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

Pacifism and Treason in Rilla of Ingleside

This summer I have been re-reading my way through Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series. Most of the books I have read more times than I can easily number — especially Anne of the Island, my perpetual favourite — but I think I have only read Rilla of Ingleside once or maybe twice before, and probably not any time in the last twenty years. It is the only book of the series that I don’t own, and so I had to get a copy from the library this time around. Although I remember a small portion of the very end, the rest of the book has been so unremembered that it’s as if I am reading it for the first time.

Unlike the rest of the series, Rilla of Ingleside is thoroughly and explicitly anchored in time, being a chronicle of the Blythe family’s experience of the First World War. It was first published in 1921, and LMM’s account of the war, while fictionalised, reads with the freshness of recent memory. It is a much sadder book than any of the rest — small surprise there — and it’s been a hard read. At the outbreak of the war, the young men of the Glen enlist, confident of a jolly time potting Huns for dear old England, and expecting to be safely back home before the year is out. Reading a century later, I know what’s coming: the corpse-stinking mud of Flanders Fields, the Somme, Gallipolli, Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele and all the rest, and the better part of a generation squandered just to do it all again in twenty-five years’ time. The jolliness fades out of the narrative quickly as the Blythe family and their friends cope with life and deep loss throughout the years of the war. There are moments of sweetness, of course, but certainly not much of the whimsy we expect from an Anne novel.

One thing I am thinking about as I read is the question of what LMM intends us to make of all this. I am especially intrigued with this in connection with Mr. Pryor, a character who seems to act as a foil to the patriotism of the rest of the Glen’s inhabitants. Mr. Pryor — derisively referred to as “Whiskers-on-the-moon” in view of his fringed bald head — is a self-proclaimed pacifist and (therefore) a suspected German sympathizer. He forbids his daughter from marrying her sweetheart if he enlists (she marries him anyway). He is suspected of setting fire to another man’s barn. The village boys throw rocks through his windows. And he is consistently characterized as ignorant and mean-spirited.

About two-thirds of the way through the book, a contingent of young men enlist and the village calls a joint Presbyterian/Methodist prayer meeting for them. An account is given of what happens when the Methodist minister asks Mr. Pryor to lead a prayer:

Some people expected Mr. Pryor to refuse grumpily — and that would have made enough scandal. But Mr. Pryor bounded briskly to his feet, unctuously said, “Let us pray,” and forthwith prayed. In a sonorous voice which penetrated to every corner of the crowded building Mr. Pryor poured forth a flood of fluent words, and was well on in his prayer before his dazed and horrified audience awakened to the fact that they were listening to a pacifist appeal of the rankest sort. Mr. Pryor had at least the courage of his convictions; or perhaps, as people afterwards said, he thought he was safe in a church and that it was an excellent chance to air certain opinions he dared not voice elsewhere, for fear of being mobbed. He prayed that the unholy war might cease — that the deluded armies being driven to slaughter on the western front might have their eyes opened to their iniquity and repent while yet there was time — that these poor young men present in khaki, who had been hounded into a path of murder and militarism, should yet be rescued — (pp. 278-9)

The account ends with Mr. Pryor being grabbed, shaken, thoroughly chastised, and physically removed from the church, to everyone’s great satisfaction. His prayer is called “abominable” and seditious, and he dares not show his face in the village for some time thereafter. As far as the other characters are concerned, this is all perfectly satisfying. The rest of the novel treats Mr. Pryor in much the same manner. But are we to take Mr. Pryor’s treasonous characterization at face value — or, for that matter, the militaristic patriotism of the rest of the Glen’s inhabitants? Despite the way that the book plays out, I can’t help but think that LMM is gently inviting the reader to consider whether Mr. Pryor makes a sensible point. Certainly I do not think it abominable to pray for the end of war! (One can even support the just cause of a war while still praying that its duration would be brief.)

Rilla of Ingleside does not present a glorious vision of war: every household in the Glen is marked by it, one way or another, and tragedy strikes the Blythe home when one of Anne and Gilbert’s sons is killed in action. LMM is perhaps more critical of the war than her characters are (having, of course, the advantage over them of knowing how it all turns out). Her treatment of Mr. Pryor subtly invites the reader to question their own assumptions about pacifism, patriotism, what constitutes treason, and what a former colony does, or doesn’t, owe its parent. Rilla of Ingleside is a much more serious and somber book than any others in the Anne canon, but stands up to them on its own terms. A very satisfying addition to the world of Anne!