Laura Rereading: ‘I belong to him’

773507Most 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.’

2940016203126_p0_v1_s260x420Emily’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.


14 thoughts on “Laura Rereading: ‘I belong to him’

  1. Oh Laura, I LOVE the Emily books! It’s such a pleasure to read your thoughts on a series which is so often overlooked.

    As a kid when I first read them I remember being struck by the obvious ongoing contest between Emily’s writing and her love affairs, though as a hopeless romantic I would have been very dissatisfied with an ending that didn’t finally reunite her with Teddy after so many frustrating misunderstandings. From a more dispassionate retrospect, however, I find your point about the ambiguous chronology fascinating – I’d always thought that the final chapter pops up almost out of the blue rather than growing naturally out of the continuing narrative. It’s as if Montgomery finally gets fed up with stringing us (and them!) along (which, if I recall, she does to an almost ridiculous degree), so she ends by throwing us the tidbit of romantic fulfilment we’ve been waiting for in a kind of ‘oh, go on then!’ concessionary moment. I don’t know if you were quite going so far to suggest it could have been another hallucination, Teddy having been killed in WW1, but that would make a rather fun alternative reading! (just don’t tell my 12-year-old self I said so).

    Would be interesting to read it in light of her own experiences, as didn’t she have quite a turbulent marriage to a husband whom she loved but who had depression? My memory of the details is hazy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the passion with which she writes about the experience and power of writing is hugely autobiographical…


    • It’s great to find another Emily fan 🙂

      From what I have read elsewhere, the Emily series is very much autobiographical, but as I haven’t read Montgomery’s journals or autobiography myself, I didn’t mention this aspect in my review. Interestingly, I found a suggestion on another blog that Montgomery felt under pressure to finish the Emily series with a traditional romantic ending. I don’t know if this is true or not (and it doesn’t really account for the lovely Emily/Teddy moments in Emily Climbs) but it may explain why the Emily/Teddy reunion feels so cursory. I wasn’t suggesting that Teddy was killed in WW1 (poor Teddy!) but that one extremely radical interpretation of the ending of Emily’s Quest is that it is a might-have-been ending, a ending that exists in an imaginary universe where the First World War never happened. This reading obviously doesn’t have much support in the text itself, but it works for me because of the lack of detail in the final chapter, the constant references to the ‘timelessness’ of New Moon and the idealistic perfection of the ending that doesn’t fit the dark mood of the rest of the novel (even Dean comes through in the end!!)

      A sidenote on Teddy: I too adored their relationship as an adolescent, but on this read-through, it struck me how very little we know about him as a person, especially as an adult. Emily spends a lot more screen time interacting with Ilse and even with Perry. Montgomery is so good at writing about falling in love that the relationship feels powerful anyway, but he’s such a cipher!


  2. I’ve finished both reading Emily’s Quest and writing my thoughts on it, so here I am!
    What an interesting perspective on the romance between Teddy and Emily! I personally didn’t get the feeling that Emily was planning to give up her writing now that she’s reunited with Teddy. I’ve always just assumed they would both pursue their art together from here on in, happily ever after. (Right?)
    But I was confused about the timing of the three novels – I was always trying to figure out what the date was. Especially in Emily’s Quest, because of the cars, and the clothes Ilse was described as wearing, and some of the words and phrases they used. It almost sounded like the 1920s to me, but that didn’t seem to make sense relative to the first two books. And no war was ever mentioned.
    I was also surprised by the number of years that go by in Emily’s Quest – I don’t remember it going on and on like that from the last time I read it. It really feels like LMM is trying to torture us as much as she can (in a good way, in my opinion!).
    Your comments about obsessive love, and the implication that LMM writes about it purposely as something that’s not so good, makes me wonder about LMM’s own life. Was there someone she could never stop herself from thinking about, even though it was too late for her? Something like that might not have even been written in her journals. And then there is Mrs. Kent’s quote: “It’s madness to love anything too much.”


