While L.M. Montgomery could be viewed as a writer’s writer for her prose, imaginative vim, and her shaping of characters, her novel Emily of New Moon is almost a textbook on the writer’s life. A friend tipped me off to the rich writing moments in Emily of New Moon and I’d like to highlight one now.
In 1917, Montgomery wrote a serial autobiography in Everywoman’s World magazine, later published as The Alpine Path: The Story of My Career (1974). In many ways, Emily of New Moon could be read as the fictionalization of Montgomery’s own steep climb up “The Alpine Path” to recognition as an author. The recently orphaned Emily arrives at the adventure-less New Moon estate with an author’s imagination intact. Against the anvil of family persecution, that imagination is forged into the vocation of a writer. Even as a young child, Emily jots down poems and stories on any scrap of paper she can find–including leftover stationary from the post office and little journals slipped to her from one of the household confederates.
Though her adoptive family does not understand and actively discourages the craft–largely because of a sense of feminine and aristocratic pride–Emily is able to find confederates outside her home. Next week I will speak of a special adult in the community who heard the horns of elfland as Emily did, but this week I want to highlight a co-adventurer in words, Emily’s curmudgeonly teacher, Mr. Carpenter.
It is difficult for us to get the shock of Montgomery’s writing as we sit as readers in a culture where the only thing that could be shocking would be modesty or chastity. But Montgomery embedded all kinds of problematic characters throughout her work. Child readers might miss the controversy altogether, or it might be intimated in the little clues left by Montgomery in the text. One of these is Mr. Alexander, a scholar on an elite pathway who loses his way in “wild living,” as the parable goes. In an age where ministers were among the best educated, Francis Carpenter was top of his class at McGill until “he fell into the drink,” as Islanders might have said back then. So instead of life as a hot young public intellectual, he was a small rural school teacher past his prime. Mr. Alexander was astute enough to only fall off the wagon on weekends, so that his dipsomania didn’t disturb his teaching career, as menial as it was.
Montgomery’s description of Alexander’s physique is vivid (not quite captured in the Emily of New Moon TV actor to the right), especially if you imagine a small girl looking up at her schoolmaster hiding behind that moustache and eyebrows:
Mr Carpenter was somewhere between forty and fifty–a tall man, with an upstanding shock of bushy grey hair, bristling grey moustache and eyebrows, a truculent beard, bright blue eyes out of which all his wild life had not yet burned the fire, and a long, lean, greyish face, deeply lined.
He had an explosive temper which generally burst into flame at least once a day, and then he would storm about wildly for a few minutes, tugging at his beard, imploring heaven to grant him patience, abusing everybody in general and the luckless object of his wrath in particular. But these tempers never lasted long. In a few minutes Mr Carpenter would be smiling as graciously as a sun bursting through a storm-cloud on the very pupil he had been rating. Nobody seemed to cherish any grudge because of his scoldings. He never said any of the biting things Miss Brownell was wont to say, which rankled and festered for weeks; his hail of words fell alike on just and unjust and rolled off harmlessly.
He could take a joke on himself in perfect good nature. “Do you hear me? Do you hear me, sirrah?” he bellowed to Perry Miller one day. “Of course I hear you,” retorted Perry coolly, “they could hear you in Charlottetown.” Mr Carpenter stared for a moment, then broke into a great, jolly laugh.
In the heroic stance of all of Montgomery’s best characters, Emily found herself both a little frightened by him, but also a little sad for him. But it was his interest in poetry that drew Emily in over time, as she longed to be a great poet. Her first encounter with Mr. Carpenter was not hopeful:
“So you’re the girl that writes poetry, eh? Better stick to your needle and duster. Too many fools in the world trying to write poetry and failing. I tried it myself once. Got better sense now.”
But Emily was insistent on being such a fool, and kept with her poetry, except for rare exceptions quietly hiding it from the eyes of her classmates, her family members, and her teachers. One of those rare occasions of inviting the world into her work was when she chose to show it to Mr. Carpenter. I want to include a rather lengthy selection from Emily of New Moon. It is a way of sealing in Master Carpenter’s character but is revelatory in other ways. It shows the value of true criticism, the rarity of true praise, and the chancy encounters we have in the shaping of our writerly vocations. It also, ominously, hints at the darkness of the writer’s life–a darkness that Emily cannot imagine as a child but will come to discover as an adult, as L.M. Montgomery herself did. This is one of the passages in Montgomery’s work where deep calls to deep, and there is great richness for those who can see it.
