While I’d still have to say my favourite of Maud Hart Lovelace’s books is Carney’s House Party, I have to give the nod to Emily Webster as my favourite of her characters. As a fellow introvert who wasn’t part of the popular crowd and didn’t come from a cushy bourgeois family, I can really relate to Emily. I also deeply relate to her as someone whose life hasn’t unfolded on the same timetable as that of most of my peers.
Emily Webster (based on Marguerite Marsh, a year older than Mrs. Lovelace but two years younger than her Doppelgänger Betsy) lost her mother in infancy and her father at two years old. Her grandparents stepped up to raise her, but her grandma died when Emily was ten years old. Now Emily lives alone on the edge of town with her grandpa Cyrus Webster, an 81-year-old Civil War vet.
When Emily graduates high school in 1912, all her peers head off to college—the University of Minnesota, Carleton College, Vassar, a few local schools. But because Grandpa Cyrus has no one else to take care of him, Emily is unable to pursue higher education. It’s not even something she weighs the pros and cons of. Staying with Grandpa is just something she must do without question.
Because Emily lives so far on the outskirts of town, and because she has so many heavy responsibilities, she hasn’t had the cliché kind of high school experience Betsy did. Though she is frequently invited to come along to get-togethers and events, and does take up some of these offers throughout the book, it seems obvious she’s invited more out of sympathy and obligation, and that she’s always on the periphery of this crowd.
Emily is very intelligent and serious, though, and was the only girl on the acclaimed debate team. She loves reading, history, and politics, and her dream is to become a social worker like her shero Jane Addams. Emily’s graduation speech (which she has to memorize instead of reading from a paper!) is about Ms. Addams.
Emily does have extended family, though—her beautiful, sophisticated, glamourous second-cousin Annette, and Annette’s parents, whom Emily calls Aunt Sophie and Uncle Chester, despite not being related to them in that way. Aunt Sophie regularly has new clothes made for Emily by town dressmaker Miss Mix, and has Emily and Grandpa over for holidays.
There’s also love interest Don Walker, who was on the debate team with Emily. Over the summer, he regularly visits and discusses books. One time, he brings Emily a book of Robert Browning poetry. But it’s obvious to everyone but Emily from the jump that Don isn’t very sincere or nice.
Emily sinks into despondency when her erstwhile friends leave for college. They’re all going places in their lives and having fun, while she’s stuck in Deep Valley as Grandpa’s full-time caretaker. At first, Emily tries to lift her spirits by attending a high school pep rally for a football game, but a comment from the new coach is like a lightning bolt that wakes her up and makes her realise she’s unhealthily clinging to the past and not moving forward into a new adult life.
Instead of going to the game, she hurries home to put her hair up in a Psyche knot. Prior, she wore her hair in a braid with a huge ribbon like an overgrown schoolgirl. Emily also gets some new hats to accommodate this change in hairstyle, and a few new clothes.
After this, it’s like a magic wand has been waved. Because she finally looks her age, Emily begins getting attention from a slightly older crowd who’s still in town. For the first time, Emily feels like she’s found her tribe, people with serious interests that match her own. One of her new friends, Cab Edwards, takes her out to several dances. (I found Cab much better-developed in this book than in the Betsy-Tacy series!)
And slowly but surely, Emily starts coming into her own and making lemonade out of the lemons life handed her. She might not be a college girl, but there are so many other rewarding things she can do, like start a Browning discussion group, help the people in Little Syria, and resume music lessons.
I really enjoyed watching Emily’s gradual growth into a strong, confident woman who knows her own mind and how to find fulfillment and happiness. I can also relate to her more than Betsy (who makes a brief appearance that really feels shoehorned in). Emily faces a lot of real challenges that aren’t easily, quickly resolved; she’s not Miss Popularity; boys aren’t beating a path to her door; and she doesn’t have class privilege.
Emily is truly Mrs. Lovelace’s most mature, complex character, with a storyline to match.