    • Thanks for your comment! The timing’s a mess in Emily’s Quest, and this is probably just poor continuity, but I couldn’t resist having a play with the possibilities 🙂

      It’s a while since I wrote this, but I’m not sure that I thought Emily would stop writing once she’s reunited with Teddy, exactly. I think my concerns were that a series that’s been so concerned with Emily as a writer finishes with no mention of her writing, and that it’s implied that Emily’s writing will take second place to Teddy. I’ve really enjoyed the discussions on your blog about how LMM’s life intersects with the series, and it’s cemented my opinion that the Emily/Teddy resolution, plus the Ilse/Teddy dramatics, is tacked on uncomfortably to the end of Emily’s Quest because LMM felt she should provide a traditional romantic ending. I’ve always been fascinated by Emily and Teddy as a couple, so this isn’t intended as a criticism, but LMM seems to have been finished with the series after Emily publishes her first novel.

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      • Yes, I kind of wish that the publishing of Emily’s first book didn’t get so buried and muddled in with the whirling romances that were going on. I was disappointed that Teddy’s reaction to her book was so boring. I get that he was “self-preserving”, but I still didn’t like it. Her book coming out maybe happened too soon – it’s almost forgettable again by the end of the book.

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  4. Hello,
    I absolutely loved these books as a child – even more than Anne series – and I remember being so disappointed that L.M.Montgomery didn’t write another book about their future. I’d still love to read that, actually.

    As for Teddy/Emily, I hope they’d continue their own careeers after marriage – I always felt sorry for Anne, because she was so absorbed in being a full-time Mom and wife (nothing wrong with that, of course, but she struck me as such an ambitious student).

    Anyway, Emily needed to write to live – she was a shell of herself without that. Also, I don’t think she’d have as many children as Anne had – two, maybe three, four at the most. It had been also implied Teddy and her wouldn’t stay on PEI all year long – Disappointed House was supposed to be a summer home for them. Also, I hope that they would travel a lot – Emily deserved to see other places, she seems like someone who’d enjoy that.

    Well, that’s what I see their future.

    Also, you are so right about the timeline mess. Emily should be around 26 by the time WWI has started. And yet, nothing is said.

    Sorry about my possible grammar or spelling mistakes. English is not my native language.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment – your English is excellent! I absolutely agree. I think LM Montgomery writes so well about how Emily is committed to both Teddy and to her writing, and that by the end of the novel, once she has achieved solid success as a writer, she can commit herself to Teddy in a way that she was afraid to before. I certainly see her future as being very different from Anne’s, and I’ve never thought about her and Teddy travelling, but I hope they do – she was so looking forward to going to Japan on her honeymoon with Dean that never happened!


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  7. I hope I am not intruding on an old conversation. I have not read not all of the Emily series, despite having read a good bit of Maud’s novels and journals. I find Emily too flat, too perfect, too obviously Maud’s ideal of herself. Your remarks on New Moon being in a world untouched by time make me want to revisit it. It reccurs a lot in her stories. Most of her novels are set in the idealized P.E.I. of her childhood. I am not surprised that this series in which she plays the main character is the most “fanficky” of them all. She had an unhappy marriage to a minister (Dean Priest is thought to be a caricature of her husband), a difficult older son, and spent most of life in Ontario yearning for the island – She was also possibly a closeted lesbian. I am not of school that thinks Anne and Diana were gay, but I do believe their relationship was a ‘revised’ version of Maud’s love for her cousin Frede. Anyways, her life was full of sorrows and her stories were her one escape from the drudgery of life.
    It’s also interesting how the career goals of heroines of that time fade away as soon as they succomb to the Loving Marriage plot. I think it says a lot of how it was unrealistic at the time for a woman to expect both in her life.

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    • Thanks, and no, not intruding at all! I think Emily flips between being more realistic and more idealised, especially as she grows older. I certainly find her more real than Anne who I can’t get on with at all after Anne of Green Gables. I would like to read more about Montgomery’s own life as I’m sure you’re right about the parallels here, and I’m intrigued by the uncertainty about her sexuality!

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