“For one glorious, supreme moment, came ‘the flash.’ … It couldn’t be described–not even to Father, who always seemed a little puzzled by it. Emily never spoke of it to any one else. It had always seemed to Emily, ever since she could remember, that she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain; she could never draw the curtain aside–but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond–only a glimpse–and heard a note of unearthly music.”
By 1920, Canadian writer Lucy Maud Montgomery had an extremely popular heroine who she was tired of writing about. Anne of Green Gables, her first book, had been an instant success when it was published in 1908, and Montgomery soon issued a number of sequels featuring the plucky orphan Anne Shirley, her friends and relations, and the town of Avonlea where she lived. In 1921, Montgomery announced that Rilla of Ingleside, a novel about the experiences of Anne’s daughter in the first World War, would be the last “Anne” book.
In 1923, Montgomery introduced a new orphan heroine, Emily Starr, in Emily of New Moon. Emily was in some ways more like her author than Anne was. Like Montgomery, Emily was a writer, and aspired to write professionally. “I think I shall be either a great poetess or a distinguished novelist,” Emily says to Dean Priest, a young man she meets in this book, and with whom she would have a complicated relationship in the book’s two sequels.
But another resemblance of the character to the author was the fleeting feelings of transcendent joy she would sometimes experience, which she called ‘the flash’. The quote at the top of this post is how it’s described in Emily of New Moon. Montgomery describes a similar experience in her 1917 autobiography, The Alpine Path, where she writes “I caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond – only a glimpse – but those glimpses have always made life worth while.” It’s an experience that others have had as well. Brenton Dickieson compares it to the ineffable “joy” that C. S. Lewis relates in his autobiography as experiencing in his youth. In The Alpine Path, Montgomery’s description of that “enchanting realm” appear alongside her appreciation of nature and her passionate fondness of reading, suggesting that both of those pleasures could be occasions of that ‘flash’.
Sadly, much of Montgomery’s later life was not so joyful. She suffered increasingly severe outbreaks of depression, exacerbated by her husband’s worsening mental illness and the stress she felt about the developments of the second World War, and her mental and physical pain appears to have been what killed her, directly or indirectly, in 1942.
Emily of New Moon was copyrighted in 1923, with a renewal filed in 1951. Like the other creative works we’ve now spent half of December discussing, it will join the public domain in the US 16 days from now. I hope that some of them may be occasions for flashes of joy or inspiration in many of us. If there are works that have done that for you, whether or not they’re part of the imminent public domain cohort, I’d love to hear about them.
2019 update: Link to full text of Emily of New Moon, now in the US public domain, courtesy of Project Gutenberg Australia.