A week ago, a new email in my inbox lit me up: the committee accepted my paper proposal for the 2020 L.M. Montgomery Conference. I’ll be presenting it at the University of Prince Edward Island next June.
This paper has been my intellectual rose garden for three years: a joy, and a challenge that cultivated me as I cultivated it. It officially started as my independent study the last semester of college – but really, it began when I was ten.
We were visiting family in California. Through sun-soaked days of biking past gardens of red roses and avocado trees and creating a slip-n-slide in the backyard, I’d read through the books I brought in my blue backpack. I started L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon series, a stack of three paperback books my grandma left on the wooden desk in the den.
I read through the first two books quickly, enjoying the rich natural scenery, humor, and drama, but feeling from the start that Emily’s story was different from Anne’s (I’d read Anne of Green Gables already). Anne of Green Gables starts out like a morning in spring, rich with the promise of a new family and a new home. Emily’s beginning is autumnal, dusky: she comes home from an evening walk to learn that her beloved father is dying. Emily’s love for writing, more pronounced than Anne’s, resonated with me – but her anger and pride, bitterer and deeper than Anne’s fiery temper, felt too close to my own for comfort.
The third book felt like a dry and weary land where there is no water (though there are some oases). Emily is unhappy and uncertain, falling in and out of love, deserted by her childhood sweetheart, often unsuccessful in writing…and discouraged. I pushed through knowing that there must be a marriage and happy ending – I thought all books had those. Finally, I shut the book with a sigh of relief. Finishing Anne of the Island, the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and other favorite books filled me like a feast, but this story weighed on me.
For twelve years, I thought about the Anne and Emily books, wondering, what happened to L.M. Montgomery between writing the two series? Why is Anne so bright, and Emily so dark? And where is God in the Emily books – the God who always gives hope and life, who is always our happy ending?
In my last semester of college, I set up an independent study on children’s literature, starting with a comparison of the Anne and Emily series. I examined their views of God and threw in a light comparison/contrast between Anne and the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, Emily and another Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley.
My professor liked this contrast, and encouraged me to explore it further. She also encouraged me to try to publish the paper. I hoped to go to graduate school for literature, so I took her advice and dug deeper.
When I went home that winter, I split my time between applying to every possible job within 50 miles and researching the paper. On days too cold and snow-smothered to go outside, I sat in front of the gas fireplace with my laptop. My purring cat crawled all over me and wrote gibberish on my resumes and research notes by stepping on the keyboard.
Over the next three years, in bright mornings while sipping my coffee and dark evenings after running, three jobs in three states, and other writing projects, I worked on the paper. I submitted it to possible literary journals and received rejections that hurt a little, but came with the excellent scholarly criticism: names of books and articles to read, thoughtful analyses of weak points and oversimplifications, and suggestions for new directions for research.
I delved into L.M. Montgomery’s emotional and intellectual life as expressed in her journals, her Scottish Presbyterian faith and heritage, rich knowledge of 19th century literature, religious and spiritual perspective, as well as the wealth of resources created by scholars before me like Mary Henley Rubio, Elizabeth Epperly, Irene Gammel, and Monika B. Hilder. I combed the surface of Wordsworth’s poetry and scholarship: golden daffodils dancing on a hill, souls moving inland with age, cliffs looming out of the darkness. I ran my fingers across Shelley’s work: dark pines on a mountainside, beauty moving among mankind like an unseen ghost, a boy running through a starlit wood hoping to speak with the dead.
Finally, I submitted a proposal to the conference – and was accepted. This year, I plan to dig deeper than ever before into the roots of the paper – L.M. Montgomery’s work, the Bible, Scottish Presbyterian theology, Wordsworth, and Shelley – to cut away the weaknesses in my argument and replace oversimplifications with comprehensive analyses. Next June, I’m excited to learn the insights of other scholars and hear the labor, and the rewards, of their rose gardens.