Monday 17 November 2008

Rilla of Ingleside, L M Montgomery

Contains spoilers!

Again, I'm writing about a book by L M Montgomery that isn't the obvious one, though getting closer each time, working backwards.

Rilla of Ingleside is the final book in the Anne of Green Gables sequence, but it is very different in tone from the first. I would go as far as to say that, contrary to popular belief, and the way it is now marketed, this is not a children's book at all, but a young adult novel. Clearly when the books were first published, there were not the distinctions we now have of a book being for "children" or "adults."

It is also a book that is sadly overlooked. If not exactly out of print in this country, certainly you can't buy it in the shops any more. As far as Puffin Classics are concerned, the series ends with Anne of Ingleside, with an unsettling foreboding of what is to come. Probably the casual fan, who's read the first book or two and seen the films would not know that Rilla or her prequel, Rainbow Valley even exist, and might well be shocked to read it. I'm currently losing myself in the book as I am trying to adapt it for a screenplay. I think it would work as a stand-alone drama, and, knowing I'd love to see it brought to life and not trusting anyone else to do it well - especially Kevin Sullivan who made the perfect first film of Anne, imperfect Sequel and travesty of a continuing story, realised the job is for me.

As a child I read all of the books, borrowing them from the library, but took in little. Reading Rilla, I think I got as far as finding out all the names of the Blythe children - being horrified that Anne would call her son Shirley! - and that Marilla had died off-stage, but only really cared about Anne. I'd taken the time to get to know her from her child but was still at the stage where grown ups were "boring" and their troubles far from my understanding. I don't know whether I skimmed the book without taking anything else in, not understanding the politics, caring for the gossip or understanding the historical context, or gave up after a few chapters.

I rediscovered the book when I was no younger than twenty, read it from dusk til dawn, and howled pretty much from start to finish.

Rilla is a coming-of-age story. It is a war story - the only Canadian account of World War 1 from the women's perspective (correct me if I'm wrong.) To me, it hits hard as a tragedy.

Bertha Marilla Blythe is Anne and Gilbert's youngest daughter. She is fifteen, empty-headed, vain but lovable. Her novel shows her growing in maturity, bringing up an orphaned war-baby, battling joys and sorrows, friendships, parties and love. She is the last child left living at home through the turbulance of war, and it is through her eyes that we see the effect of war on those who are left behind.

For my A-Levels I studied for a year poetry, novels, diaries and non-fiction all written during or about the First World War, until it was coming out of my ears. My impression of that literature is that almost all the things we read were one of two extremes: Naive, idealistic patriotism, which in retrospect seemed hideously and tragically outdated when compared with the tales of horror and madness and incompetence - two views that seemed irreconcilable. There were those who knew - Wilfred Owen with "Dulce et Decorum Est" - and those who never did - Rupert Brooke with "The Soldier."

I would put Rilla onto the syllabus. Montgomery's view of war is not quite either of these. Certainly she was no pacifist. The only pacifist in the story is a stubborn, contrary, ranting church elder who makes himself ridiculous, and is often accused of being on the side of the Germans. (When adapting Whiskers-on-the-Moon I have to make it clear that it is he who is objectionable, not the fact of being a pacifist. My views are not the same as Susan's, for example, though I can no longer call myself an absolute pacifist I don't want to cause offence by implying what I don't mean. At the same time, I don't want to change the characters or the views from the author's intention. I've always pictured Whiskers as rather a Mr Collins-type figure, as portrayed in the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice.)

Certainly at first, the young men of Glen St. Mary show excitement at the prospect of going to war, having a boys' own adventure. Jem, Anne Blythe's eldest son, even says "Hurrah!" That is at the beginning of the war. When he returns, at the end of the novel, he is changed. But the courage and sacrifice of the boys and men who fought in the war is never thrown into doubt.

Walter, the middle son, counters this jolly, naive excitement. He is the sensitive one, the dreamer of the family. He sees further than the other boys, past the glamour of the uniforms and the marching, to the blood, the pain and the heartbreak the four years of war are to bring.

It is Walter's journey that makes me call this book a tragedy, though that may be a misleading term. I'm not talking tragic antiheroes with their fatal flaw. All I'm saying is that this book makes me cry, and more, that it makes me hurt.

