Last week’s Platinum Jubilee celebration and my rather loose reflection, “A Note on C.S. Lewis and the “Tragic Splendour” of British Monarchy on Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee,” put me in mind of how I was introduced to L.M. Montgomery’s novels as works worth study, and, in particular, her character Emily. I have become convinced that Emily of New Moon is pretty close to a work of genius–and most definitely among Montgomery’s greatest works.Emily Byrd Starr is something of a mystic, a prophet, poet, and priest who brings together art, beauty, love, and goodness within a spiritual and literary experience of otherness–an experience that I try to capture in “Emily of New Moon’s Visitation of Beauty with Father Cassidy.” Perhaps because I have tried to describe my own vocation in terms that seem to blend literary art, creativity, religious experience, and doing something good in the world, a friend of mine pressed Emily of New Moon into my hands. It was somewhat of an incongruous moment: both of us sitting in towels in the university change room following a long game of pickup basketball, he a church pastor and professor trying to describe how Emily is Montgomery at her best as a storyteller. Flipping through the pages, he was trying to show me “The Woman Who Spanked the King.” Then he stopped and handed me the book. “Of course, it’s in the second one. You’ll have to read this one first.”
Is this the average first encounter with Montgomery’s fiction: naked men chatting about books in a conversation that tumbles off into our shared Scottish heritage?
I should return his copy of Emily of New Moon, but quite honestly I find his annotations helpful. He was right that I loved the first Emily book (1923), and also find great meaning in the second one, Emily Climbs (1925). In an attempt to return the favour and try to introduce more readers to Montgomery’s brilliant artistic trilogy–and as a way of connecting to the royal moment we are in–I wanted to share about “The Woman Who Spanked the King.”
In this second Emily novel, the protagonist and her best friend, Ilse, are canvassing a neighbouring county selling magazine subscriptions to pay for their books at high school. In the midst of a torrential storm, the girls take refuge in a nearby home. The house is under a cloud of sorrow, however, for a little boy has gone missing and the searchers are near their limits of reasonable hope. A kind, class-conscious, and knows-everything neighbour feeds the girls, dries their clothes, and puts them in the spare room for the night.
As readers might know, great things happen in spare rooms in L.M. Montgomery’s novels–and in some other tales as well, I’m told. In this scene, Emily awakes from troubled dreams to see the reputedly near-mad Mistress McIntyre sitting quietly next to their bed.
Quite sane in far too many ways but “not quite right” in all the ways that are valued in Montgomery’s imagination, Mistress McIntyre is a character who is herself not far from dreamland. Thus, as with Emily’s father and Father Cassidy, a vocational benefactor, old Mrs McIntyre can discern that Emily is kin to the tribe of Elfland. However, she also sees one other of Emily’s traits–though perhaps only dimly. Mistress McIntyre says that Emily has “the way.” This might be Emily’s knack for storytelling and her genius as a poet. However, it might also be Emily’s gift of knowing beyond, perceiving within, the “second sight” some call it. For Mrs McIntyre, “the way” would come to Emily by her birthright as a “highlander” and a “Presbyterian”–even though she has no skill in the “Twa Talks,” a word for Scottish Gaelic I had never heard before.
Some background notes are perhaps helpful.
“Prince Bertie” in the tale is Edward VII, eldest son of Queen Victoria of Hanover and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Edward was born in 1841, and Prince Albert acquired Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland in 1852. Knowing how boys grow, Mistress McIntyre’s discipline of Bertie must have taken place in that first summer or two. Prince Albert died in 1861, but Queen Victoria did not die until 1901. As Prince Bertie would have to wait decades to find the throne as King Edward VII, so Mrs McIntyre would have to wait to tell her king-spanking tale in a way that deserves the title. Emily is listening to the story in 1903, just a couple of years into the Edwardian period.
The Wikipedia entry on Balmoral Castle notes that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert lived more like gentry than royals in their Scotland summer retreats, taking interest in their local staff (including gillies, with a hard “g”), opening a lending library, and extending the estate. Mistress McIntyre’s oral history of the royal family in the mid-Victorian era is quaint and humorous and gives a nice sense of local colour to the era-defining family.
