Lindsey Palka’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
L.M. Montgomery’s novel Rilla of Ingleside, the eighth Anne of Green Gables book, does not receive half the praise it deserves. Published in 1920, it is a contemporary novelized account of the First World War, distinctly different from Montgomery’s other works. Most First World War books focus on the experience of men on the battlefield—no surprise, given the war’s brutality and the many ways in which it changed the concept of war. But there is a dearth of novels focusing on women’s experiences during the First World War, and especially those in which women are full participants in the war effort. Rilla of Ingleside is the only Canadian novel from the period about women’s experiences on the Canadian home front, and it is severely under-read.
Rilla of Ingleside is about Anne (Shirley) Blythe’s youngest daughter, Rilla, a petted and spoiled young teenager. Unlike her college-bound siblings, Rilla’s highest ambition is to have a good time. At the outbreak of the First World War, she sees her small town in Prince Edward Island change drastically, as many men—including her brothers and sweetheart—enlist and leave. The war ultimately changes Rilla as well, and she finds that she is far more capable and practical than she previously believed. Her contributions to the war effort include fostering a war baby for four years, organizing a Junior Red Cross Society for young women in her town, and participating in a variety of fundraisers and patriotic recitals. While there is a love story in the novel, it is far from the focal point of the story; instead the focus remains on Rilla and her family and friends. The First World War, the driving force throughout the book, is almost its own character in the novel.
The female characters in Rilla are, perhaps uniquely for a war novel, fully drawn and realized. Rilla herself transforms from a spoiled, vain girl to a mature and self-possessed woman. Other women—including the Blythe housekeeper, Susan Baker; the neighbour, Mary Vance; the schoolteacher, Gertrude Oliver; and of course Anne herself—are rich, complex characters with both virtues and flaws. While these women love their men and pray for their safe return, they do not spend their time pining after them—they knit socks and roll bandages for soldiers, organize concerts to raise money for refugees, speak at political rallies, and participate fully in the war effort. Rilla even takes a seasonal position as a merchant in a local store to free the male counter clerk for the harvest.
In contrast, the male characters play minor roles in Rilla. Rilla’s brothers all go to war, Gilbert is relegated to the background of the story, and even Rilla’s sweetheart, Ken, is absent for most of the book. In many war novels, men on the battlefield reminisce about their women at home, who are seen only in flashbacks or in relation to the men. In Rilla, the male characters are the supporting cast, more one-dimensional than the female characters, and their personalities rely on stereotypes. Jem, Anne and Gilbert’s eldest son, for example, is the quintessential player of the “Great Game” for whom the war is an exciting adventure, epitomized in Jessie Pope’s popular 1915 poem “Who’s For The Game?”:
Who would much rather come back with a crutch
Than lie low and be out of the fun?
Come along, lads–
But you’ll come on all right–
For there’s only one course to pursue…
Walter, the Blythes’ second son, is a sensitive war poet, modeled on Canadian poet John McCrae. Walter’s fictional poem, “The Piper,” is printed early in the war and earns him fame across Canada, just as McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” made him a national hero.
It is Walter’s death that irrevocably warps the wartime landscape for the Blythe family and their friends, but the focus is on the impact of his death at home and not on its circumstances. The other men who go to war—including Shirley Blythe and family friends Jerry and Carl Meredith—are mentioned only in passing. A despised neighbour plays the caricatured role of an anti-war pacifist, an antagonist with no redeeming qualities. Even in the case of Rilla’s sweetheart Ken Ford, the reader is told, rather than shown, his sensitivity, bravery, and all-around goodness.
This is not to say that the female characters embody no stereotypes. Susan Baker, the housekeeper who functions as almost a mother figure to Rilla and her siblings, represents the stalwart Canadian housewife who cheerfully acquiesces to the government’s request for rationing. Gertrude Oliver, the schoolteacher and family friend, is given to prophetic dreams—a reminder of the Spiritualism that was widespread during the war, offering hope that the spirit world could offer solace in a time of loss. Yet these characters are given fully developed personalities and individual perspectives; they never seem like cardboard stand-ins for female wartime archetypes.
Is it fair to label Rilla of Ingleside a “war novel”? Yes, for war novels are not limited to tales from the battlefield. Rilla derives its entire plot and structure from the First World War, which makes it a war novel. It is also frequently labeled a love story, and various covers lend credence to that idea. But this is no Nicholas Sparks-style love story that happens to have a wartime background—the romance is a plot point, not the central arc of the story.
The First World War inspired many classics—among them All Quiet on the Western Front, Regeneration, and A Farewell to Arms—but the majority of these works center on men’s experiences. This was due in part to the immense scope of the war, in which an estimated 75 million soldiers fought, as well as the massive social upheaval and worldwide disillusionment following the war, which lent itself to an outpouring of literature. The temptation to label Rilla a love story comes from the tradition of war novels focusing on the male experience, and women in war novels playing secondary roles at best. But Rilla of Ingleside is no less a war novel due to its distance from the battlefield. It discusses the issues that arise in a rural community in wartime, the agony of separation and worry, and the stress that afflicts all families that lose someone precious to them. Despite Montgomery’s love for her country, Rilla is no blindly jingoistic story—the war is portrayed as a brutal, hellish experience, but one that must be undertaken.
