Are You an Anne Shirley or an Emily Starr?
In Praise of L. M. Montgomery's Lesser-Loved Heroine
I met Anne Shirley first, though whether it was on the page or through the interpretation of Megan Follows, I can’t recall. Either way, I quickly acknowledged our kinship: garrulous and gawky, passionately devoted to our dearest girlfriends, and eager to love those who loved us—not to mention some that didn’t. Her delicate nose was the focal point of her wobbling vanity; mine, contrastingly, seemed a curse designed to condemn me to torment. But we both plotted out our lives according to storybook conventions, and our first attempts at authorship were similarly bathetic.
Anne joined ranks with the coterie of fictional odd girls—Jane Eyre, Matilda, Jo March—who kept my neurotic, lonely heart company. L.M. Montgomery, like so many of my favorite authors, begot a heroine who transcended her narrative. Anne of Green Gables gave me worthy cause for optimism. My peers found me peculiar, but perhaps that assessment was not as damning as I had previously feared. After all, Anne Shirley befriends kindred spirits scattered throughout Avonlea, and though she aims to please, she never compromises the sanctity of her selfhood. The Anne novels thus became cherished evidence: one day, I too would find fellowship.
And yet, I didn’t really love Anne Shirley; I never could.
Instead, love found me when, one weekend—dawdling through Barnes and Noble—I stumbled upon another Montgomery creation: Emily Byrd Starr, the titular character of the Emily of New Moon trilogy. Emily enthralled me in a way that Anne never could: she was uppity and incandescent and altogether intimidating in her supernal multitudes. Her first book was published in 1923, 15 years after Anne Of Green Gables, with Emily Climbs and Emily’s Quest following in 1925 and 1927, respectively. But in spite of the distance spanning their publication dates, Emily’s story arc will sound familiar to readers already intimate with Anne. Accustomed to a quiet, companionable life with her widower father, Emily is bereft when he dies of consumption. Now an orphan at age 12, she must abandon her childhood home to become the ward of her mother’s priggish relatives, the Murrays.
But slowly, she comes to love New Moon Farm, where her mother lived as a girl, and which her spinster aunts Elizabeth and Laura, and cousin Jimmy, inhabit and maintain now. The farm and surrounding town of Blair Water are bathed in myths and hauntings—ideal for an aspiring poet. And before long, Emily befriends three similarly maverick souls: the warm-blooded Ilse Burnley, the ambitious Perry Miller, who loves her, and the artist Teddy Kent, whom she loves, although it is years before she expresses her affections outright. Emily relies on the un-Murray-like sympathy of her gentle Aunt Laura and Cousin Jimmy; meanwhile, she and the intractable Aunt Elizabeth assume a power play that, in time, gentles into an affectionate and fiercely loyal kinship. Even more herculean than familial frictions are her efforts to earn a living as a writer, and to suss out the future she desires with Teddy.
Because Montgomery dwells on similar themes in the Emily and Anne books, it’s fitting that her heroines share similar preoccupations. Their writerly inclinations and broad imaginations imply a twinned urge to remake the world into something befitting their dreams. And yet, each girl’s pious romance with the Prince Edward Island landscape communicates a love for the extant natural world. They revere their pastoral environs as unknowably enchanted, but nevertheless claim fellowship with the copses of trees and twinkling lakes that form the backdrop to their coming-of-age. In this comradely spirit, they christen everything that delights them: the Lake of Shining Waters, the Tomorrow Road, the Disappointed House, Dryad’s Bubble. Anne chases “scope for the imagination”; Emily refers to volts of creative energy as “the flash.”
But of the two heroines, Anne Shirley, in all her Anne Shirley-ness, has endured in our cultural zeitgeist. She, not Emily, is the one bestowed with a forthcoming CBC-Netflix reboot; she is the one who has been elevated to archetype. Nowadays, her name functions as the 90s girl’s shorthand: to be an “Anne Shirley” is to be bookish and day-dreamy and bold, with just a dash of impulsive charm. It’s an alluring moniker, one that acknowledges a nerdy, literary soul without professing undesirability—and without the negative connotations of identifying with a Zooey Deschanel character. But Anne’s widespread appeal also waters down the sense of uniqueness we might feel in identifying with the character; let’s face it, most cusp-millennial women have at one point or another fancied ourselves Anne Shirley. With Jonathan Crombie’s death in 2015—verily, the death of Gilbert Blythe—our mourning manifested itself as fierce projection. We not only remembered Anne and Gilbert; we remembered being her and opining the arrival of our own Gilberts—that is to say, someone who loved and exulted us with steadfast devotion.
But here’s the rub: we are so eager to resurrect Anne that we collapse the multitudes of clumsy girlhood into one, whitewashed image. And we ignore, accordingly, the many girls who searched for themselves in Anne only to return bereft. Would Emily have been more to their taste? Perhaps—but after all, there are many kinds of girls. Maybe they were girls even less inclined to fall into step with their schoolmates. Or girls who rarely hankered after authoritative approval. Or girls whose childhoods were not so gynocentric, but also shaped by quizzical, charged friendships with boys. Perhaps they were none of these things; perhaps they were altogether different.
