After looking up a half-remembered quote from this book for my Remembrance Day blog post, I decided to sit down and re-read the book from beginning to end. While I have read this book probably closet to 100 times, to the point where I have there are sentences and paragraphs I remember word for word, I hadn’t revisited it since 2010, when I re-read it and several other Montgomery books for period detail while I was writing That Forgetful Shore.
I already wrote a blog post about that 2010 reread, which you can read here, so I don’t need to cover all the same ground again. What I wanted to write about here was not so much a review (of a book that’s so much a part of me, how can I even review it?) but a reflection on what it meant to re-read it specifically November 11, 2018, as our part of the world paused to remember the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One, the conflict which makes up the subject of Rilla of Ingleside.
I am more convinced now than ever that Rilla is Canada’s great First World War novel; its overt (but beautiful, and fully earned) sentimentality, and the focus on small-town women’s activity on the home front, lead people underestimate it on this score. L.M. Montgomery wrote the book very soon after living through the war and losing her best friend in the flu epidemic that followed it. By all accounts she was as unquestioningly supportive of the Allied war effort, as devoted to following war news, and as convinced that God was on the Allied side, as the Blythes and their friends are in the novel.
This uncritical support of the cause jars on the modern reader, even on Remembrance Day, even for someone who loves the novel as much as I do. The only pacifist in the novel, a sanctimonious church elder nicknamed “Whiskers-on-the-Moon” Pryor, is treated with unrelenting ridicule, and is the novel’s only true villain (except the distant Kaiser, of course).
The possibility that Allied accounts of German atrocities might be exaggerated to get civilians to support the war effort, that the beloved British Empire has committed atrocities of its own, or that ordinary German soldiers (and their families back home) may be as deserving of sympathy as the stalwart Canadian characters, never seems to occur to anyone in the book. The characters represent a wide variety of approaches and attitudes to the war, from the staunch and ever optimistic Susan Baker to the often gloomily despondent Gertrude Oliver, but none save the villain ever questions the rightness of Britain’s cause or the value of their soldiers’ sacrifice — including the soldiers themselves.
There are so many details of day-to-day life and attitudes that a contemporary novelist effortlessly gets right, which a historical novelist rarely can — that’s the richness and value of reading a novel written during or shortly after the events it depicts. The weakness is that lack of perspective and reflection that only time brings: the patriotic fervor of Rilla of Ingleside is as rah-rah as the Victory fundraising and recruitment rallies that Rilla organizes and speaks at.
The kind of detail that is so lovely is the way the novel takes us into ordinary Canadians’ engagement with the war — for example, the fact that Susan, a 64-year-old housekeeper with minimal education, finds herself becoming an expert on European geography and politics as she pores over the daily news reports. The details of the family at Ingleside discussing and debating each incremental bit of war news is part of what makes this book such an informative and intimate portrayal of life on the home front.
I mentioned sentimentality, and this novel has it in buckets. “Buckets” is also an excellent unit of measurement for the tears I shed during this re-reading. Amid vivid realism and plenty of humour, there is nothing subtle about the pathos of this book. While the battlefield death of one of the Ingleside boys (even 97 years later, I won’t spoil it by saying which, but you’ll know as soon as you start the book who is Marked To Die) is milked for every tear. The soldier-poet son, Walter, writes a stirring poem while in the trenches which is an obvious stand-in for John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.” Walter’s poem, called “The Piper” becomes an instant classic around the Commonwealth, the “one great poem of the war,” and while Montgomery (wisely) never includes the actual poem in the novel’s text, I cried every time it was mentioned.
Of course, as everyone who has read the novel knows, the largest box of tissues must be reserved for Jem Blythe’s faithful Dog Monday, who spends the entire war (and sometime afterwards) living in a storage shed at the local railway station, after refusing to leave until he sees Jem return. (Something I had never thought about before this reading is that at the time the war breaks out, Jem has been away for five years at university and med school, presumably home only on holidays, and Dog Monday has never exhibited this severe separation anxiety before. The implication — further borne out by other unusual canine behavior he demonstrates later in the book — is that Dog Monday has the ability to sense that this is more than an ordinary absence for his young master; that Jem’s life is in danger and he must stand guard). I suppose there are people who can read the descriptions of Dog Monday’s vigil at the railway station and laugh at the corny early-20th century sentimentality. But frankly, if you are the person who can read the following paragraph and not shed a tear, I’m not sure I want to be friends with you, you hard-hearted cynic:
“Ay, wait there, little faithful dog with the soft, wistful, puzzled eyes. But it will be many a long bitter day before your boyish comrade comes back to you.”
The aspect of this novel that makes it hardest to re-read on Remembrance Day 2018, 100 years later, is part and parcel of its unwavering belief in the Allied cause — it’s the bright-eyed optimism about the war’s lasting impact. In a letter written on the eve of battle, Walter the poet writes that he is fighting for:
“the future, not of Canada only but of the world — when the ‘red rain’ of Langemarck and Verdun shall have brought forth a golden harvest — not in a year or two, as some foolishy think, but a generation later, when the seed sown now shall have had time to germinate and grow.”
Later, Rilla quotes her other brother, Jem, after the war has ended:
“‘We’re in a new world,’ Jem says, ‘and we’ve got to make it a better one than the old. That isn’t done yet, though some folks think it ought to be. The job isn’t finished — it isn’t really begun. The old world is destroyed and we must build up the new one. It will be the task of years. I’ve seen enough of war to realize that we’ve got to make a world where wars can’t happen.’”
“A generation later…” Walter writes. Yes, the seed sown from 1914-1918 did germinate a generation later. Montgomery lived to see it, and if she had had the heart to continue the series, we know that the sons of Rilla and Ken, Jem and Faith, Nan and Jerry would have been just old enough to fight in the Second World War. Knowing that makes this book’s optimism, its heartfelt belief in the value of those young men’s sacrifice, almost unbearable to read 100 years later. And that — even more, perhaps, than Dog Monday, is why I cried this Remembrance Day.