As a child, I was verbal, bookish, imaginative, romantic, and creative. (Also bossy.) When I cleaned the bathroom, I imagined myself as a tragic princess-type, a la Cinderella or Sara Crew. When I washed dishes I pretended it was hard, closeknit olden times and I was someone like Laura Ingalls or Jo March. These heroines inspired and reflected me, but none so much as Anne Shirley.
Anne (of Green Gables and nearby areas) is bookish, imaginative, romantic, and creative. Like I did, she longs for a true “bosom companion.” (The incredibly high standards set for friendship by author L. M. Montgomery may partially explain my complicated history of youthful friendship.) She is talkative to the point of annoying, as I was. (As I am?) She seemed a character out of time and also timeless, an aspirational figure for how to be.
Recently I re-read most of the “Anne” books and found them strangely stilted, particularly as Anne grew further from her precocious child self. There’s a conservatism to Anne’s larger story that feels a bit stodgy and staid to my adult eyes.
Fortunately, Montgomery also gave us Emily.
Emily Byrd Starr feels almost like a corrective to Anne, as if Montgomery, now established as an author, could write a darker, more complicated version of her heroine. Emily shares many aspects with Anne and her ilk—imagination, creativity, a tragic history, self possession, deep loyalty. But Emily is a more mysterious individual than is Anne. Anne warms like June and sunshine; Emily conjurs moonlight and winter nights.
As a child, I did not identify with Emily as I did with Anne but I found her intriguing. Now I appreciate Emily’s complexity. So here are my reasons for preferring Emily over Anne:
1. Darkness – I already mentioned that Emily is darker and more mysterious than Anne. She also has literal psychic powers, which challenge the respectable world of the Murrays of New Moon and rural, turn-of-the-century Canada. Each of the three Emily novels includes a psychic episode that complicates the rather standard story of young womanhood being told. Because Emily cannot control this ability and it arises rarely, it feels more like magical realism than fantasy. And it creates a world that appears mostly normal and traditional but then admits to being full of strangeness and complication, of questions for which there are no answers.
2. Her friends are more interesting – #NoShade to the fine people of Avonlea and related areas but as a group they cannot hold a candle to the people of Blair Water. Diana Barry is a sweet girl but she fades into nothingness against Ilse Burnley’s unruly, golden fire. I will hear no word against Matthew Cuthbert but he also lacks the weirdness of Cousin Jimmy with his TBI. Mrs. Rachel Lynde is an amazing creature but so is Ruth Dutton, Aunt Nancy Priest, and Mr. Carpenter. Literary Emily’s cohort includes a genius artist, talented elocutionist, and ambitious burgeoning-politician. And nobody in Anne’s world contains the disturbing appeal of Dean Priest. Emily’s milieu is brighter, spikier, than Anne’s.
3. Emily shows her traumas – Anne seems largely untouched by her pre-Green Gables life of orphanhood and servitude, and she feels but also moves on from her griefs. Not so Emily who carries her life’s darkness. Her traumas and griefs don’t paralyze her but they do change her.
4. Emily does not give up her creativity or ambition – We only have three Emily books. Perhaps if there were only three Anne books, and her story ended with her completing her BA and finally hooking up with Gilbert, I would be satisfied. But it doesn’t. Instead, the wondrous Anne becomes merely a likable helpmeet to her country doctor husband and angelic mother to their passel of children. Her family subsumes all her individuality. She even ceases to be affiliated with Green Gables and Avonlea.
Emily, on the other hand, devotes herself early to writing and never stops. She struggles through rejections big and small, funny and tragic, and succeeds. Even when her love story comes together you know that she and Teddy Kent will continue their artistic careers. Emily has to write; Anne was apparently only a dabbler.
I write more to shore Emily up than to tear Anne down. I still love Anne and honor what she has meant to me. But if you are contemplating a book to gift or recommend to a verbal, bookish, imaginative, romantic, and creative young person in your life, consider choosing Emily of New Moon instead of Anne of Green Gables.
*Yes, that title is click-baity