Chapter 7: “The Book of Yesterday”
by Carol Biederstadt
Chapter 7 of Emily of New Moon acquaints the reader with Emily’s new home in Blair Water while establishing several of the themes that are explored throughout the novel. The title of this chapter is wistfully evocative, conjuring images of a family history protagonist Emily is only beginning to discover and explore; it also succinctly encapsulates, I would argue, the essence of that ineffable quality of L. M. Montgomery’s writing that continues to make the Emily of New Moonseries appeal not only to children and teenagers, but to adults as well.
“The Book of Yesterday” chronicles Emily’s first weekend at New Moon. Despite being under the guardianship of her stern Aunt Elizabeth, newly orphaned Emily remains a surprisingly spirited and optimistic heroine, metaphorically viewing her new home and surroundings through the “rose colored glass” of the front door panes at New Moon. Indeed, it is precisely the intrepid spirit she demonstrates in the face of adversity that makes her such a compelling character.
Emily may still be too naive to fully fathom that which she so intensely intuits about the house and the extended family members who have lived in it over the years, yet many adult readers can surely identify with the inexplicable stirrings the old dwelling gives rise to in Emily’s heart: "There was a certain charm about the old house which Emily felt keenly and responded to, although she was too young to understand it. It was a house which aforetime had had vivid brides and mothers and wives, and the atmosphere of their loves and lives still hung around it . . ." (61)
Emily auspiciously concludes, “Why—I’m going to love New Moon” (61).
Finding herself in magical surroundings exploding with color, it is easy to understand Emily’s optimism. She explores the orchards, where “blue-eyed ivy” twines around tree roots and “wild-briar roses [riot] over the grey paling fence,” and she strolls among the white birches surrounding the dairy barns, beyond which a “lovable red road” winds up a hill until it appears “to touch the vivid blue of the sky.”
Emily is enthralled by the dairy, a “snow-white little building” with a “grey roof . . . dotted over with cushions of moss like fat green-velvet mice.” Stepping inside the white door of the dairy, which opens to “an earthen floor and windows screened by the delicate emerald of young hop-vines,” Emily discovers a room lined with shelves supporting “shallow pans of glossy brown ware, full of milk coated over with cream so rich” it appears “positively yellow.”
The barns and the bucolic scenery that surrounds them have a profound effect on young Emily, who longs to record in writing her impression of the “dear dairy”; still lamenting the loss of her old account book, however, the budding writer can only register a description of the vivid new environment in her own mind (63). Hearkening back to simpler times, Montgomery’s depiction of the rural idyll enchants the young while evoking nostalgic emotions in more mature readers.
Later exploring a path running through a “grove of spruce and maple,” Emily finds herself in a “Fairyland” where she envisions dryads frolicking in the magical mosaic of “lights and shadows” that dances among the boughs. The “great sheets of moss under the trees” are described as “meet for Titania’s couch” (65-66), and the allusion to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, too, is likely to resonate with an adult audience.
Of central importance to the novel, keys to unlocking the impenetrable character of Aunt Elizabeth are introduced in Chapter 7, as are several of the story’s other recurrent themes. Cousin Jimmy tells Emily about the time Elizabeth accidentally pushed him into a well, leaving him, as people would say, “never . . . quite right since,” though Jimmy himself credits his peculiarity more favorably, attributing it to a poetic nature little understood in Blair Water (66-67). Montgomery also sets up the fabled “Murray look”[i] in this chapter, a familial attribute that Emily will later be found to possess, and which will underpin her struggle to assume her rightful place in the Murray clan.
In addition, this chapter introduces several elements of mystery to the story. Further surveying the topography surrounding New Moon, for instance, Emily happens upon an unfinished structure with boarded windows: "And it was meant to be such a pretty little house—a house you could love—a house where there would be nice chairs and cozy fires and bookcases and lovely, fat, purry cats and unexpected corners . . ." (65)
A romantic at heart, young Emily labels the structure “Disappointed House.” The reader soon learns that Fred Clifford had begun constructing the house for his fiancée, only to abandon the project when she broke off their relationship; still, the narrative leaves one with an inkling that the house will be finished and lived in yet, for as Emily says, “It wants to be—even yet it wants to be” (74).