For readers unfamiliar with the myriad Scottish terms for bits of land and water, a “burn” is a small river, and makes for an intriguing echo of the lost child of the frame story. Swift-moving rivers are the endless delight of children growing up as well as an interminable source of worry for those who are tasked with keeping those children safe–no less so when one of the children is the heir apparent to the throne. While some contemporary readers may condemn Mistress McIntyre’s approach to discipline even if they might appreciate the egalitarian nature of her concern–“I will be giving him a sound spanking on the place the Good Lord will be making for spanks in princes as well as in common children”–the political and moral fate of the Empire was in her hands (quite literally).
The piece is filled with folk wisdom mixed with humour and lore. My book-evangelist friend was right: it shows Montgomery as a short-story writer at her finest. Emily’s literary mentor and chief critic, Mr Carpenter also approved of Emily’s treatment of the tale. As I discuss in “Stay in the Valley if You’re Wise,” Mr Carpenter sees some literary greatness in Emily, but warns her about the cost of her art while being unwaveringly precise in criticizing her work. With “The Woman Who Spanked the King,” however, he was delighted. When it was published in a magazine that gave Emily some literary heft and local note, a dying Mr Carpenter chuckled over rereading the piece, calling it “absolutely good.” Emily tries to pan the value of the tale, but Mr Carpenter reasserts her work as a writer:
“The best in this story belongs to Mistress McIntyre,” said Emily ruefully. “I can’t call it mine.”
“The setting is yours—and what you’ve added harmonizes perfectly with your foundation. And you didn’t polish hers up too much—that shows the artist. Weren’t you tempted to?”
“Yes. There were so many places I thought I could improve it a good deal.”
“But you didn’t try to—that makes it yours,” said Mr. Carpenter—and left her to puzzle his meaning out for herself.
It is a somewhat confusing thing to know what is our own in storytelling, thus I think it is worthwhile giving our thanks to L.M. Montgomery, Emily Byrd Starr, and Mistress McIntyre–and the entire grand tradition of Scottish storytelling of which Montgomery is one of the great figures in the Scottish Canadian diaspora. I hope you enjoy!
The wet dawn came up from the gulf in the wake of the spent storm and crept greyly into the little spare room of the whitewashed house on the hill. Emily woke with a start from a troubled dream of seeking—and finding—the lost boy. But where she had found him she could not now remember. Ilse was still asleep at the back of the bed, her pale-gold curls lying in a silken heap on the pillow. Emily, her thoughts still tangled in the cobweb meshes of her dream, looked around the room—and thought she must be dreaming still.
By the tiny table, covered with its white, lace-trimmed cloth, a woman was sitting—a tall, stout, old woman, wearing over her thick grey hair a spotless white widow’s cap, such as the old Highland Scotch-women still wore in the early years of the century. She had on a dress of plum-coloured drugget with a large, snowy apron, and she wore it with the air of a queen. A neat blue shawl was folded over her breast. Her face was curiously white and deeply wrinkled but Emily, with her gift for seeing essentials, saw instantly the strength and vivacity which still characterized every feature. She saw, too, that the beautiful, clear blue eyes looked as if their owner had been dreadfully hurt sometime. This must be the old Mrs. McIntyre of whom Mrs. Hollinger had spoken. And if so, then old Mrs. McIntyre was a very dignified personage indeed.
Mrs. McIntyre sat with her hands folded on her lap, looking steadily at Emily with a gaze in which there was something hard to define—something just a little strange. Emily recalled the fact that Mrs. McIntyre was supposed to be not “quite right.” She wondered a little uneasily what she should do. Ought she to speak? Mrs. McIntyre saved her the trouble of deciding.
“You will be having Highlandmen for your forefathers?” she said, in an unexpectedly rich, powerful voice, full of the delightful Highland accent.
“Yes,” said Emily.
“And you will be Presbyterian?”
“They will be the only decent things to be,” remarked Mrs. McIntyre in a tone of satisfaction. “And will you please be telling me what your name is? Emily Starr! That will be a fery pretty name. I will be telling you mine—it iss Mistress Margaret McIntyre. I am no common person—I am the woman who spanked the King.”