“I never meant to encourage you in it,” he said. “I don’t mean it now. Probably you can’t write a line of real poetry and never will. But let me see your stuff. If it’s hopelessly bad I’ll tell you so. I won’t have you wasting years striving for the unattainable–at least I won’t have it on my conscience if you do. If there’s any promise in it, I’ll tell you so just as honestly. And bring some of your stories, too–they’re trash yet, that’s certain, but I’ll see if they show just and sufficient cause for going on.”
Emily spent a very solemn hour that evening, weighing, choosing, rejecting. To the little bundle of verse she added one of her Jimmy-books which contained, as she thought, her best stories. She went to school next day, so secret and mysterious that Ilse took offence, started in to call her names–and then stopped. Ilse [her best friend] had promised her father that she would try to break herself of the habit of calling names. She was making fairly good headway and her conversation, if less vivid, was beginning to approximate to New Moon standards.
Emily made a sad mess of her lessons that day. She was nervous and frightened. She had a tremendous respect for Mr Carpenter’s opinion. Father Cassidy had told her to keep on [see next week’s post]–Dean Priest had told her that some day she might really write–but perhaps they were only trying to be encouraging because they liked her and didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Emily knew Mr Carpenter would not do this. No matter if he did like her he would nip her aspirations mercilessly if he thought the root of the matter was not in her. If, on the contrary, he bade her God-speed, she would rest content with that against the world and never lose heart in the face of any future criticism. No wonder the day seemed fraught with tremendous issues to Emily.
When school was out Mr Carpenter asked her to remain. She was so white and tense that the other pupils thought she must have been found out by Mr Carpenter in some especially dreadful behaviour and knew she was going to “catch it.” Rhoda Stuart flung her a significantly malicious smile from the porch–which Emily never even saw. She was, indeed, at a momentous bar, with Mr Carpenter as supreme judge, and her whole future career–so she believed–hanging on his verdict.
The pupils disappeared and a mellow, sunshiny stillness settled over the old schoolroom. Mr Carpenter took the little packet she had given him in the morning out of his desk, came down the aisle and sat in the seat before her, facing her. Very deliberately he settled his glasses astride his hooked nose, took out her manuscripts and began to read–or rather to glance over them, flinging scraps of comments, mingled with grunts, sniffs and hoots, at her as he glanced. Emily folded her cold hands on her desk and braced her feet against the legs of it to keep her knees from trembling. This was a very terrible experience. She wished she had never given her verses to Mr Carpenter. They were no good–of course they were no good. Remember the editor of the Enterprise.
The clouds are massed in splendid state
At heaven’s unbarred western gate
Where troops of star-eyed spirits wait–
By gad, what does that mean?”
“I–I–don’t know,” faltered startled Emily, whose wits had been scattered by the sudden swoop of his spiked glance.
Mr Carpenter snorted.
“For heaven’s sake, girl, don’t write what you can’t understand yourself. And this–To Life–‘Life, as thy gift I ask no rainbow joy’–is that sincere? Is it, girl? Stop and think. Do you ask ‘no rainbow joy’ of life?”
He transfixed her with another glare. But Emily was beginning to pick herself up a bit. Nevertheless, she suddenly felt oddly ashamed of the very elevated and unselfish desires expressed in that sonnet.
“No–o,” she answered reluctantly, “I do want rainbow joy–lots of it.”
“Of course you do. We all do. We don’t get it–you won’t get it–but don’t be hypocrite enough to pretend you don’t want it, even in a sonnet. Lines to a Mountain Cascade–‘On its dark rocks like the whiteness of a veil around a bride’–Where did you see a mountain cascade in Prince Edward Island?”
“Nowhere–there’s a picture of one in Dr Burnley’s library.”
“A Wood Stream–
The threading sunbeams quiver,
The bending bushes shiver,
O’er the little shadowy river–
I have shaken the dew in the meadows
From the clover’s creamy gown–
Pretty, but weak. June–June, for heaven’s sake, girl, don’t write poetry on June. It’s the sickliest subject in the world. It’s been written to death.”
“No, June is immortal,” cried Emily suddenly, a mutinous sparkle replacing the strained look in her eyes. She was not going to let Mr Carpenter have it all his own way.
