Chapter 17: Living Epistles
By, Catherine Clark
“Chapter 17: Living Epistles” is a sequence of letters from Emily to her deceased father without any additional narrative voice or authorial commentary. The title of the chapter, a bit tongue-in-cheek, could refer to a formal, elegant letter (often didactic in nature), or to a book of the New Testament in the form of a letter from an Apostle. These two definitions of “E/epistles” thematically guide the chapter’s progression.
As Mary Rubio points out in Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings, Montgomery wrote Emily of New Moon in six months, embracing the opportunity to create a new heroine after 15 years of Annebooks. In her journal, Montgomery confesses, “I wrote the first chapter of my new book — Emily of New Moon… it is such a relief to be done of the ‘Anne gang.’ I had gone so stale on them” (20 August 1921).
Chapter 17 is a series of anecdotes over about a month, presenting layers of metafictional commentary on writing and religion, provocations that Montgomery could safely voice through this young (fictional) girl. Written after the “Great War,”Emily of New Moon subtly reflects Montgomery’s skepticism with institutional religion and an increased confidence in the value of female authorship. It is worth noting that Emily’s ingenuous questions are often suppressed by authority figures around her, but never legitimately refuted in the text. For example, Emily muses that, “Ilse says she is going to call God Alla after this. I think it is a nicer name myself. It is so soft and doesn’t sound so stern. I fear it is not relijus enough.” (Certainly, Emily’s best friend, Ilse, wild and irreverent, is the antithesis of Anne’s warm and loyal Diana).
This chapter is exclusively Emily’s voice (misspellings and all). It also marks the anniversary of her arrival to New Moon. She has settled in her new home and provides the reader with a series of entertaining tales: she recounts her adventure at Ilse’s house, where she is dared to sleep in the garret and subsequently warns the family about a chimney fire. Her heroism is noted in the local paper with mention of “Miss Emily Starr” (“I felt famus”). Later, she writes “an account” of the humiliation of the previous chapter, when Miss Brownell mocks her poems, addressed to her Aunt Elizabeth so that if “I die of consumption Aunt Elizabeth will find it and know the rites of it and mourn that she was so unjust to me.”
She also interrogates Mr. Dare about cats in heaven and old wine bottles, wondering if they will let her write poetry in heaven. She also confesses that, “Teddy is teaching me to whistle but Aunt Laura says it is unladylike. So many jolly things seem to be unladylike. Sometimes I almost wish my aunts were infidels like Dr. Burnley.” Emily’s unfiltered narrative, naive and often comical, is a way for her creator to subtly interrogate the restrictive social boundaries that ruled the conservative life of a minister’s wife, where appearance is paramount, and reputations are controlled by gossip. Rubio connects the role of gossip in Montgomery’s life and in her work: “[A]s a minister’s wife she must be an impeccable role model…and she knew from painful childhood experiences what nothing escaped community eyes very long” (269).
The meandering correspondence consistently relates to both Emily’s developing relationship with language and writing, and the challenges associated with writing publicly (as a girl). She is given a dictionary for her birthday, a useful but rather dull gift. However, she notes that her reader “will soon notice an improovement in my spelling…” In keeping with the aesthetic trend, Cousin Jimmy gives her a blank book to fill, and Teddy gives her a watercolor portrait of herself, “The Smiling Girl.”
While Emily’s writing is being formalized, both in school and at home, she continues to wax poetic in her private letters; she displays a raw, creative mind molding language and pressing against its boundaries. The rain at night “sounds like fairies feet dancing over the garret roof” and she decides that Mike is a “smee cat.” This is not a dictionary word but needs to be articulated nonetheless: “I could not think of any English word which just describes Mike II so I made the sup. It means sleek and glossy and soft and fluffy all in one and something else besides that I can’t express.”
In contrast to the letters to her father to which she will “never get an answer back,” she composes her first formal letter to send in the mail to her Great-Aunt Nancy. This text is carefully proofread by Aunt Elizabeth and thus falls flat. Emily feels “paralized,” and Great-Aunt Nancy responds that she must be “a very stupid child to write such a stupid letter."
Montgomery is aware of the anxiety of having one’s writing judged, and the stifling effect of being pressured to conform. Emily’s writing is censored and mocked; but her perseverance is what helps her writing improve by the end. Emily, more than Anne, is a paradox — she desires propriety and acceptance (she is proud when she saves “the Murrays from disgrace” by making cake herself for company) but she is also observant, restless, even ambitious.
It’s hard not to see Montgomery in this complicated, bright new character, an impression that she expresses in her journal: “Today I finished Emily of New Moon… It is the best book I have ever written — and I have had more intense pleasure in writing it than any of the others — not even excepting Anne of Green Gables. I have lived it…” (Feb. 15, 1922). Midway through the book, Emily as a writer is coming in to her own.
Bio:Catherine Clark is an Associate Professor of French and English at Averett University in Virginia. An avid reader of the Anneseries as a child, she rediscovers Montgomery’s work as a scholar through the L.M. Montgomery Institute conferences on beautiful Prince Edward Island. Clark’s work explores transnational texts and gender during Modernism. Twitter: @olevia_clark