Spoiler alert–Emily wins.
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 Gables, Anne 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.]
I 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.