Again Emily, now thoroughly awake, thrilled with the story-teller’s instinct. But Ilse, awakening at the moment, gave a low exclamation of surprise. Mistress McIntyre lifted her head with a quite regal gesture.
“You will not be afraid of me, my dear. I will not be hurting you although I will be the woman who spanked the King. That iss what the people say of me—oh, yess—as I walk into the church. ‘She iss the woman who spanked the King.'”
“I suppose,” said Emily hesitatingly, “that we’d better be getting up.”
“You will not be rising until I haf told you my tale,” said Mistress McIntyre firmly. “I will be knowing as soon as I saw you that you will be the one to hear it. You will not be having fery much colour and I will not be saying that you are fery pretty—oh, no. But you will be having the little hands and the little ears—they will be the ears of the fairies, I am thinking. The girl with you there, she iss a fery nice girl and will make a fery fine wife for a handsome man—she is clefer, oh, yes—but you haf the way and it is to you I will be telling my story.”
“Let her tell it,” whispered Ilse. “I’m dying of curiosity to hear about the King being spanked.”
Emily, who realized that there was no “letting” in the case, only a matter of lying still and listening to whatever it seemed good to Mistress McIntyre to say, nodded.
“You will not be having the twa talks? I will be meaning the Gaelic.”
Spellbound, Emily shook her black head.
“That iss a pity, for my story will not be sounding so well in the English—oh, no. You will be saying to yourself the old woman iss having a dream, but you will be wrong, for it iss the true story I will be telling you—oh, yess. I spanked the King. Of course he would not be the King then—he would be only a little prince and no more than nine years old—just the same age as my little Alec. But it iss at the beginning I must be or you will not be understanding the matter at all at all. It wass all a long, long time ago, before ever we left the Old Country. My husband would be Alistair McIntyre and he would be a shepherd near the Balmoral Castle. Alistair was a fery handsome man and we were fery happy. It wass not that we did not quarrel once in a while—oh, no, that would be fery monotonous. But when we made up it is more loving than ever we would be. And I would be fery good-looking myself. I will be getting fatter and fatter all the time now but I wass fery slim and peautiful then—oh, yess, it iss the truth I will be telling you though I will be seeing that you are laughing in your sleeves at me. When you will be eighty you will be knowing more about it.
“You will be remembering maybe that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert would be coming up to Balmoral efery summer and bringing their children with them, and they would not be bringing any more servants than they could help, for they would not be wanting fuss and pother, but just a quiet, nice time like common folks. On Sundays they would be walking down sometimes to the church in the glen to be hearing Mr. Donald MacPherson preach. Mr. Donald MacPherson wass fery gifted in prayer and he would not be liking it when people would come in when he wass praying. He would be apt to be stopping and saying, ‘O Lord, we will be waiting until Sandy Big Jim hass taken his seat’—oh, yes. I would be hearing the Queen laugh the next day—at Sandy Big Jim, you will be knowing, not at the minister.
“When they will be needing some more help at the Castle, they just sent for me and Janet Jardine. Janet’s husband was a gillie on the estate. She would be always saying to me, ‘Good-morning, Mistress McIntyre’ when we would be meeting and I would be saying, ‘Good-morning, Janet,’ just to be showing the superiority of the McIntyres over the Jardines. But she wass a fery good creature in her place and we would be getting on fery well together when she would not be forgetting it.
“I wass fery good friends with the Queen—oh, yess. She wass not a proud woman whatefer. She would be sitting in my house at times and drinking a cup of tea and she would be talking to me of her children. She wass not fery handsome, oh, no, but she would be having a fery pretty hand. Prince Albert wass fery fine looking, so people would be saying, but to my mind Alistair wass far the handsomer man. They would be fery fine people, whatefer, and the little princes and princesses would be playing about with my children efery day. The Queen would be knowing they were in good company and she would be easier in her mind about them than I wass—for Prince Bertie was the daring lad if efer there wass one—oh, yess, and the tricky one—and I would be worrying all the time for the fear he and Alec would be getting into a scrape. They would be playing every day together—and quarrelling, too. And it would not always be Alec’s fault either. But it wass Alec that would be getting the scolding, poor lad. Somebody would haf to be scolded and you will be knowing that I could not be scolding the prince, my dear.