Walter Blythe does not join the army immediately. More: he resists. He despises himself because he cannot shake off the feeling that he must go - personified in his visions of the Pied Piper which make their first appearance in Rainbow Valley - but is afraid to. It is Walter's battles with his conscience that, for me, are at the heart of this book, the struggle for courage pitted against his love of the beauty of life and hatred of ugliness. When at last he enlists in the army, it is the book's great triumph, stronger (to me) than Rilla's commitment to bringing up baby Jims, or falling in love, or any growth in maturity.

Even if it were not foreboded as early on as in Anne of Ingleside, it is inevitable that Walter would be the one who is killed in battle. That, in itself is not what is so painful - favourite characters die in lots of books. It adds poignancy, regret, but the sorrow for the death of, say, Sirius Black, is clean. And Walter's story has closure. The chapter, "And so, goodnight," where Rilla - and we - read his final letter, written on the last night of his life, after "The Piper" appears in a premonition of his death, provides that.

"Rilla, the Piper will pipe me 'west' tomorrow. I feel sure of this. And Rilla, I'm not afraid. When you hear the news, remember that. I've won my own freedom here -- freedom from all fear. I shall never be afraid of anything again -- not of death -- nor of life, if after all I am to go on living."

The worst thing, the reason Rilla has such a painful effect to read is because of Anne. I first met her when I was seven or eight, and she was eleven. I write this as though she is a friend. Yes, I had imaginary friends as a kid. Yes, I cared about characters in books as though they were real. But Anne was more even than that. Anne was a part of me. I identified with her so closely I can't disconnect myself from her. I read that book dozens of times in my childhood. I knew it inside out. I knew her story, right up to her "happily ever after" at the end of Anne of the Island where she realised she loved Gilbert Blythe, had always loved him.

I didn't realise there was more.

Of course I knew there were other books. I'd even read some, if not taken in much detail. But the first three books were the ones in our house. They were the ones that were always there, constant friends. They were the books I grew up with.

Then, at seventeen I was fed a diet of World War 1. Spending a year in the company of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon et al does funny things to you. It could desensitise you after a while. But it didn't me.

Like Anne, like Walter, I've a vivid imagination. I feel things. And to come back to Anne's world; safe, timeless little Avonlea, and find it drawn into time, (the introduction of a telephone in the fourth or fifth book in the series being the first clue to that) and more - to a time I grew to know so well, in so much horror and heartbreak - I hated Montgomery for wishing that onto Anne, my Anne.

And yet, it happened. Sweet, precocious, slightly annoying infants in the middle of the nineteenth century did grow up, have families, and have their families torn apart by war. They didn't deserve it. And no, they never would be the same again. No one who lived through those four years could possibly come through unchanged. Watching the BBC's recent My Family at War demonstrates that.

Rilla is a bittersweet book. It should find its way into the World War 1 canon, because it is such a detailed, poignant depiction of the effect of war on those who stayed behind. And for that I love it. But if I read it as the end of the story that began with a chapter entitled "Mrs Rachel Lynde is Surprised," I can barely recognise it. I can barely recognise myself. Reading Anne of Green Gables, I am an innocent little girl again, with a pigtail and, yes, even the straw hat, possibly not yet much troubled even by the bullies that were to sap my confidence for ten, twelve or more years. Reading Rilla, I am a literature student who has studied that module at A-Level. The A Level student devours Rilla. She always did have a bit of a dark side. The child is bewildered by it. I have yet to find a way to reconcile the two Katies, though I am the same person. I am yet to reconcile Anne of Green Gables to being the same series as Rilla of Ingleside.


  1. "Spending a year in the company of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon et al does funny things to you."

    Not least because both the aforementioned are dead.

  2. i always had the same sort of thing with the chalet school, and probably still do... i dislike the later books because characters are not supposed to grow up, and throwing the war in there completely shook up my lovely fluffy school stories.

  3. I like "The Chalet School in Exile" actually. It's very different but I think it's an interesting book, being the only book I know of - especially a children's book - written by and English woman, at the time, about what was happening in Austria. But the later books mark a change in Jo. She becomes just so... annoying!

  4. About once a year I go into a reading of Anne books orgy...and finish of with Rilla of Ingleside. Afterwards, I usually need a day or so to get back to being normal. I feel..whatever you just described beautifully (and what I could never put into words).

    Reading your book reviews is my new, 'first thing to do on my tea break' thing.



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