Most of us will know LM Montgomery as the author of the Anne of Green Gables books. As an adult, I found that I had outgrown Anne but not Emily, her lesser-known but far more memorable creation. Emily stars (see what I did there, Emily fans?) in three novels set on Prince Edward Island published between 1923 and 1927, of which Emily’s Quest is the last. I’m going to summarise its plot for those who are not familiar with it, so if spoilers concern you, look away now. This novel – which is absolutely written for adults, rather than for children – sees Emily, now a young woman, continuing to pursue her ambition to be a successful writer. However, she is also involved in a turbulent relationship with her childhood sweetheart, Teddy Kent. When Emily believes that things are finally over between her and Teddy, and – crucially, I think – that her dream of becoming a published novelist is dead, she seeks comfort in an engagement to a much older man, Dean Priest, who has also been a friend of hers since her early adolescence. For a modern audience, there is something distinctly creepy about Dean’s obvious romantic interest in Emily at their first meeting, when she is a thirteen-year-old girl. While not wanting to minimise the disturbing nature of Emily’s relationship with Dean, I think to focus too much on how unhealthy this pairing is would be to miss the broader themes of Emily’s Quest. Montgomery seems to me to portray Dean in such a dark light not because, in modern terms, he is ‘grooming’ Emily, but because the nature of his love is so obsessive. When he proclaims to Emily after their first meeting, ‘I think I’ll wait for you’, it’s less illuminating to read him as a danger to young girls and more illuminating to see this as the first instance of a trend that continues into their adult relationship; the fact that he wants to own Emily completely. As he says to her during the same meeting, after rescuing her from tumbling down a cliff: ‘you see your life belongs to me henceforth… Since I saved it it’s mine.’
The most important manifestation of Dean’s possessive love is his jealousy of Emily’s writing. He lies to her about how talented he thinks she is, because he believes that if she is truly successful she will leave him. When she breaks their engagement, he finally admits that he was wrong, but only after she has put her work aside for many months, justifying it to herself and to her worried Aunt Laura: ‘Here I am, going to be married, with a prospective house and husband to think about. Doesn’t that explain why I’ve ceased to care about – other things.’ In the second book in the series, Emily Climbs, Emily and Teddy’s friendship stands in contrast to Dean’s suppression of Emily’s gift, as Emily and Teddy plan together to conquer the world with their artistic talents. Nevertheless, when Emily is left unsure of Teddy’s feelings for her at the end of that novel, she is not plunged into despair. She writes in her diary: ‘I could care tremendously for Teddy Kent if I let myself – if he wanted me to. It is evident he doesn’t want me to… He has forgotten our exchange of glances in the old John house.’ She is conscious of ‘three sensations’; feeling ‘sternly composed and traditional’, having to keep down ‘something that would hurt horribly if I let it’ but, finally, ‘a queer feeling of relief that I still have my freedom.’ To the careful reader, this last sensation should be unsurprising, despite the fact that Emily is obviously in love with Teddy. It can be traced back to their realisation of their feelings for each other in ‘the old John house’, which, for Emily, meant the sense that she ‘was never really to belong to herself again.’
Emily’s Quest is not a novel about an obsessive lover getting in the way of true, pure love. It’s a novel about obsessive love, full stop, and it’s clear that such obsession is no less damaging for its being mutual. When Emily is really confident of Teddy’s feelings for her, she becomes less herself – because exercising her true self is defined as writing. Early in Emily’s Quest, in one of the few snatches of romantic happiness she has with Teddy, she doesn’t write a word: ‘Who cared for laurel, after all? Orange blossom would make a sweeter coronet.’ Emily presents the choice between victory laurels and bridal orange blossom as an either/or; she can’t have both. This isn’t because she doesn’t love Teddy, but because she loves him too much. After their final reunion, her writing is not mentioned again. It might be tempting to ascribe this to the gender norms at play in this 1920s novel, but, given that Emily’s traditional, old-fashioned aunts urge her to carry on writing when she is engaged to Dean, it seems to be less about what is expected of Emily and more about what it is possible for her to do; she is so obsessed with Teddy (and he with her) that there simply isn’t space in her mind and heart for both. As she says during one of their separations, ‘I belong to him.’
In this way, Dean, alongside Teddy’s jealous mother Aileen Kent (who deserves an essay of her own), is merely a foil for the real possessiveness at the heart of this novel; that of Emily and Teddy of each other. So strongly linked that they rely on a virtually wordless communication, they are not well-served when words are necessary. And although they eventually get their happy ending, it is an ending that feels almost insubstantial, after the solid triumph of the publication of Emily’s first novel earlier in the narrative. It is almost possible, in fact, to question whether or not Emily ever did hear Teddy calling for her again. Chronology, something that Montgomery keeps a close eye on in all her work, throws their reunion into doubt. It is difficult to date the events of the Emily novels. They certainly take place some time before the books were written, and the beginning of the first book, Emily of New Moon, is probably set at the very end of the 1890s. The problem arises with Emily Climbs, which is all set in the twentieth century (Emily’s diary entries are dated 19-). At the very earliest, we can assume Emily is fourteen in 1900. However, when she is fifteen, the nineteenth century is said to have finished ‘a few years ago.’ So, it might be better to assume she was fourteen in 1902/3. The last certain age given for Emily in the series is twenty-four. After this, but before her reunion with Teddy: ‘Year after year the seasons walked past her door… One winter Mrs Kent died.’ When Teddy calls for Emily in June, we have to assume that three or four years have passed at the very least. Yet if Emily was fourteen in 1902, and twenty-four in 1912, three more years would put them both firmly past the breaking-point, 1914, a date that Montgomery’s final Anne novel, Rilla of Ingleside, demonstrates was fixed upon her memory.
‘Of course Teddy was there – under the firs. It seemed the most natural thing in the world that he would come to her there, in that old-world garden where the three Lombardies still kept guard. Nothing was wanting to bridge the years. There was no gulf. He put out his hands and drew her to him’. This resolution, straightforward on the surface, is, underneath, as ambiguous as the obsessive love affair that proceeded it. In the timeless garden of New Moon, it’s evidently not 1915; so this final reconciliation is not only overshadowed, but possibly erased altogether, by the reality of the First World War.