After a few novels set on the Western Front, I wanted to move to the home front. Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside did the trick.
Rilla of Ingleside is chronologically the eighth book in the Anne of Green Gables series, although it was the sixth published. First published in 1920, it is a rare (some say the only) novel written from a woman’s viewpoint about the war in Canada by an author who lived through the war. It chronicles the entire period of the war, starting on the day Franz Ferdinand’s assassination is reported and ending as the local boys who enlisted and survived come home to Prince Edward Island.
Rilla is Anne Shirley’s and Gilbert Blythe’s youngest daughter, aged 15 at the beginning of the novel. She is pretty, vain and full of laughter, with aspirations only to have a good time. But as her brothers and friends enlist, she and others in the community find ways to do their bit. Rilla takes on the care of a baby whose mother dies in childbirth while his father is in the army, organizes a Junior Red Cross to raise money and supplies for the war effort, and matures into a responsible young woman.
Montgomery’s account of how the Islanders deal with a faraway war is interesting. At the beginning, “that some Archduke Ferdinand or other has been assassinated at a place bearing the weird name of Sarajevo” is irrelevant, compared to gossip about the comings and goings of folks they know. (Indeed, those comings and goings are published in the paper! I remember those columns in the local newspaper. Forget ‘all the news that’s fit to print.’ Think ‘all that’s fit to print, regardless of whether it’s news.’) But once England declares war, Canada answers the call, and local boys enlist, the entire arena of war and the leaders on all sides become part of the Islanders’ community. They discuss “military tactics and diplomatic intrigue” and follow the hope and despair in turns. The book assumes that readers are equally familiar with details of the war. (A 2010 edition of the book edited by Benjamin Lefebvre and Andrea McKenzie includes background info and a glossary to help modern readers.)
Montgomery portrays a range of views about the war within the community.
“I am much afraid that this war has been sent as a punishment for our sins.” “Without shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.”
“I think (war) is the price humanity must pay for some blessing – some advance great enough to be worth the price – which we may not live to see but which our children’s children will inherit.” “…a country whose sons are ready to lay down their lives in her defence will win a new vision because of their sacrifice.”
“He prayed that the unholy war might cease—that the deluded armies being driven to slaughter on the Western front might have their eyes opened to their iniquity and repent while yet there was time—that the poor young men present in khaki, who had been hounded into a path of murder and militarism, should yet be rescued—” (The pacifist amongst them is suspected of siding with the Germans.)
“I hate the whole thing – the horror, the pain, the ugliness. War isn’t a khaki uniform or a drill parade. … I lie awake at night and see things that have happened – see the blood and filth and misery of it all.”
“We must give him up. There is a Call greater and more insistent than the call of our love—he has listened to it. We must not add to the bitterness of his sacrifice.”
Not So Quiet gave the sense of patriotic parents pushing their children into the war to uphold honour and bragging rights. The patriotism in Rilla of Ingleside seems softer and more aligned with sacrifice: “When our women fail in courage, shall our men be fearless still?”
The war is seen as a noble cause. The futility evident in later works is not stated here. Nor is the full extent of the horror of war: news has a propaganda slant (of which some characters show scepticism) official letters assure survivors that their loved ones died quickly in valour.
When I was compiling the reading list for this project, I initially passed on Rilla of Ingleside. The cheesy 1970s cover looked deceptively close to a Harlequin Romance. But some reviews convinced me that there might be more than meets the eye. It takes a few pages to settle into the rhythm of Montgomery’s florid writing style that “speaks in italics and superlatives.” Yes, everyone suffers from an overdose of pluck. Yes, situations (especially romances) are often wrapped up too neatly. But complex relationships unfold with kindness and humour in a community of well-drawn characters who care dearly for each other.
And you gotta love that determined Dog Monday.
Important life lessons:
- Check that your shoes match before you leave the house.
- Take a honeymoon! Enjoy the accoutrements of matrimony even if you have no intention of ever being married.
The book was all the more enjoyable for being the well-loved copy of a kindred spirit. Thanks, Betsy!
6 September 2014
Some bosom friends of Lucy Maud Montgomery who follow this blog have commented off-line. Some thoughts in response:
1. The Harlequin comparison is to the cover of Rilla of Ingleside that has lingered on editions published since the 1970s. Happily, I did not judge the book by the cover! The covers of the 2010 edition and new editions published this fall will hopefully put the 1970s one to rest at last.
2. LMM’s upbeat plots and happy endings were defended as an unfortunate requirement of her contractual obligations to her publisher. Even so, her spin on the war is in line with other published views of the time. Only later did futility and incompetence become the prevailing view. I like that LMM accurately portrays the response of the day.