“There wass one great worry I will be having—the burn behind the house in the trees. It wass fery deep and swift in places and if a child should be falling in he would be drowned. I would be telling Prince Bertie and Alec time after time that they must nefer be going near the banks of the burn. They would be doing it once or twice for all that and I would be punishing Alec for it, though he would be telling me that he did not want to go and Prince Bertie would be saying, ‘Oh, come on, there will not be any danger, do not be a coward,’ and Alec, he would be going because he would be thinking he had to do what Prince Bertie wanted, and not liking fery well either to be called a coward, and him a McIntyre. I would be worrying so much over it that I would not be sleeping at nights. And then, my dear, one day Prince Bertie would be falling right into the deep pool and Alec would be trying to pull him out and falling in after him. And they would haf been drowned together if I had not been hearing the skirls of them when I would be coming home from the Castle after taking some buttermilk up for the Queen. Oh, yess, it is quick I will be taking in what had happened and running to the burn and it will not be long before I wass fishing them out, fery frightened and dripping. I will be knowing something had to be done and I wass tired of blaming poor Alec, and besides it will be truth, my dear, that I wass fery, fery mad and I wass not thinking of princes and kings, but just of two fery bad little boys. Oh, it iss the quick temper I will be always having—oh, yess. I will be picking up Prince Bertie and turning him over my knee: and I will be giving him a sound spanking on the place the Good Lord will be making for spanks in princes as well as in common children. I will be spanking him first because he wass a prince. Then I spanked Alec and they made music together, for it wass fery angry I was and I will be doing what my hands will be finding to do with all my might, as the Good Book says.
“Then when Prince Bertie had gone home—fery mad—I will be cooling off and feeling a bit frightened. For I will not be knowing just how the Queen will be taking it, and I will not be liking the thought of Janet Jardine triumphing over me. But it iss a sensible woman Queen Victoria wass and she will be telling me next day that I did right: and Prince Albert will be smiling and joking to me about the laying on of hands. And Prince Bertie would not be disobeying me again about going to the burn—oh, no—and he could not be sitting down fery easy for some time. As for Alistair, I had been thinking he would be fery cross with me, but it will always be hard telling what a man will think of anything—oh, yess—for he would be laughing over it, too, and telling me that a day would come when I could be boasting that I had spanked the King. It wass all a long time ago now, but nefer will I be forgetting it. She would be dying two years ago and Prince Bertie would be the king at last. When Alistair and I came to Canada the Queen will be giving me a silk petticoat. It wass a very fine petticoat of the Victoria tartan. I haf nefer worn it, but I will be wearing it once—in my coffin, oh, yess. I will be keeping it in the chest in my room and they will be knowing what it iss for. I will be wishing Janet Jardine could have known that I wass to be buried in a petticoat of the Victoria tartan, but she hass been dead for a long while. She wass a fery good sort of creature, although she wass not a McIntyre.”
Mistress McIntyre folded her hands and held her peace. Having told her story she was content. Emily had listened avidly. Now she said:
“Mrs. Mclntyre, will you let me write that story down, and publish it?”
Mistress Mclntyre leaned forward. Her white, shrivelled face warmed a little, her deep-set eyes shone.
“Will you be meaning that it will be printed in a paper?”
“It iss strange how our wishes will be coming true at times. It iss a pity that the foolish people who will be saying there iss no God could not be hearing of this. You will be writing it out and you will be putting it into proud words—”
“No, no,” said Emily quickly. “I will not do that. I may have to make a few changes and write a framework, but most of it I shall write exactly as you told it. I could not better it by a syllable.”
Mistress McIntyre looked doubtful for a moment—then gratified.
“It iss only a poor, ignorant body I am, and I will not be choosing my words fery well, but maybe you will be knowing best. You haf listened to me fery nicely and it is sorry I am to have kept you so long with my old tales. I will be going now and letting you get up.”