This is not to say that Montgomery was as comfortable with her war novel as she was with some of her other works. Her later feelings about the book belied her insistence in the text that war is a necessary evil, and that the First World War would “end all wars.” Her portrayal of the Piper, the mythical figure of Walter’s poem and a recurring shadow-character, alternates between a cheerful, beckoning friend and a spectre of horror who lures men from their families to die. Montgomery included a version of “The Piper” in The Blythes are Quoted, her final novel published posthumously in 2010, and the existing drafts of the poem show the range of her feelings about the Piper and, by extension, the war itself. Her conflicting feelings about religion and faith, patriotism and the war effort, duty to country and family bonds all lend to Rilla an overarching theme of struggle—struggle between warring nations, between families, between the author and her own work, and between the reader and the story.
It may not be a love story, but like all of Montgomery’s works, relationships between siblings, friends, and family are at the core of Rilla. Rilla’s relationship with her brother Walter is marked by heartfelt letters, long conversations about the nature of war and Walter’s fear of the battlefield, and their genuine concern when his classmates send him a white feather. (Young men in Britain and Canada who did not enlist when they seemed to be in fine health were often presented with white feathers as a symbol of their cowardice, and urged to don them to announce to the world their lack of patriotism.) Rilla’s relationship with her mother Anne is also explored in depth; at one point, Anne says to Gilbert: “Rilla has grown closer and closer to me. We are chums. I don’t see how I could have got through these terrible years without her, Gilbert.” Despite occasional arguments and growing pains, the friendship between mother and daughter sustains them both.
A comparison of Rilla and Anne shows Rilla to be much more like her father than her mother. While Rilla has her mother’s eye for beauty, she is more mature and practical than Anne at the same age. At fifteen, Anne still thinks of herself at least partially as a schoolgirl, only “grown-uppish.” She thinks of boys only as comrades, and still finds herself in scrapes thanks to her impulsive nature. At fifteen, Rilla is caring for an infant and organizing a Junior Red Cross Society. While Anne helped raise children before coming to Green Gables, she had no choice in the matter, whereas Rilla makes a conscious decision to assist in the war effort. Part of Rilla’s rapid growth is a direct result of the war—as Anne says, hugging her daughter, “The war has made a woman of you too soon.” In the story, Rilla finds in herself an innate practicality and common sense that Anne had not found at her age. Anne’s teen years at Green Gables represented a period of gentle growth and maturity, rather than the trauma and loss of Rilla’s adolescence.
Anne is nearly absent from Rilla, seen as more of a background character and means of support for Rilla. Montgomery was rather tired of writing about Anne, after five books about Anne and her family in a little more than ten years. (The two “outlying” Anne books, Anne of Windy Poplars and Anne of Ingleside, are different and more disjointed than the rest, because they were not published in chronological order. Instead, they were published more than fifteen years later, in the 1930s, after pressure from Montgomery’s publishing house.) Montgomery’s genius was in writing young women and girls, and her most famous characters reflect that: Anne Shirley, Emily Starr, Pat Gardiner, Sara Stanley, and Jane Stuart are all teenaged (or teenage-adjacent). Valancy Stirling is Montgomery’s only adult heroine, and she is treated by her family as a child—her growth pattern echoes that of a teenager growing into womanhood. Rilla fits neatly into this pattern, showcasing Montgomery’s strengths in exploring and portraying female adolescence without ever descending into mawkish sentimentality.
Rilla is more mature than many of Montgomery’s heroines, and notably different in other ways as well. She is not particularly ambitious like Anne, nor is she an avid writer like Emily Starr. She does not have a gift for storytelling or housekeeping; she is a “lily of the field,” as her father calls her. Her growth comes not from an innate desire within herself; instead she is ultimately shaped by the war, which alters her in a fundamental way. At the conclusion of the novel, however, Montgomery loses focus: Ken Ford returns, presumably to marry the spirited Rilla, and she consents by reverting to the lisp that plagued her childhood. From an indomitable spirit to a return to domesticity, Rilla is neatly bookended by this notion of the “proper role” of women. Many readers since have found this frustrating, given Rilla’s growth in spirit and capabilities.
Despite some shortcomings, Rilla of Ingleside is a uniquely Canadian war novel focusing on women’s experiences and a compelling coming-of-age story. So why does it languish in the forgotten stacks? It is the eighth book in a series, which usually means limited readership, and it did not sell well to begin with, at a time when Montgomery was already being pigeon-holed as a youth author. Its various covers do it no favours—the mass-market paperback covers are usually one of two versions of a romance-novel heroine before a starry sky, while other covers portray Rilla in a party dress.
While several of Montgomery’s books are targeted at a young female audience, novels like Anne’s House of Dreams and Rilla of Ingleside touch on darker and more mature subjects. Rilla’s place, solidly locked into the young-female target zone of historical series fiction, makes it challenging to resurrect for new audiences. Books about teenaged girls can be a difficult sell, no matter how deftly the author places her heroine in the context of a greater world conflict. Other modern readers might feel the novel glorifies war or promotes an anachronistic view of the role of women.
Rilla of Ingleside is a war novel at times masquerading as a young adult historical romance. But it is far more than that; it is a detailed study of rural Canadian life during the First World War, written by a woman who lived through it and distilled it all with her trademark restrained emotion into a gem of a novel. Republished in 2011 in an unabridged version, including 4,500 words cut from the initial publication and contextual notes for the modern reader, Rilla is due to be rediscovered as a classic. With the centennial of the First World War upon us, Canadians and readers worldwide deserve to rediscover narratives that make women’s voices an equal and vibrant part of the cultural history of the war.
Lindsey Palka holds a Master's degree in Canadian history, focusing on the First World War, youth, and family history in the Atlantic provinces. She reads, reviews, and trashes young adult historical novels from the '80s, '90s, and 2000s on her blog, Young Adult Historical Vault.