Two white heroines can hardly service the legions of girls reading for their deliverance. L.M. Montgomery’s universe is shamelessly homogeneous, its principles Anglo-white, suitably spiritual, and if not flush, economically comfortable. But my visceral preference for Emily Byrd Starr signaled to me, albeit implicitly, the diversity of girlhood. With the exclusion of a few, spare resonances, I shared precious little in common with her, and therein lay the lynchpin of my preference. Indeed, I was taken with her precisely because I doubted that she would approve of me or, for that matter, cheery, obliging Anne.
Montgomery writes Emily as basally enigmatic, and in so doing, I could only ever conceive of her in an aspirational context. When the CBC announced its plans for the new Anne of Green Gables miniseries, I grumbled, “Always Anne, and never Emily.” But I admittedly understand. Anne has always wanted us to know her; Emily has never been sure. The latter’s book, written as biography, emphasizes our distance from the character—even her diary entries, which she writes so that they will be published posthumously, are contextualized as archival materials. She’ll never write directly to us.
* * * *
From the first pages of Emily of New Moon, I was primed to favor its heroine. She resonated with me just enough that I yearned for a more profound affinity. She writes—poems, letters to her deceased father, stories, and diary entries—with an urgency her Aunt Elizabeth castigates as pathological. Although she eschews demonstrations of romantic vulnerability, she betrays a curiosity about boys—or at least one boy. And she is sensually porous: the world laps against her skin and seeps underneath.
A meek and agitated child, I spent my youth far too terrified of judgment to speak with Emily’s frankness, and so her imperiousness dazzled me. When Gilbert Blythe so crassly calls Green Gables’ Anne Shirley “Carrots,” she smashes a slate over his head. Under the same duress, Emily’s knuckles might have whitened as she gripped her own slate more fixedly, but her revenge would have been delivered as smooth, rhetorical evisceration. Tormented on the first day of school, Emily returns the gawking of the other schoolchildren with her own tenacious stare. “Why don’t you like me?” she asks, eliciting a dumb silence. Finally, flustered adversary stutters, “Because you ain’t a bit like us.”
“I wouldn’t want to be,” said Emily scornfully.
“Oh, my, you are one of the Chosen people,” mocked Black-eyes.
“Oh course I am,” retorted Emily.
Emily moreover demands the respect of her elders—even when they refuse it—and she does not shirk from calling injustice by its name. Even in the wake of her father’s death, neither grief nor trepidation diminishes her verve. À la Jane Eyre, her rigid Aunt Elizabeth locks Emily in a darkened spare room as punishment—unlike Jane, Emily escapes through the window and spends the evening cavorting with her friend Ilse. At Green Gables, Anne does not flounder under such strictures, but then, Anne prioritizes the love of her caretakers with an urgency alien to Emily.
Because I regarded my elders—and, frankly, anyone more popular than me—as authorities, I, too, was voracious for approval. To be called “consumptive” or “plain” by my family would have shattered me just as Anne is mortified by references to her homeliness. Emily, however, sustains these blows time and again. Her tenacity discomfits the Murrays who take her in; they, accordingly, cast aspersions in a desperate grasp for the upper hand.
As time passes, characters in each of Montgomery’s series devote a provoking amount of time to debating whether or not the protagonists qualify as “beauties.” Emily, we are meant to understand, never ranks among Blair Water’s most handsome or glamorous, but “her slow, blossoming smile” charms her male compatriots with enviable potency. Avonlea, it seems, can never agree as to whether Anne should be hailed as one of their most handsome residents, or if she is merely small, freckled, and grey-eyed. According to Montgomery’s logic, these chronic debates—can Emily or Anne be assessed according to conventional metrics of beauty?—mark her protagonists as singularly interesting and alluring. And especially in Emily’s case, they seem a coded means of articulating ineffable desirability.
Even as a pale, elfin girl, Emily bewitches and disarms a clutter of Blair Water folk: a Catholic priest certain she is descended from fairies, schoolmates who had initially harassed her, and—in particular—her Aunt Laura and Cousin Jimmy. Just as Anne Shirley is quick to glide into Avonlea’s rhythms, Emily soon breathes full and easy in New Moon’s atmosphere. Yet Anne relishes her deliverance from solitude with a gusto that is foreign to Emily’s DNA. And, unsurprisingly, she is the one to imbue her relationships with near-reverential love. The iconic romance of Diana Barry and Anne Shirley achieves its gravitas in part because Anne experiences mutual love as strange and exquisite alchemy. Emily’s friendship with the peppery Ilse Burnley never begets the same veneration, likely because her yen for female companionship competes with her resolute autonomy. In an era when the romantic female friendship is experiencing a pop culture renaissance, we glorify fierce, breathless intimacies—love stories—and Emily is disinclined to give of herself so fully.