Later in the chapter, Cousin Jimmy tells Emily about a diamond lost many years ago in the summer-house. Certain it will one day be found, he says: “On moonlit nights . . . I’ve seen it glinting—glinting and beckoning. But never in the same place—and when you go to it—it’s gone, and you see it laughing at you from somewhere else” (75), and the reader is left wondering whether Emily will eventually discover the whereabouts of that diamond.
A mysterious quality about Cousin Jimmy himself is also revealed as he gives Emily a tour of his special garden, with its stone sun-dial, brought to Prince Edward Island by Emily’s great-great grandfather, Hugh Murray, and its exotic pink conchs, carried from the Indies by Emily’s Uncle George Murray, a sea captain. To Emily, it seems like “a garden where no frost could wither or rough wind blow—a garden remembering a hundred vanished summers” (68). Yet Emily is a bit taken aback when Cousin Jimmy momentarily assumes a distant look and tells her: “There is a spell woven round this garden. The blight shall spare it and the green worm pass it by. Drought dares not invade it and the rain comes here gently” (69). Although he quickly reverts to his usual demeanor, Emily again picks up on an “eerie, indefinable something in Cousin Jimmy’s voice or look” that gives her “a sudden crinkly feeling in her spine” when he tells her about the lost diamond (75). The narrative seems to suggest that there is more to be discovered about Cousin Jimmy, too.
Lacking a suitable dress, Emily is not allowed to attend church on Sunday, yet her disappointment quickly dissipates when Cousin Jimmy shows her around the graveyard, opening for her, as the narrator says, “the book of yesterday” (70). Through Jimmy’s tales, Emily learns more about her maternal family history, including the originally Quebec-bound Hugh and Mary Shipley Murray, who ended up staying on Prince Edward Island when Mary, suffering from seasickness, refused to go the rest of the way, insisting, “Here I stay!”— words her permanently peeved husband eventually had etched on her tombstone (71-72). The reader thus discovers that Emily comes from a long line of strong matriarchal figures who have habitually dominated the males in their lives in much the same way that Aunt Elizabeth dominates Cousin Jimmy.
The characters of Emily of New Moon are revealed to be darker and more complex than Matthew and Marilla of the Anne of Green Gables series, and Montgomery’s depiction of their complexities and fraught familial relationships likely adds additional layers of interest and relatability for adult readers.
L. M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon, like Anne of Green Gables, was written for young adults.[ii] Still, the very existence of the L. M. Montgomery Institute Read-along bears testament to the story’s ongoing appeal not only to adolescents, but to an adult readership as well. Written nearly 100 years ago, the novel continues to strike a chord in readers of all ages, many who read and re-read the book several times at different stages of life (Kannas 126). While I am undoubtedly oversimplifying the multifaceted nature of the novel’s charm, part of it, I believe, lies in the fact that for many readers, it is indeed, as the chapter heading suggests, “The Book of Yesterday.”
Carol Biederstadt is an Assistant Professor in the Humanities Division at Union County College, Cranford, NJ, USA.
Kannas, Vappu. “‘Emily Equals Childhood and Youth and First Love’: Finnish Readers and L. M. Montgomery’s Anne and Emily Books.” Reading Today, by Arnoldo Hax and Lionel Olavarría, UCL Press, London, 2018, pp. 118–131.
MacLulich, T. D. “L. M. Montgomery and the Literary Heroine: Jo, Rebecca, Anne, and Emily.” Canadian Children’s Literature / Littérature Canadienne pour la Jeunesse, vol. 37, 1985, pp. 5-17.
McMaster, Lindsey. “The ‘Murray Look’: Trauma as Family Legacy in L. M. Montgomery’s Emily of New MoonTrilogy.” Canadian Children’s, Literature / Littérature Canadienne pour la Jeunesse, vol. 34, no. 2, Fall 2008, pp. 50-74.
Montgomery, L. M. Emily of New Moon. 1923. Dell Laurel-Leaf, 1993.
[i]Lindsey McMaster explores the significance of the “Murray Look” in her article “The ‘Murray Look’: Trauma as Family Legacy in L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon Trilogy.”
[ii]T. D. MacLulich believes that “Anne of Green Gables is suited for younger audiences than is Emily of New Moon.” Due to the more mature themes the latter explores, MacLulich suggests that Emily of New Moon “is best suited for readers who are themselves nearing or passing through the turmoil of adolescence” (13).