But Mr Carpenter had tossed June aside without reading a line of it.
“‘I weary of the hungry world’–what do you know of the hungry world?–you in your New Moon seclusion of old trees and old maids–but it is hungry. Ode to Winter–the seasons are a sort of disease all young poets must have, it seems–ha! ‘Spring will not forget’–that’s a good line–the only good line in it. H’m’m–Wanderings—
I’ve heard the secret of the rune
That the somber pines on the hillside croon–
Have you–have you learned that secret?”
“I think I’ve always known it,” said Emily dreamily. That flash of unimaginable sweetness that sometimes surprised her had just come and gone. “Aim and Endeavour–too didactic–too didactic. You’ve no right to try to teach until you’re old–and then you won’t want to–
Her face was like a star all pale and fair–
Were you looking in the glass when you composed that line?”
“‘When the morning light is shaken like a banner on the hill’–a good line–a good line–
Oh, on such a golden morning
To be living is delight–
Too much like a faint echo of Wordsworth. The Sea in September–‘blue and austerely bright’–‘austerely bright’–child, how can you marry the right adjectives like that? Morning–‘all the secret fears that haunt the night’–what do you know of the fears that haunt the night?”
“I know something,” said Emily decidedly, remembering her first night at Wyther Grange.
“To a Dead Day–
With the chilly calm on her brow
That only the dead may wear–
Have you even seen the chilly calm on the brow of the dead, Emily?”
“Yes,” said Emily softly, recalling that grey dawn in the old house in the hollow.
“I thought so–otherwise you couldn’t have written that–and even as it is–how old are you, jade?”
“Thirteen, last May.”
“Humph! Lines to Mrs George Irving’s Infant Son–you should study the art of titles, Emily–there’s a fashion in them as in everything else. Your titles are as out of date as the candles of New Moon–
Soundly he sleeps with his red lips pressed
Like a beautiful blossom close to her breast–
The rest isn’t worth reading. September–is there a month you’ve missed?–‘Windy meadows harvest-deep’–good line. Blair Water by Moonlight–gossamer, Emily, nothing but gossamer. The Garden of New Moon—
Beguiling laughter and old song
Of merry maids and men–
Good line–I suppose New Moon is full of ghosts. ‘Death’s fell minion well fulfilled its part’–that might have passed in Addison’s day but not now–not now, Emily–
Your azure dimples are the graves
Where million buried sunbeams play–
Atrocious, girl–atrocious. Graves aren’t playgrounds. How much would you play if you were buried?”
“Sail onward, ships–white wings, sail on,
Till past the horizon’s purple bar
You drift from sight.–In flush of dawn
Sail on, and ‘neath the evening star–
Trash–trash–and yet there’s a picture in it–
Lap softly, purple waves. I dream,
And dreams are sweet–I’ll wake no more–
Ah, but you’ll have to wake if you want to accomplish anything. Girl, you’ve used purple twice in the same poem.
Buttercups in a golden frenzy–
‘a golden frenzy’–girl, I see the wind shaking the buttercups,
From the purple gates of the west I come–
You’re too fond of purple, Emily.”
“It’s such a lovely word,” said Emily.
“Dreams that seem too bright to die–
Seem but never are, Emily–
The luring voice of the echo, fame–
So you’ve heard it, too? It is a lure and for most of us only an echo. And that’s the last of the lot.”
Mr Carpenter swept the little sheets aside, folded his arms on the desk, and looked over his glasses at Emily.
Emily looked back at him mutely, nervelessly. All the life seemed to have been drained out of her body and concentrated in her eyes.
“Ten good lines out of four hundred, Emily–comparatively good, that is–and all the rest balderdash–balderdash, Emily.”
“I–suppose so,” said Emily faintly.
Her eyes brimmed with tears–her lips quivered. She could not help it. Pride was hopelessly submerged in the bitterness of her disappointment. She felt exactly like a candle that somebody had blown out.
“What are you crying for?” demanded Mr Carpenter.
Emily blinked away the tears and tried to laugh.
“I–I’m sorry–you think it’s no good–” she said.
Mr Carpenter gave the desk a mighty thump.
“No good! Didn’t I tell you there were ten good lines? Jade, for ten righteous men Sodom had been spared.”
