Anne does not. It’s true. Anne enjoys scholarship and getting her BA (through hard study rather than intellectual maturation it seems), but has apparently little plans to do anything with it. How convenient for her that she happens to find herself in love with Gilbert Blythe around the same time she finds herself with nothing to do! And it’s not even the feminist in me that grates against this journey–if Anne had always wanted a simple married life then achieving the means to it would be a great end to the third book, but the thing is, she never did. The reader really wants Anne and Gilbert to end up together, but for the most part, Anne herself does not. Having the heroine achieve something she never really wanted because it turns out she has nothing better to do is not my idea of a great story. (For all you naysayers who point out that maybe Anne’s goal was to be loved and have a home, I would say that’s valid, but she achieves that goal in the first book, and the next two novels are just saintly sentimental Anne Shirley spinning her wheels and staving off Gilbert’s puppy-eyed advances.)
  • Anne’s love of Gilbert is simply tacked on to the end of the third novel, while Emily’s feelings for Teddy are a force that significantly shapes her journey. Regarding Anne’s engagement to Gilbert, see above. It’s all just comfort and friendishness, with not a single spark or thrill about it. Though critics often smear Teddy Kent as a “Gilbert Blythe” type, he is no such thing. Teddy Kent is a talented visual artist with emotions and ambitions of his own. His life does not belong to Emily, and he does more with it than dote on her (his creepy mother, the “morbidly jealous” Mrs. Kent, also serves to make Teddy a more risky and thrilling proposition than safe dopey Gilbert Blythe). Apart from Teddy’s superior qualities, his relationship with Emily seems to grow organically and artfully throughout the trilogy, encountering disappointments and misunderstandings along the way. Unlike Anne and Gilbert, Emily and Teddy are NOT a foregone conclusion and the tension this creates is AWESOME. Of Miss Lavender and Mr. Irving (finally wed after a long separation in Anne of Avonlea), Gilbert once says to Anne, “wouldn’t it have been more beautiful still, Anne, if there had been NO separation or misunderstanding . . . if they had come hand in hand all the way through life, with no memories behind them but those which belonged to each other?” No, Gilbert, no it would not, at least not in a book. BORING.
  • Bad things happen to Emily. Nothing really bad of course, or it wouldn’t be an L. M. Montgomery novel, but actual bad things do happen to Emily and she is forced to bear the weight of them. It’s suggested in Anne of Green Gables that Anne’s life before Avonlea is a very unhappy one, but it seems to affect her not at all. She’s sad of course when Matthew dies and Marilla’s eyes fail and when she declines Gilbert for the first time, but it falls from her like water from a duck’s back, and through unrealistically fortunate circumstances (including the death of minor characters we’re not attached to), Anne is able to have everything she wants anyways. Not so with Emily. When it comes to Emily Starr, Montgomery has allowed her heroine to be hurt and afraid in ways Anne never was (see Emily Climbs for a truly macabre episode in which 13-year-old Emily is locked in an empty church with Mad Mr. Morrison, who believes she is his dead wife). When Emily breaks an engagement, she loses a cherished friend forever. When her teacher dies, she loses her best mentor and critic. After high school she remains on New Moon farm while her best friends pursue their careers in the wider world, growing professionally and growing apart from her. And even in the glow of the triumph of her first published novel, she still feels the sting of the loss of her forever unborn actual first book. Montgomery has given Emily permission to be depressed when life hurts, a permission she never granted Anne. Case in point:
  • The broken ankle. When Anne breaks her ankle falling off a ridgepole in Anne of Green Gables, her seven weeks on the sofa are described as merely “tedious”. “It isn’t very pleasant to be laid up;” says Anne, “but there is a bright side to it, Marilla. You find out how many friends you have. Why, even Superintendent Bell came to see me, and he’s really a very fine man.” Then she prattles away for a couple pages about “kindred spirits”. Sigh. Anne Shirley, sometimes I want to slap you right in your silly face. When Emily trips over a sewing basket and falls down the stairs, piercing her foot on the sewing scissors and nearly succumbing to a dangerous infection, her convalescence as depicted in Emily’s Quest is not quite so cheery:

…in the long nights when everything was blotted out by pain she could not face it. Even when there was no pain her nights were often sleepless and very terrible when the wind wailed drearily about the old New Moon eaves or chased flying phantoms of snow over the hills. When she slept she dreamed, and in her dreams she was for ever climbing stairs and could never get to the top of them, lured upward by an odd little whistle[…]that ever retreated as she climbed. It was better to lie awake than have that terrible, recurrent dream. Oh, those bitter nights!

Emily’s world is clearly darker than Anne’s, and for those who don’t like the darkness, I can see why spunky Anne would be a better literary companion. But doesn’t a little darkness make for a better story? Doesn’t a little pain make a character more human? Don’t ambitious goals and formidable obstacles make the reading experience more worthwhile (especially when, true to L. M. Montgomery fashion, everything works out fine in the end)?