However, Emily’s stubborn self-sovereignty sits uneasily with her romantic curiosity—and together they chisel a slender chasm. Part of the reason Emily and Ilse never attain the peaceful equilibrium shared by Anne and Diana is because they increasingly eye another as sexual competition. Ilse’s love for their playmate Perry Miller goes unrequited for years as he pines after Emily, and Emily, in turn, ruminates over the possibility that Teddy Kent might be seduced by her more glamorous friend. And, for that matter, their temperaments forbid stable tranquility: Ilse thrives on the energy of argument, and Emily indulges in the pleasure of calm instigation. Like Anne, Emily knows she is cleverer than her best friend; unlike Anne, she weaponizes that advantage (though, it’s only fair to note that these squabbles almost always evaporate overnight).
Because Emily comes of age in such close proximity to both male and female companions—and because their games are often modeled after traditional domesticity—she soon discerns the varying particulars of her affections. It’s not long after making his acquaintance that she demonstrates a preference for one Teddy Kent, and the fibers of their intimacy vibrate with a mutual romantic understanding. Teddy, the narrator makes clear, has loved Emily from the start of their acquaintance. In youth, Emily does not balk at these alien sensations. Whether by nature or nurture, Emily acknowledges her body—its fleshy vibrancy—in a way that Anne does not, or will not in her dealings with Gilbert Blythe. The slow-swelling murmurs of her romance with Teddy reveal erotic sensitivity—and though these tremors often elude her vocabulary, even unsettle her, she never disclaims their pleasure. From girlhood Emily accepts her prevailing affection for Teddy as tacit fact, and by late adolescence she divines the tidal pull of desire:
She dared not look at Teddy again, but she thrilled with a delicious sense of his nearness; she was acutely conscious of his tall, boyish straightness, his glossy black hair, his luminous dark-blue eyes. She had always known she liked Teddy better than any other male creature in her ken—but this was something apart from liking altogether—this sense of belonging to him that had come in [a] significant exchange of glances.
In the throes of my earliest passions, I too found myself undone by a beloved’s proximity; though, my chronic dearth of charm and grace ensured that I maintained relatively obscure to them. I perceived romantic shyness and anxiety like two pitiless hands tugging my diaphragm—but the object of desire himself? His closeness summoned an erogenous unbecoming, reducing my blood and organs to smoldering sand. Neither Emily nor I could hail the precise words, but I thought she might understand.
Anne, on the other hand, is not disinterested in romance so much as dazzled by her obscurely platonic notions of it. She locates passion in lovelorn couplets and, as she resolves after Diana announces her engagement, will only enter matrimony under “thrilling” circumstances. “Perhaps I’ll change too,” she falters, acknowledging the continental divide between Fred Wright and the Byronic hero of Diana’s fantasies. “But I won’t . . . I’m determined I won’t.” This stubbornness propels her to refuse Gilbert until typhoid fever very nearly wrests him from her. Only then does retrospect clarify the narrative she has for so long distorted through theoretical fancy and willful myopia.
* * * *
Both Anne Shirley and Emily Byrd Starr thrive in settings organized for men—particularly in intellectual contexts. Both are desired and adored by the person of their choosing (even if, in Anne’s case, her feelings are for some time obfuscated by fantasy). Young Anne aggravated me by exemplifying my own idiosyncrasies; however, she matured into the sort of woman who embodied my adolescent conception of personal triumph: charming, academically successful, and pretty enough. In fact, when I was not wallowing in the depths of despair, Anne Shirleyness struck me as not only appealing, but—perhaps—attainable too. Maybe L.M. Montgomery had inscribed my future for me to seek and uncover in due time. Through this feat of narcissistic projection, Anne’s life became a road map for my own. But who has ever loved a map? Like a fangirl panting after a celebrity, I relished the scanty emotional territory that Emily and I shared.
Loving Anne necessitated self-acceptance, and I was disinterested in that endeavor. Instead I worshipped the girl I could never be: Emily—saucy, seductive, supernatural Emily. In my estimation, magical abilities—no matter the variety—provided a keener means of survival. Alex Mack’s telekinesis seemed worth the hassle of hiding from a corrupt chemical plant. When I saw The Craft, I bemoaned my own magic-less constitution. And as for Emily Byrd Starr, well, I might have likened her to Matilda or even Willow Rosenberg before placing her within the same domain as Anne Shirley, who had only imagination to rely on. Something otherworldly had kissed her. No matter what trials befell her on earth—even if she detested the “second sight” that shook even her Aunt Elizabeth’s Bible braced convictions—the cosmos had deemed her special.
Powerless to conceal my own emotions, I was wooed by Emily’s enigmatic heart, her gift of hiding in plain sight. Anne’s avid heart—its bright, broad welcome—we can hear, and if we can’t precisely place the melody, we’re acquainted with a variation. If we’re reticent in our desires, or frightened by our yen for belonging, Anne sings in our stead, without fear and without exposing us. If we’re just as loud, she’ll whoop and laugh and cry in tandem.
Aspirations change and ripen. I will always love Emily, but I don’t want to be magical anymore. I want to live wide open. And because I want that, I have a confession to make: I love Anne too.