A few thoughts on Lucy Maud Montgomery

As previously mentioned (here, here, and here) I have been reading through a number of novels by Lucy Maud Montgomery this summer. I started with the eight (!) books in the Anne of Green Gables series, without a doubt her best-known work, and am now in the midst of reading her Emily trilogy (Emily of New MoonEmily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest). My fiction reading has been interrupted, however, by my desire to know more about the author herself — and so I put a pause on the novels in order to track down a library copy of Mary Henley Rubio’s biography, Lucy Maud Montgomery: the Gift of Wings. I am very glad that I did.

Rubio’s biography is illuminating; LMM’s life and character are both very different from that which I would have imagined, given the general tone of her books. While she may have been able to put on Anne Shirley’s cheerful and winsome optimism in her public face, her private journals reveal a woman who struggled with more than her share of difficulties: a childhood that left her deeply wounded, feeling perpetually inadequate; a perhaps ill-advised marriage to a man who regarded her success with something in between indifference and jealousy; a philandering, reprobate son; her own lifelong struggle with anxiety and depression; her husband’s worrying mental illness(es), poorly understood and exacerbated by heavy self-medication with various barbituates and bromides; the death of one of her children at its birth; tangled lawsuits with her unscrupulous first publisher; and the disheartening effect of seeing her books fall precipitously out of critical favour late in her life, as Modernism changed the shape of literature. She died suddenly of an overdose of the prescription medications to which she was addicted, in what was almost certainly not an accident.

As both a public figure and a minister’s wife, LMM was extremely constrained in her ability to express her darker feelings or admit to her family’s difficulties. Her journals became her companions and confidants — yet even they are somewhat disingenuous. LMM was conscious that her journals would one day be published after her death. Their entries were all written retrospectively, from jot-notes, and so do not accurately reflect her thoughts and feelings at the time; instead, they have been reshaped months or even years later, and are influenced by LMM’s desire to provide her life with a narrative structure, as well as her hindsight-enabled changes of view and overall tendency to conceal rather than reveal. Furthermore, because the journals were her only safe repository for negative thoughts and feelings, they skew heavily in that direction; friends and relations who read them after their publication were astonished to find how ill those entries lined up with their own memories of Montgomery as a vivacious, kind woman with an unfailing sense of humour. LMM was, it seems, an incredibly complex character; it is hard to know with her what is the true image of the many she projected.

This is not the stuff a biographer’s dreams are made of, but Rubio deftly handles the tangled web Montgomery left her.  She is a Montgomery scholar, and her own research is augmented by interviews in the 1970s and 80s with those who knew LMM and her family, as well as the help and encouragement of Dr. E. Stuart Macdonald, LMM’s younger son (not the reprobate one). Although certain events in Montgomery’s life remain shrouded in mystery — and doubtless always will — Rubio has produced an admirable book that is both scholarly and eminently readable. I would recommend Lucy Maud Montgomery: the Gift of Wings to both fans of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s work, and biography aficionados.

Of course, I am also glad to have read it because of Rubio’s comments on the ambiguities in Rilla of Ingleside that I noticed on my recent read-through. Here is what she writes about its creation:

Rilla is a sentimental novel in one sense. Maud tries hard to shore up people’s belief that the war was truly a fight against evil. When Walter’s last letter arrives after his death, it tells them that he has died that others may fulfill their lives in freedom and happiness. It urges them to “keep the faith.” This echo of the war rhetoric is what Maud wants to believe — indeed, what she must believe: that this war was one that would end all wars.

[…] [However] By 1924, she stated that she believed that all events were governed by the Darwinian concept of “blind impersonal Chance,” not by a deity. Her doubts about the role that God and religion played in human affairs were already beginning to show as she wrote the first draft of Rilla of Ingleside in the first eight months of 1920.

She brings ambiguity into the novel through her symbolic use of the “Piper.” This mythic figure had appeared first in Rainbow Valley, leading the boys out of the sylvan glade of childhood towards their future in European battlefields. When the image of the Piper appears again in Rilla, he seems to be the same Scottish bagpiper whose music instills bravery in soldiers, pumping them up with courage, and leading them valiantly into battle. Walter, for instance, has been a gentle, poetic boy who shies from aggression, fearing both war and death, but this admirable Piper gives him resolve, purpose, and courage.

However, as the story progresses, the Piper of Rainbow Valley morphs into a more mysterious figure in Rilla. He resembles the deadly “Pied Piper” of the children’s fairy tale — the Piper who pipes to innocent children, leading them away from their parents into a cavern. When the door closes behind them, they disappear from earth and are never seen again. This latter Piper, from the Underworld, has fooled them with his seductive music.

[…] Why should innocent boys from rural Canada have had to die in European trenches to fight God’s war? She had started to see religion more as a social organization than anything else, and she thought that the real power lay in science and knowledge, not in a literal and omnipotent God sitting on high. Like so many other reflective people of her era, she was conflicted and confused. But she knew that people had to continued to believe the war rhetoric, or they would think that their sacrifices had been in vain. Certainly, evil was real.

The shifting Piper imagery betrays her confusion… (Rubio, Lucy Maud Montgomery: the Gift of Wings, 285-6)

So there we see it: the tension in Rilla of Ingleside arises from the tension between the two versions of Montgomery: the popular author who needed to keep the public’s spirits up after a devastating war, and the private woman assailed by doubts over the justness of the Great War and whether God could, or would, act in history. Small wonder that the novel holds a certain level of ambiguity. Lucy Maud Montgomery was an ambiguous figure herself, and her work echoes its creator’s life and personality in this as well as in more straightforward ways.

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!