I think so. Though Anne Shirley will always have a nostalgic little place in my heart, it is to the world of Emily Starr that I return again and again for comfort and inspiration.

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24 thoughts on “Emily of New Moon vs. Anne of Green Gables

  1. Great post! I am a fan of both girls, but also had more fondness for Emily the first time I read the trilogy. I haven’t read the books in awhile, though, and am now significantly older, so can’t sat\y whether or not I still agree. I am now feeling inspired to re-read the Emily books, though!

  2. Is it bad that I’m putting off reading Emily just in case I like her better than Anne? I can’t imagine ever loving a character more but then again Montgomery has all sorts of tricks up her sleeve. My whole existence (very much shaped by Anne) could be a lie!

    • You should definitely read Emily anyways. She’s a heroine in her own right. My hunch is that if you’re a life-long Anne fan you’ve bought into her brand of chaste optimism and that won’t change. What Emily brings is simply a more nuanced and mature view, with her bare ambitions, her acknowledged desires, and her heartbreaks. Emily is fantastic, and my favorite, but if you love Anne never fear; your nostalgia will bring you back to her every time.

  3. I could not agree more with this post! I have always been an inveterate Emily fan, and always identified with her more than Anne. It’s always been puzzling to me why Anne is so much more popular, but that’s okay – leave Emily for those of us who really appreciate her. Great insight into their characters and treatment! 🙂

  4. I love emily more but the books do make me uneasy sometimes. there’s so much angst and depression and rawness. i remember i bought them at 12 years old and i couldn’t finish the last book until i was older, it was too much.

  5. I was not aware that Emily had second-sight–she does in that horrid ’90s tv show. But, in the book, she has something called “the flash” and only people who have it understand it. I have it myself. There is a difference having visions and seeing and experiencing something you can’t describe.

    • Thanks for reading! In the books, in addition to the “flash”, Emily does indeed undergo three episodes which are attributed to the “second sight” inherited from her grandmother. In the first book she has a measles-induced vision that allows her to solve the mystery of Ilse’s mother’s disappearance. In the second, she draws the location of a missing person (whom she had never met) in her sleep. In the third, an out of body experience enables her to prevent a friend from embarking on an ill-fated sea voyage. Each time, Emily is frightened by these episodes and little is made of them afterwards. I think they are used to demonstrate her heightened sensitivity. At any rate, it’s nothing like the gross “psychic” episodes in the TV show.

      • Oh… I just started reading the series again so I forgot all about those parts, but yes, the tv show was very abusive in their use of her second-sight which was really obnoxious.

  6. I also enjoyed the Emily books more than the Anne books. For precisely the reasons you named. I am pleasantly surprised that I’m not the only one.

  7. I’m about two years late to the comment party, but just thought I’d throw my own nostalgic input. My mom gave me the Emily books when I was about 8 years old and I remember gobbling them up. I have read and re-read these books countless times and despite my love for Emily, I had never read any of L.M. Montgomery’s other works, much less any of the Anne series. I DID watch the Anne of Green Gables series with Megan Fellows when I was a kid which I did enjoy thoroughly, but I never read the books, oddly enough. Now I’m 33 and recently finished reading Emily AGAIN for the umpteenth time and as per usual I felt horribly sad when I closed the third book because there was no more. Out of desperation to satiate my ‘fix’, I decided I would try the Anne books, since I could get them free on my Kindle through Project Gutenberg. I just finished the third book last night and like the author of this article, I really have no desire to continue reading. They are cute and entertaining, but I feel so disappointed, so much that I googled “Emily is better than Anne” just to make myself feel better and to validate that I’m not the only person who feels this way, despite this almost rabid Anne following. Lauren’s article puts into words exactly everything everything that I am feeling!

  8. I was first introduced to Emily when my grandmother gave me a copy she had. I devoured the book. Imagine my angst when I found out there were sequels and, at that time, could not find them. Every where I went had Anne books, but not Emily. Finally I managed to get my hands on the sequels. When looking for them I would enquire about the Emily books and people acted like I was crazy. L. M. Montgomery wrote books about an Anne girl not Emily. As much as I hate to say it (as it is an Anne expression) I am so glad there are kindred spirits who share my views on the superiority of the Emily books. Thank you for writing this piece.

  9. Hi!
    I thought I was a little strange re-reading Emily of New Moon at aged 40 and analysing the characters to myself and to a ‘kindred spirit’ friend. I too can ‘hold wallpaper in the air’ and sometimes get the ‘flash’. I don’t see myself as an ‘Emily’, although there are similarities. I wouldn’t have been able to stand up to Aunt Elizabeth as much as she did (at the age she is in the book), but then again, I was never in a situation at that age with an authority figure who just could not understand me the way Aunt Elizabeth and Emily inhabit different planets, and therefore had my very essence on trial as Emily did (e.g. being forbidden to write fiction).
    Has anyone read Montgomery’s diaries? I have heard that there are similarities between Emily and her life.
    Another fan of old fashioned children’s books!

