Chapter 31: Emily’s Great Moment
by Andrea McKenzie
What a joy it is to read this satisfying closing to Emily of Moon, a chapter that isn’t an ending at all, but a joyous beginning for Emily Byrd Starr. L.M. Montgomery’s sparkling wit and her penchant for unpredictable twists and turns come into full play here. It’s as though she wrote her own youthful ambitions and emotions down for us to experience. And I wonder how many young writers read this chapter and realized truths about themselves?
In this penultimate episode, Montgomery focuses on writing and the writer, contrasting the youthful Emily, aspiring writer, and her cynical, brilliant, wastrel of a teacher (and possibly a failed writer himself), Mr. Carpenter. What is that elusive quality that he recognizes in her, and that he would “give anything to have”?
Emily is “white and tense” as she faces Mr. Carpenter in the schoolroom, waiting to hear his judgement about her verses and stories. She knows he will tell her the truth “mercilessly”; he is the “supreme judge” who will determine her future as a writer – or so it seems.
Which of us has not experienced Emily’s emotions as she awaits Mr Carpenter’s verdict? With “cold hands” and “trembling knees,” she damns her own work before Mr. Carpenter even speaks. “They were no good—of course they were no good,” she thinks to herself of her verses, and at first, it appears as though she was right. Mr Carpenter scorns Emily’s rhymes (“There’s only one more rhyme that occurs to me and that’s ‘liver.’ Why did you leave it out?”), scorns hypocrisy (“no rainbow joy”), the seasons (“a sort of disease all young poets must have”), old-fashioned titles (“as out of date as the New Moon candles,”) and “atrocious writing” (“graves aren’t playgrounds”). Yet in the middle of this whirlwind of criticism, Emily has “the flash,” her vision of “unimaginable sweetness.” It’s a promise that her muse does live within Emily and will not fail her.
And indeed, Mr Carpenter is just as lucid about about Emily’s ability to “marry” words such as “blue and austerely bright,” and to make him “see the wind shaking the buttercups ... ‘in a golden frenzy’.” Emulating Montgomery’s own emotional shifts, Emily despairs when Mr Carpenter pronounces that she’s written only “ten good lines” and rejects the rest as “balderdash,” but flashes into radiance when he declares that at twenty, she’ll be able to write “one hundred” good lines.
After this intense moment, Montgomery wittily reverses the pair’s roles when Emily mistakenly gives Mr Carpenter the notebook containing a “very full description” of himself – and she is as “mercilessly lucid” in characterizing him and his behaviour (including the aftermath of his drunken binges) as he has been in critiquing her poetry. We delight in this turning of the tables even as he declares that this writing, disrespectful as it may be, is “literature.”
Emily’s talent is thus acknowledged by this keenest of critics, and yet – does, after all, Mr Carpenter’s verdict matter? He is wise enough to know that it may not. “If you knew you would be as poor as a church mouse all your life – if you knew you’d never have a line published – would you still go on writing – would you?” he demands.
Emily replies, disdainfully, “Of course I would ... Why, I have to write – I can’t help it by times – I’ve just got to.”
How many aspiring writers have read those words and known, deep inside, that they, too, had to write, no matter how many Aunt Elizabeths or other challenges had to be overcome? And how many have done just what Emily did when, “full of rapture,” she reached home after this experience? Friends and the lovely outdoors await her, but the overwhelming passion overcomes all else.
“I am going to write a diary, that it may be published when I die,” she writes.
Like the “virgin” blank page of the Jimmy-book Emily writes in, this opening promises a beginning in place of an ending, a new genre of writing in place of the old, and a new confidence in Emily’s future as a writer.
She knows, and we know, that she’ll succeed.
Thank you, L.M. Montgomery, for Emily Byrd Starr, and for giving hope to all of us who ever wanted to write.
Bio: Andrea McKenzie is associate professor at York University in Toronto. She co-edited L.M. Montgomery and Warwith Jane Ledwell, and Rilla of Ingleside with Benjamin Lefebvre, besides publishing several chapters of her own about Montgomery’s works.