Here’s a tidbit about me many of you might not know – my first name is Emily.
I quite like my first name. I disliked it for a time when I was young, when it seemed like every second person I met was named Emily and I desperately wanted to be unique – but I like it well enough now. I don’t use it, of course. I mean, many of the members of my family still call me Emily (except my grandfather – when I was twelve years old and starting asking to be called Louise, he promptly switched and has only ever called me Louise or Emmy Lou (old family pet name which nobody outside said family is allowed to use, so nobody get any cute ideas) since), and I have some stubborn friends who still can’t make the switch, but I only ever refer to myself as Louise.
And it’s not because I don’t like the name Emily, but because I am a Louise. I can’t even think of myself as Emily – and the fact that my name never really sat quite comfortable on my shoulders, while Louise was just right was the main reason why I switched as an almost-teenager, not just because I was a snob who wanted a name that wasn’t shared with dozens of other girls.
(The other reason was to honor my great-grandmother, who was Pauline Louise, and who was one of the most wonderful human beings I’ve ever had the privilege to know.)
But (and now I’m finally getting to the main point of this post), I still like the name Emily. It’s not as common now as it was when I was young. It’s old-fashioned but not completely dated. It’s sweet and yet still simple and strong. It goes well with most middle names and last names. Even when it was popular it was never trendy. And, most importantly, it’s the name of one of my favorite book characters of all time.
No, not Emily Starr. Not Emma Woodhouse. Not even Emily Pollifax.
It’s none other than Emily Webster, star of Maud Hart Lovelace’s Emily of Deep Valley.
Unlike Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, alongside whom I grew up, reading about their escapades usually around the same time I was their age for each book (nice planning there, Mom), I didn’t meet Emily until I was an adult. A very young, very lonely newlywed, as a matter of fact, living in a strange city in a strange state, knowing nobody there outside my husband (who was working long hours and only wanted to crash at home when he was done), not working myself at the time, without a car, feeling very adrift as I was away from my family for the first time in my life (the one danger in going to a local university, I suppose).
There was a bookstore within walking distance of my apartment, however. True, I had to clamber through a hole in a fence, pick my way down a steep hill, sprint across a restaurant’s parking lot, cross a very busy road, and then dart through another parking lot to get there, but I could do it.
And it was there, one day as I had fled from the incessant noise of the neighbor below us, that I met Emily. If I did not believe in God, I would call it a fluke. Why would a large, mainstream bookstore that barely carried any of the Betsy-Tacy books have this, the least well-known out of all Lovelace’s books? Since I do believe in God, I prefer to think of it as him sending me just what I needed at just the right time.
I sat down in an armchair right there in the store and starting reading it. After a couple of chapters, I felt my throat close up. Rather than burst into tears in public, I got up, paid for the book, made my perilous way back to my apartment, curled up in bed, and kept reading.
And for a few hours, the noise from the downstairs neighbor that filled the entire block of apartments ceased to bother me. My loneliness went away for a time, for I had found a new friend.
Emily, you see, found herself all alone at the start of the book. All her friends went off to college, and while she desperately wanted to go as well, she couldn’t leave her elderly grandfather, who had raised her and who didn’t understand the concept of higher education for women. Despite her best efforts, depression settles in.
But she doesn’t let it stay! Inspired by Shakespeare to “muster her wits,” Emily sets out to live a full, worthwhile life no matter where she is. She lets go of her nostalgic longing for the life she had in high school (the chapter where she changes hairstyles is sheer genius) and looks for ways to learn and grow and help others right where she is. Before long, her life is so full and rich that she’s almost forgotten her longings for college!
There’s romance in the book as well, but even that is shown as part of Emily’s self-growth. It’s never the main focus.
It’s no coincidence that after meeting Emily, I started a blog of my own, and tentatively joined the fanfiction community, starting to find a circle of friends online that are still with me today. She gave me the courage to push through the terrible ennui that threatened me in those early years and find ways to fill my life with purpose and joy. She helped me behave like an adult even when I felt like a little kid at the first church we attended and wanted to hide from all the perfectly-polished other young married women there, all of whom seemed so much more sophisticated and comfortable in their own skin than I was. She helped me understand that it doesn’t matter so much where you are as who you are, and that using your wits is something that will never go out of style.
So yes, Emily became and is still one of my dearest friends. And even though I don’t think of us as having the same name exactly, is it any wonder the name Emily holds such a special place in my heart?