“‘Who is this Archduke man who has been murdered?’
‘What does it matter to us?’”-L. M. Montgomery, Rilla of Ingleside
So speaks Miss Cornelia in the first chapter of Rilla of Ingleside, as she trades gossip on one of many front porches on the idyllic coastline of Prince Edward Island, Canada (a British dominion at the time). Inside, 15-year-old Rilla Blythe eagerly awaits the next day, when she will attend her first party—a party doomed to be interrupted by the news of England’s declaration of war against Germany. Within days, Rilla’s brothers and childhood friends are off to war, leaving the women of their families behind to endure four long years of global upheaval and personal tragedy.
Published in 1921, Rilla of Ingleside is the eighth book of the Anne of Green Gables series by L. M. Montgomery. It is told through the eyes of Rilla Blythe, the youngest child of the series’ titular heroine, Anne Shirley. Though Rilla’s coming-of-age in a climate of fear and adversity is nothing like her mother’s childhood adventures in the Canadian countryside, this is an Anne book to the core. Like the earlier books in the series, Rilla of Ingleside is best classified as slice of life—though the backdrop of World War I supplies plenty of drama, the Blythes could be any of millions of early twentieth-century Canadian families. Montgomery leans into this ordinariness, stringing together moments of everyday joy. Between war headlines and letters from the trenches, Rilla learns how to make cream puffs and deal with two-faced friends. The family cat gets a full character arc (I won’t spoil it for you). This book is about the most brutal war the world had ever seen, yes, but mostly it is about a small town, with its small-town concerns and interpersonal dramas, deciding what sort of dent it will make on world history.
To modern-day students of history, Rilla of Ingleside reads like a time capsule. Not only is it one of the only fictional accounts of Canadian women’s experiences of WWI, but because it was published within three years of the Armistice, it captures popular wartime sentiment without any of the cynicsm that colored later accounts of the Great War. Rather, the book is flagrantly patriotic and proudly moralistic. The characters’ unwavering conviction that they are fighting “to make a world where wars can’t happen” should, by all counts, inspire derision. After all, Montgomery’s own son was conscripted to the British Royal Navy during WWII. But when I pick up this book, I can set aside the M.A.I.N. causes of WWI, and the Scramble for Africa, and the delicate geopolitics of pointing your shiny new missiles at your neighbors just to measure the resulting boom. Instead, I become swept up in the characters’ declaration that the world is beautiful and its beauty must be protected.
No one paints a scene like Montgomery. Her intense love for the green valleys and rocky shores she grew up with echoes through her winding, unabashedly flowery prose. Her page-long passages on the aroma of mayflowers and mist curling between trees should be purple and overwrought, but instead manage to hit the “queer ache” every time—you know, the one that compels you to run outside and spout cliches at the sunset, or cry when you spot baby raccoons crossing the street. As we sit with Rilla on the porch, nervously awaiting the newspaper, or by the edge of a brook, stealing one last evening with her brother before he leaves for the Western Front, her gorgeous surroundings only bring her pain into sharper relief.
I’m writing this review during a world crisis. You’re probably reading this during a crisis, be it personal or global. While Rilla of Ingleside’s insistence that all struggle serves a greater good may not hold up to modern readers, we can still take inspiration from the everyday strength it reflects. The paper tells daily of new horrors from the warfront, the flowers in the garden are gradually sacrificed for potato plots, and through it all, Rilla grows more patient, good-humored, and resilient. Life is not fiction, and world wars aren’t waged to facilitate our character arcs. Still, when we “keep faith” in the face of catastrophe, we discover new strength within ourselves to keep going.
If it sounds like I’m trying to sell you a hundred-year-old novel about Canadian women sitting in a parlor, it’s because I am. Their perspective is one worth hearing.
—Coral Chen, Fall 2021 Staff
Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1942) was born in the village of Clifton (now New London) on Prince Edward Island in Canada. She was brought up by her grandparents after her mother died when she was two. Later her father moved away to Saskatchewan, where he remarried, and when she spent some months in his new home she was not happy. ‘I do not think’, she wrote, ‘that the majority of grownups have any real conception of the tortures sensitive children suffer over any marked difference between themselves and the other denizens of their small world.’
While working as a reporter for the Halifax Daily Echo, she wrote Anne of Green Gables in the evenings over a period of eighteen months and when it was rejected by four publishers she put it away for two years. Then she revised it and a Boston publisher accepted it at once. When it appeared in 1908 the book proved so popular that ever afterwards she felt constrained by the public’s constant demand for more stories about Anne. She did write five sequels – as well as many other novels – and they made her rich, but none reached the classic status of the first.
In 1911 she married Ewan Macdonald. She had two sons; she enjoyed fame and was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1935. She died in Toronto in 1942 and was buried in Cavendish Cemetery, not far from her birthplace.
Rilla of Ingleside can be purchased here.