A few further thoughts on Rilla of Ingleside

I wrote the previous post without having finished the novel — something I never used to do! — and I find that its end has left me with a few further things to mull. One is the fate of Mr. Pryor, the pacifist/traitor/whatever he was who served as one of the main villains of the book (besides, of course, those nasty Germans). When the armistice is announced, it is related that Mr. Pryor suffers a “paralytic stroke” — perhaps not a judgement from God, as Susan Baker implies, but certainly a judgement from his author. He is never to trouble the village of Glen St. Mary again. He has been silenced in the most effective way LMM could have managed short of killing him. Where Mr. Pryor’s pillorying during the Glen prayer meeting may have invited some critical questions about whether pacifism is, in fact, seditious, his final fate makes me think that LMM raises those questions inadvertently.

A perusal of her wiki page shows that LMM was a fervent supporter of the war effort, whose moods rose and fell with every Allied victory or defeat. This proved an immense strain on her marriage as the war dragged on, as her husband’s view on the war shifted profoundly from what it had been in its early days: “The Reverend Macdonald had developed major doubts about the justice of the war as it went along, and had come to feel by encouraging young men to volunteer for the war that he had seriously sinned…” Macdonald, a staunch Calvinist, was convinced that he was damned to Hell for this sin. On the other hand, LMM was a religious dualist, writing in her diary that “I believe in a God who is good, but not omnipotent. I also believe in a principle of Evil, equal to God in power…darkness to His light. I believe an infinite ceaseless struggle goes on between them.” If good and evil are equally powerful, small wonder that she would see any refusal to fight on the side of good as equal to fighting on the side of evil; dualism does not allow for neutrality. Thus the fate of Mr. Pryor is justifiable to his author — for if he was not on the side of good, then only one option is left.

Yet things are still not as simple as they appear. LMM’s own views on the war eventually shifted:

After the First World War, a recurring character in Montgomery’s journal that was to obsess her for the rest of her life was “the Piper”, who at first appeared as a heroic Highlander piper from Scotland, leading men into battle while playing traditional Highland tunes, but who turned out to be the Pied Piper of Hamelin, a trickster taking children away from their parents forever. The figure of “the Piper” reflected Montgomery’s own disillusionment with World War One and her guilt at her ardent support for the war.

Unfortunately I was not able to find a date for this shift; her biographer Mary Rubio, in Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings, simply gives the timeline as “after the war.” I would be very interested to know how it lines up with the writing and publication of Rilla of Ingleside; the presence of the Piper as a figure in the novel suggests to me that her views had already shifted, or started to do so. Which, of course, further complicates the issue of support (or lack thereof) for the war effort within the world of the novel. Does LMM intend for us to be sympathetic towards Mr. Pryor, or not?

I am inclined, now, to think not. One thing to consider is the unusual lack of balance in his characterization, compared to other characters throughout the Anne series. It is very rare to find a character without some redeemable quality, no matter how gruff, curmudgeonly, mean, or misguided they initially appear. And other ideological conflicts between characters — such as the political divide between Island Tories and Grits — are handled with a measure of humour and grace: they may spar with each other, but neither is portrayed as particularly villainous or heroic. Mr. Pryor is the only character I can think of off-hand who is wholly unredeemed, beginning to end.

And yet! Amid all of the novel’s stirring patriotic speeches about fighting on the side of God and good, there are seeds of doubt and discontent that creep in. LMM does not shy away from the horrors of war, neither for those at the front nor for those left at home. The tension lies, perhaps, in the attempt to accurately portray the support for the war as it really happened, while holding a view that, with the benefit of hindsight, has shifted. Whatever the reason, it injects a fascinating note of ambiguity into the narrative.

Explore more: LMM’s WikiPedia page

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