Rilla of Ingleside, the eighth and last book of the Anne of Green Gables series, shifts from Anne’s perspective to that of her youngest child, Rilla, named for Marilla*, as World War I reaches its tentacles into Prince Edward Island life. I loved and hated this book.
PEI, and Rilla personally, both seemed completely immune from the outside world until the War. Rilla is 15-19 during the War, the years she expected to be the best of her life. Apart from anything that happens, L.M. Montgomery shows us how day-to-day life changed and stayed the same for Rilla and others.
The plot involving Walter, Rilla’s beloved brother, brilliantly personalizes the cost of war. He had typhoid, so can stay out of the war without looking like he’s shirking, yet he knows he could pass exams and fight. Unlike others going to the front, though, he understands what war really is. He confides in Rilla, who believes in him unquestioningly. Yet to him, the only way he can live up to this belief is to go to war, something she desperately wants to avoid. In the end, of course, he overcomes himself, thereby bringing about his own death.
The scale of wars like WWI usually make it hard to think of the meaning of one soldier’s death. What could be more commonplace than a boy entering the machine of modern war and getting crushed? Yet Montgomery succeeds in turning this into a very personal, tragic story.**
Not that Walter’s story is some kind of purely personal, existential thing; political context matters, too. Walter is no natural fighter, but he’s an ardent idealist, and so of course is bound to ultimately answer the idealistic version of the Piper’s call.
The other main story is Rilla’s romance with Kenneth Ford. This is brilliantly done; the War really hurries things up and reduces them to their essence. “I love you. Do you love me? Good. Don’t kiss anyone else while I’m away, promise? Excellent.” The climax to subplot comes in the middle; the end is rather anti-climactic. So much for the good….
I was initially surprised to find that Montgomery considered the War worth fighting, only because one rarely comes across that perspective in literature, so I found the idea novel and interesting. It makes sense when you think about it- she’s Canadian, and Canucks are more loyal than the Queen.
Still, there could have been a little more detachment from everyone’s enthusiasm for victory. After all, almost nobody on Prince Edward Island cared anything for the European alliance structure, or whether France or Germany controlled Alsace-Lorraine, or the independence movements within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Then suddenly one day, there was a war, and England was right, and Germany was wrong. Of course, the PEIers seem to feel the violation of Belgian neutrality in a kind of visceral way that the war’s larger causes did not produce, and this was nominally the reason England jumped in. They also viscerally feel the sinking of the Lusitania. No qualms about any of England’s tactics, though.
My bigger objection, though, is Montgomery’s turning the war into a sacrifice to bring about a glorious new age, a reshaping of the world according to a triumphant Idea. She has the preacher, Mr. Meredith, brutally wrench a Bible verse from context and make Britain’s war effort part of the struggle for the Kingdom of Heaven, on earth. He uses the occasion of war to preach on the text “Without shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.” Afterward at a gathering, he explains himself as follows: “Without shedding of blood there is no anything. Everything, it seems to me, has to be purchased by self-sacrifice. Our race has marked every step of its painful ascent with blood. And now torrents of it must flow again. No…I don’t think the war has been sent as a punishment for sin. I think it 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.”
I too can prophecy! I can tell you about the world that will come out of this bloodshed, Pastor, but I don’t think you’ll like it very much. And its horrors also won’t bring about a painful ascent. They won’t mean anything, except perhaps that God has a sense of humor and idealists are His target.
The God-in-the-flowers-and-trees theology Montgomery usually expresses is harmless enough, but this romantic nationalism is its darker version. The nation becomes identical with this secularized God, its cause a divine Idea. Humanity’s story becomes one of slaughter to bring about heaven-on-earth. While romantic theology lends dignity to the world as it is in the pre-War Anne world, here it denigrates that world as unworthy compared to the Ideal world that must be purchased with its destruction.
Relatedly, Walter tells Rilla on the eve of his departure: “Nobody whom this war has touched will ever be happy again in quite the same way. But it will be a better happiness, I think, little sister—a happiness we’ve earned. We were very happy before the war, weren’t we? With a home like Ingleside, and a father and mother like ours we couldn’t help being happy. But that happiness was a gift from life and love; it wasn’t really ours—life could take it back at any time. It can never take away the happiness we win for ourselves in the way of duty.” Montgomery always ridicules the kind of moralism that says the War is sent as punishment for our sins (see Meredith’s comments, above), but how is this moralism really any better?
Worse still, Montgomery violates her own characters to make them mouthpieces for her take on the story:
“Oh, Miss Oliver, what would it be like not to wake up in the morning feeling afraid of the news the day would bring?**** I can’t picture such a state of things somehow. And two years ago this morning I woke wondering what delightful gifts the new day would give me. These are the two years I thought would be filled with fun.
“Would you exchange them—now—for two years filled with fun?”
“No,” said Rilla slowly. “I wouldn’t. It’s strange—isn’t it?—they have been two terrible years—and yet I have a queer feeling of thankfulness for them—as if they had brought me something very precious, with all their pain. I wouldn’t want to go back and be the girl I was two years ago, not even if I could….I suppose I had a soul then, Miss Oliver—but I didn’t know it.”
Now, Gertrude Oliver, the schoolteacher, is presented to us as a great cynic, the last person who should go in for this kind of higher-purpose-of-suffering stuff. I find it even less believable that Bertha Marilla Blythe would endorse this view.
Gertrude is also made to say, on the occasion of Britain’s capture of Jerusalem, “After all…it is worth while to live in the days which see the object of the Crusades attained. The ghosts of all the old Crusaders must have crowded the walls of Jerusalem last night, with Coeur-de-lion at their head.” Nobody in Europe has cared about Jerusalem in 500 years, but when we find the Ottoman Empire aligned with Germany, how easily it can be fitted into wartime idealism! What does Montgomery care anyway whether Jerusalem is in Christian or Muslim hands? Aren’t all religions for her just another way to talk about the same God?
Coeur-de-lion in fact went all the way to the Holy Land, fought some skirmishes, got to the gates of Jerusalem, then buggered off. I suppose he hung his head in shame in heaven, or hell, for a few centuries and then found comfort in the results of World War I, but what does this have to do with the things the War is actually about?
Here as throughout, the big Idea covers up the realities of the War- not to hide the brutality but to cover over its actual meaning. Similarly, as battle rages over Verdun, Gilbert says it is militarily unimportant but the fate of the War will turn on it because of its “significance [as] a Idea,” which is fine- psychological victories and all that. But then Pastor Meredith chimes in that the good guys will win, because “[t]he Idea cannot be conquered. France is certainly very wonderful….in her I see the white form of civilization making a determined stand against the black powers of barbarism.***** I think our whole world realizes this and that is why we all await the issue so breathlessly. It isn’t merely the question of a few forts changing hands or a few miles of blood-soaked ground won or lost.” But that’s exactly what it is! Either this plot of ground is worth taking, or it is not; either this War is in the interest of the British Empire, and that Empire’s interests are worth fighting for, or not.
The war may have any number of political implications, consequences in this actual world, but it will not bring about an Ideal world. What would be the point, anyway? Was there ever a hint of suggestion that Anne’s world in Anne of Green Gables was deficient because it was a world of simple happiness, with gifts of nature not created by human struggle and conflict? The only reason to sacrifice your life is to save such a world, not to try to build something better.
* How is it that none of her sons was named after Matthew?
** Though she provides all sorts of dubious comfort. Yes, we’re coming to that.
*** Rick Santorum could not be reached for comment
**** At this point, Rilla’s brothers in the War are both still alive.
***** Alas, yes, LMM really wrote that. Even Homer nods.