“Of course, I mean. If at thirteen you can write ten good lines, at twenty you’ll write ten times ten–if the gods are kind. Stop messing over months, though–and don’t imagine you’re a genius either, if you have written ten decent lines. I think there’s something trying to speak through you–but you’ll have to make yourself a fit instrument for it. You’ve got to work hard and sacrifice–by gad, girl, you’ve chosen a jealous goddess. And she never lets her votaries go–even when she shuts her ears for ever to their plea. What have you there?”
Emily, her heart thrilling, handed him her Jimmy-book. She was so happy that it shone through her whole being with a positive radiance. She saw her future, wonderful, brilliant–oh, her goddess would listen to her–“Emily B. Starr, the distinguished poet”–“E. Byrd Starr, the rising young novelist.”
She was recalled from her enchanting reverie by a chuckle from Mr Carpenter. Emily wondered a little uneasily what he was laughing at. She didn’t think there was anything funny in that book. It contained only three or four of her latest stories–The Butterfly Queen, a little fairy tale; The Disappointed House, wherein she had woven a pretty dream of hopes come true after long years; The Secret of the Glen, which, in spite of its title, was a fanciful little dialogue between the Spirit of the Snow, the Spirit of the Grey Rain, the Spirit of Mist, and the Spirit of Moonshine.
“So you think I am not beautiful when I say my prayers?” said Mr Carpenter.
Emily gasped–realized what had happened–made a frantic grab at her Jimmy-book–missed it. Mr Carpenter held it up beyond her reach and mocked at her.
She had given him the wrong Jimmy-book! And this one, oh, horrors, what was in it? Or rather, what wasn’t in it? Sketches of everyone in Blair Water–and a full–a very full–description of Mr Carpenter himself. Intent on describing him exactly, she had been as mercilessly lucid as she always was, especially in regard to the odd faces he made on mornings when he opened the school day with a prayer. Thanks to her dramatic knack of word painting, Mr Carpenter lived in that sketch. Emily did not know it, but he did–he saw himself as in a glass and the artistry of it pleased him so that he cared for nothing else. Besides, she had drawn his good points quite as clearly as his bad ones. And there were some sentences in it–“He looks as if he knew a great deal that can never be any use to him”–“I think he wears the black coat Mondays because it makes him feel that he hasn’t been drunk at all.” Who or what had taught the little jade these things? Oh, her goddess would not pass Emily by!
“I’m–sorry,” said Emily, crimson with shame all over her dainty paleness.
“Why, I wouldn’t have missed this for all the poetry you’ve written or ever will write! By gad, its literature–literature–and you’re only thirteen. But you don’t know what’s ahead of you–the stony hills–the steep ascents–the buffets–the discouragements. Stay in the valley if you’re wise. Emily, why do you want to write? Give me your reason.”
“I want to be famous and rich,” said Emily coolly.
“Everybody does. Is that all?”
“No. I just love to write.”
“A better reason–but not enough–not enough. Tell me this–if you knew you would be 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?”
“Oh–then I’d waste my breath giving advice at all. If it’s in you to climb you must–there are those who must lift their eyes to the hills–they can’t breathe properly in the valleys. God help them if there’s some weakness in them that prevents their climbing. You don’t understand a word I’m saying–yet. But go on–climb! There, take your book and go home. Thirty years from now I will have a claim to distinction in the fact that Emily Byrd Starr was once a pupil of mine. Go–go–before I remember what a disrespectful baggage you are to write such stuff about me and be properly enraged.”
Emily went, still a bit scared but oddly exultant behind her fright. She was so happy that her happiness seemed to irradiate the world with its own splendour. All the sweet sounds of nature around her seemed like the broken words of her own delight. Mr Carpenter watched her out of sight from the old worn threshold.
“Wind–and flame–and sea!” he muttered. “Nature is always taking us by surprise. This child has–what I have never had and would have made any sacrifice to have. But ‘the gods don’t allow us to be in their debt’–she will pay for it–she will pay.”
I never enjoyed the Emily of New Moon television series from a generation ago, though my wife did babysit the star, Martha MacIsaac, and I should have some loyalty to the local show. The only clip I could find of Mr. Carpenter is below, and captures the addict and not the critic. It also misses the gruffness I can imagine in his voice, the detached critical eye, but seems to be an engaging figure otherwise. Thanks to Callum Beck, a local minister who was once the pastor in a church that Montgomery attended as a youth (though he was a pastor a century too late to meet her). He tipped me off to Emily of New Moon as a writer’s book.