It’s gotta be tough having a star for a sister. You know you’re special, but how do you get your chance to shine? If in some alternate universe, all of an author’s creations were to meet, would Emily Starr get in a cat fight with Anne Shirley? Would Emily Webster be jealous of Betsy Ray?
I’ve always found it somewhat ironic that when discussing either the Anne series or the Betsy-Tacy series, someone will periodically sigh and say “I really like Anne (or Betsy), but Emily speaks to me in such a different way. I adore her.” What are the odds that these much-beloved but not quite as famous characters just happen to share the same name? But this sentiment, though spoken often, is usually spoken quietly. It’s not quite sacrilege, but there’s this underlying feeling that we’re supposed to like the big name, the name that made the author famous, more. But somehow, there’s a passion for these two very different and yet very similiar Emilys.
In celebration of the recent re-issue of Emily of Deep Valley, an event that has been heralded throughout the land, I present to you: A Tale of Two Emilys. These wonderful characters have so much in common, yet both are often ignored in favor of the bigger star of Anne or Betsy. I read these two books back to back, knowing that these two characters had some similiarities, but hadn’t realized how much they truly had in common. Basically, if you love one Emily, you’ll probably love the other too.
Both Emily’s are orphans, though they’re not orphans like Anne Shirley. They live with family, even though that family doesn’t always understand them. Aunt Elizabeth doesn’t get Emily’s sense of humor or her need to write. Grandpa Webster doesn’t understand Emily’s desire for college. But Emily Starr contiues to write, and Emily Webster continues to learn. Lovelace wrote about Grandpa Webster and Emily:
He looked up quickly. “Your last day of school?”
“Yes, and not just for this year. I’m graduating. Do you remember, Grandpa?
“That’s right,” he answered in a pleased tone. “You told me you were. Now you’ll be at home all the time.”
Emily was silent.
“I wouldn’t let you stop until you finished high school,” said the old man, sounding proud. “Would I, Emmy?”
Both girls have slow, shy smiles. Emily Starr finds her first real friend in Rhoda Stuart, only to be dumped as soon as someone more interesting came along. But then Emily finds her true friends–Ilse, Perry and Teddy. Emily Webster never quite fit in with her cousin Annette and her crowd and is even more out of the loop once they head off to college. But then she makes friends throughout her community–friends in Gwen Fowler, Yusif and Kalil, and of course, Jed Wakeman. Can I digress just a moment to let you know how dreamy I find Mr. Jed? Yep, of all the love interests created by Lovelace, he just might be my favorite. Double sigh.
Both girls make the best of their situation. Emily Starr finds the scraps of paper to write and write and write. She doesn’t let herself be cowed by Aunt Elizabeth (sometimes I wish I had a “Murray look” of my own!). Emily puts up her hair and begins to fill her time with things that interest her–dancing lessons and piano lessons and the Browning club and the Wrestling Champs and English lessons for the Syrian women.
Both girls live in a home full of old-fashioned traditions–traditions that they love, even though they both acknowledge that other people may not understand. New Moon still burns candles; the little house on the slough is decorated just as Emily’s grandmother left it. And though neither girl really resents these traditions at the beginning of the novel, they embrace by the end in a way they hadn’t before. Montgomery wrote:
“I suppose you’ll not like candles very well, Emily, after being used to lamps at Wyther Grange,” said Aunt Laura with a little sigh. . .
Emily looked around her thoughtfully. One candle sputtered and bobbed at her as if greeting her. One, with a long wick, glowed and smouldered like a sulky little demon. One had a tiny flame–a sly, meditative candle. One swayed with a queer fiery grace in the draught from the door. One burned with a steady upright flame like a faithful soul.
“I–don’t know–Aunt Laura,” she answered slowly. “You can be–friends–with candles. I believe I like the candles best after all.”
Aunt Elizabeth, coming in from the cook-house, heard her. Something like pleasure gleamed in her gulf-blue eyes.
“You have some sense in you,” she said.
I really, really adore both of these books. It’s been a while since I’ve reread either of them, and their magic just washed over me. Montgomery has this richness in language that some people might call “purple” but it feels like home to me. But there are such pointed insights into people and emotions and the world around us that it can take my breath away–and most importantly, makes me stay up far too late reading. Sometimes the observations seem so obvious, but no one has laid them out in quite the way that Montgomery does. For instance, chapter 21 “Romantic but not Comfortable” opens like this:
A certain thing happened at New Moon because Teddy Kent paid Ilse Burnly a compliment one day and Emily Starr didn’t altogether like it. Empires have been overturned for the same reason.
Lovelace doesn’t use as many words as Montgomery, but her observations are no less sharp. I just love this exchange between Emily and Grandpa Webster:
“Emmy,” he asked. “Is Jed courting you?” . . .
“Why, Grandpa!” Emily cried. “What makes you say a thing like that?’
“Well,” he answered defiantly, “it looks that way to me. It’s flowers, flowers, flowers! And candy, candy, candy! And books! And shows! And picture of Abraham Lincoln for me, although he’s a rebel and he admits it. By Jingo, I know courting when I see it! I went couring once myself.”
Both of these books are deeply satisfying. And the new edition of Emily of Deep Valley is even more satisfying. Included is a bit of background on the woman, Maguerite Marsh, on whom Emily is loosely based and a too short biography of Vera Neville. Mitali Perkins wrote an amazing foreword, one that I’m not ashamed to admit made me tear up a bit. It’s one of those essays that speaks eloquently to the power of the right book at the right time.
And maybe that’s what’s most important about Emily Starr and Webster. For so many girls, these books have been the right book at the right time. As Mitali wrote in her foreward “Yes, Emily has many likeable character traits, but unlike Betsy, she isn’t best friend material at all. Why not, you might be wondering? Well, because Emily is me.”