Chapter 16: Check for Miss Brownell
By, Audrey Loiselle
In “Chapter 16: Check for Miss Brownell,” the hostilities between sensitive Emily Byrd Starr and sarcastic Miss Brownell come to a head. When Miss Brownell catches Emily composing a poem on her slate instead of doing sums, the callous schoolteacher pounces on the occasion to humiliate a pupil “in whose heart and soul she had always sensed something fundamentally different from her own.” As Miss Brownell reads her poetry out loud “with absurd intonations and gestures that made it seem a very ridiculous thing,” Emily endures the giggles and snickers of her classmates. But when the the teacher attempts to burn a packet of poems she seized from Emily’s desk, the indignant child flies at her teacher to save her precious verses, and a dramatic showdown between the two ensues:
“Give me those papers, Emily,”—[Miss Brownell] said rather uncertainly.
“I will not,” said Emily stormily. “They are mine. You have no right to them. I wrote them at recess—I didn’t break any rules. You”—Emily looked defiantly into Miss Brownell’s cold eyes—“You are an unjust, tyrannical person.”
Miss Brownell turned to her desk.
“I am coming to New Moon tonight to tell your Aunt Elizabeth of this,” she said.
Younger readers will empathize with Emily’s shame and bristle at her mistreatment at the hands of a cruel teacher, but older ones will recognize that an even harder trial awaits the wretched heroine as she, uncharacteristically insensible to the beauty of a red winter sun setting on the snowy hills, watches Miss Brownell coming up New Moon’s lane…
Emily shrank from the impending ordeal with all the dread of a sensitive, fine-strung nature facing humiliation. She would not have been afraid of justice; but she knew at the bar of Aunt Elizabeth and Miss Brownell she would not have justice.
Indeed, Aunt Laura’s mute sympathy and Perry’s antics, while hilarious, ultimately give Emily little reprieve. As expected, Aunt Elizabeth sides with Miss Brownell, refusing to hear Emily’s side of the story and ordering the child to kneel before her teacher to ask for pardon. As a tortured Emily, under threat of being treated as an outcast at New Moon, is about to give in, salvation unexpectedly comes in the form of Cousin Jimmy who, “looking more gnome-like than ever,” decrees: “A human being should not kneel to anyone but God.”
A sudden change came over Elizabeth Murray’s proud, angry face. She stood very still, looking at Cousin Jimmy—stood so long that Miss Brownell made a gesture of petulant impatience.
“Emily,” said Aunt Elizabeth in a different tone, “I was wrong—I shall not ask you to kneel. But you must apologize to your teacher—and I shall punish you later on.”
Miss Brownell, feeling “cheated of [the] legitimate triumph” of watching this despised pupil with “dauntless eyes that bespoke a soul untamable and free” kneel before her “in abasement,” abruptly takes her leave. Emily is sent to the pantry with only bread and milk for supper, but having “escaped the unbearable,” her creative spirit is restored and she starts composing an epic poem in her head. When Laura sneaks into the pantry to offer comfort and ginger cookies, she finds Emily in no need of consolation, “her bread and milk only half-eaten […] gazing into space, with faintly moving lips and the light that never was on land or sea in her young eyes. Even the aroma of sausages was forgotten—was she not drinking from a fount of Castaly?”
It is hard not to draw parallels between this chapter and the “Tempest in a School Teapot” chapter in Anne of Green Gables. Both centre on school incidents and their repercussions at home, but while Anne merely faces a petty, slightly foolish antagonist in Mr. Philips, Emily is confronted with a more formidable adversary in malicious and vindictive Miss Brownell. Anne—who is well liked in school in spite of her queer ways—can also count on her fellow students to take her part, while most of Emily’s classmates, (with the exception of close friends Ilse, Teddy, Perry and, intriguingly, former tormentor Jennie Strang) wouldn’t dare cross Miss Brownell and rather “enjoy seeing a 'Murray of New Moon'grilled.” More importantly, Anne is assured from the start of the protection of both her guardians, even the initially reluctant Marilla, who does not hesitate to stick up for the child to the likes of Mrs. Lynde and Mrs. Barry; Emily, however, still cannot trust Aunt Elizabeth to defend her as her kin after living for almost a year under the roof of New Moon. Can she ever win the esteem and affection of the stern head of the Murray clan?
Bio: Like Emily, Audrey Loiselle grew up with a single parent in a little brown house filled with books. She holds a B.A. in French studies from Concordia University in Montréal and works as a translator for the federal government in Ottawa.On Twitter: @audreyloiselle