A Rare Window into Canadian Women’s Lives During WWI

If the only image you have of Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery originates with TV versions of her novels, you are missing out. She was a complete portrait of a fascinating woman – one who wrote multiple bestselling novels, was an early feminist, a prolific poet and diarist, a community organizer (look out, Barack), and the source of one of the most compelling Canadian war novels with the sixth book she wrote for the “Anne” series, Rilla of Ingleside.

Maybe you stopped reading this series or never became familiar with L. M. Montgomery’s writing?  This is the one to pick up.  Throughout the novel Anne and Gilbert’s youngest child, 15-year-old Bertha Marilla, watches as her brothers and childhood friends leave for war and she – along with her mother, sisters and neighbours – keeps the ‘home fires’ burning as a tribute to their sacrifice.  Filled with catchphrases from the time period and references to battles won and lost, it’s like a time machine shuttling you back to Canadian home life during WWI.

At the time that she wrote Rilla of Ingleside Montgomery, her husband (a Presbyterian minister), and their young sons were busy in their Leaksdale, Ontario parish.  Her journals reflect the constant work she did in the community to support the war effort and the many letters she exchanged with local men who were serving.  As a parent, Montgomery most identified with the mothers who were sending their sons overseas and Anne’s thoughts and dialogue in this novel reflect this anguish and horror.  With Rilla she writes a youthful voice filled with cautious hope for the future, but this is paralleled by their long-time housekeeper Susan Baker and her common sense approach to life in wartime.  There is much tension as the Blythe family waits for news from overseas but this is balanced by Rilla and Susan’s daily ‘trials and tribulations,’ all written with Montgomery’s light touch.  Just as Anne had mishaps with dying her hair green and putting the wrong ingredients in a cake made for the minster, Rilla and Susan experience domestic misadventures with stubborn cats, crusty relatives, and more than one marriage proposal.

As representatives of the thousands of mothers, sisters and sweethearts left behind during the war years these three women in their small maritime community work, worry, and sacrifice through every moment of the day.  Upon waking each morning Rilla’s first thoughts are of absent brothers and friends and one night, as Susan looks out on a clear starlit sky, she wonders if their “boys in the trenches” are warm.  Rilla tells her mother that she wants to do something ‘useful’ for the war effort and quotes an Anne Shirley favourite in her diary by writing “he goes to do – what I had done/Had Douglas’s daughter been a son.” She rolls bandages for the Red Cross, organizes fundraisers, learns to knit socks for soldiers, and sends care packages with baked goods she makes under Susan’s supervision (of course).  She makes sacrifices large and small in support of the war but the entire community is surprised when Rilla takes on the care of an orphaned ‘war baby’ when she had no experience or interest with infant care.  Her spare time decreases further when she begins working in a local dry goods store so that a neighbour who previously worked at the counter can bring in the harvest.  Although Montgomery fashions Rilla’s story so that it fits the character of the youngest child of the Blythe family, all of these adaptations and volunteer efforts are similar to many she writes of in her journals from the war years.  She packs factual details into Rilla of Ingleside directly from her own life and the Toronto newspapers of the time, quoting from war dispatches and letters from soldiers, making the novel more than the light romance it might seem at first glance.

Seen through Rilla’s youth and unrestrained emotions, this novel is a rare window into the genuine experience of Canadian women; of the anguish and daily sacrifices made while waiting for loved ones to return and for a long-promised victory to arrive.  The novel celebrates its centenary this year, and seen through our modern lens a reader may find faults, but there is also much to enjoy.  Montgomery’s ability to find beauty in the natural world is central to this story – many characters find comfort in the forest, in the night sky, and at the shore.  She also highlights family, friendship, community, hard work and optimism in the face of despair, all touchpoints in her work, but here we see it against the backdrop of war.

Stories of war can seem so distant and factual that it is hard to comprehend the impact, the horrors, and the human cost of the conflict. However, Rilla of Ingleside removes that distance because it was written with the experience and emotion of the war found so clearly in Montgomery herself (she began writing the book shortly after the war ended).  As we pause this Remembrance Day to remember those who served and sacrificed for our country, I’m passing along this suggestion for a favourite novel of Canadian wartime.