      • I think it may be similar to seeing the hidden picture on those “Magic Eye” posters that were all the rage in the 90s…that was my take on it anyways.

      • I can do both – hold wallpaper in the air and do those magic eye pictures, although I do get eyestrain from doing it. stare at the wallpaper and with wide open eyes (as if you are trying not to blink). let things go hazy as you focus both eyes on one spot. you should find the picture ‘pop out’ in space. you can now move the picture in the air up and down, right and left, until you ease your eyes a bit and everything goes back to normal.

  10. This post perfectly describes why I like Emily better! Anne books are a fun, sunshiny read but Emily gives me real feels. I often recommend the series to friends and rant about how great it is to have a children’s book series where the main focus is ambition – all four friends have a Great Goal in their lives. When Dean enters the story I always wonder at first why Emily finally chose Teddy over him, but then remember later that Dean turns so bitter and jealous and is an asshole about her writing because of that. Oh Dean, I feel so bad for him throughout the series. The age difference has disturbed me a bit of course, and that led me to analysing the whole timeline… and I noticed that Emily turns twelve twice! Or rather, she turns twelve and then turns thirteen two years later. I’ve now spent an afternoon googling “emily of new moon one year older” and “emily of new moon age mistake” with no result. Could it be that nobody else has noticed? Have you? Then again, it took me four reads to notice. Now I’m afraid I can’t ignore this in the future! I have to share the pain 😀

    • I actually didn’t notice, although I did notice those middle years seemed REALLY long, and also that Emily goes through experiences where she leaves the “child” or the “girl” behind more than once. Which is a bit weird..I think the “milestone” moment is one Montgomery was maybe a little too in love with in this series.

    • I noticed it too! They just skip over her first Christmas at New Moon and then act as if the first two years were only one year! I’ve been rereading and it’s driving me insane how she keeps talking about she’s “almost thirteen” and yet we all know she’s actually almost fourteen!

      • yes it is a little bit out of sorts that the two years are suddenly one, however, i can forgive LMM as this is the only book that really gets to the heart of what it is to be a teen. she manages to capture the ambition, struggles, responsibilities, frustrations, boundaries, freedom, friendship/peer pressures etc of what it is to be one. her books bring back such memories even though my life was and is so different to Emily. perhaps i am a little different to lots of adults, in that I have held on to a lot of my childhood emotional memories as I use them to help me understand children and adults I work with in counselling. I would be interested to hear from someone who hasn’t necessarily remembered too much her childhood and teens but never the less felt that LMM captured this well.

  11. I have been an Anne fan for over 30 years. Not entirely sure why I’d never read any of the Emily books, even thought I’d read some of LMM’s other stuff e.g The Story Girl. But since I finished Emily 3 I’ve been asking myself how can I go back to Anne???? She seems so simplistic and childish compared to Emily. Ok Rilla of Ingleside has its dark moments but NOTHING compared to Emily. The Dean stuff – yes I was a bit freaked by the age difference – & it was so awful when the disappointed house was left disappointed again.

    • just wondered if any of you had watched the animated emily of new moon series (Japanese with subtitles in english).
      here is a blog of the series (some spoilers)
      http://psgels.net/category/finished-series-slice-of-lifedrama/kaze-no-shoujo-emily/page/3/
      you can watch them online free – I cant find the link – does someone else have it?
      it is much more true to the three emily books then the Canadian TV series ‘Emily of New Moon’.
      i find the depiction of aunt elizabeth very telling.
      in her book montgomery makes her someone who has faults and is not very perfect, but Emily still needs to show her respect
      in the modern TV series, aunt elizabeth has been given much more faults than in the book, and this makes it harder for Emily to feel respect towards her.
      in the Japenese animation series aunt elizabeth is depicted as an almost ‘perfect’ being – perhaps telling of a culture in which elders are to respected and considered ‘perfect’? i actually prefer the aunt elizabeth in this series more than in the book and the TV programme. here is an example of how the book story was changed to support this ethos. in the first episode they make it aunt ruth who suggests the drawing of the lots, and then when emily draws it, but before she reads it, aunt elizabeth takes the paper from her, screws it up, and says its not necessary, becasue as the head of the family it was her duty to take her in etc.

      • This sounds amazing. I must check this out. I can see why the Japanese might not quite “get” the relationship between Emily & Aunt Elizabeth, however. I like how LMM only gives very small insights into Aunt E. N & how she really feels about her niece.

      • I’ve seen the whole anime! You can find it at kissanime.to, or at least that’s where I watched it. It has a clear Japanese style, which can be a bit off-putting if you’re not familiar with anime. But I liked the way most characers were portrayed. It’s faithful enough to the books but also has lots of variation, a bit more dramatic takes on some things and more detailed descriptions of others. A thing that disturbed me is that the subtitles are made by fans, so Emily’s poems might be beautiful in Japanese but sound rather woody in English. All in all it’s pretty and fun to watch 🙂

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