Tag Archives: L M Montgomery

Living WWI

Having so recently re-read Rilla of Ingleside by L M Montgomery and seen the film made of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, I’ve come to realise that there is a difference between all the modern war stories – however excellent they are, because they’ve been written by great authors, who have researched the war thoroughly – and these two books written by women who lived through it.

They aren’t the only ones, I’m sure, but they are the women I’ve got fresh in mind right now. One wrote a biography and the other wrote fiction, but both offer the reader what you don’t get in later, period fiction, and that is the day-to-day facts. Other books might have the Somme, which Rilla barely mentions. It’s just one of the many place names they got far too familiar with over those four years.

Even the Blythe’s Susan keeps up with the news, learning about geography in an unforeseen way, reading the paper and keeping track of what she thinks of Wilson and Kitchener and the Kaiser.

Vera Brittain lived through the war at a much closer distance, eventually being part of it. What I remember most vividly is all the travelling she did, back and forth, to the war, through the war and away from the war. Her autobiography, of necessity, contains all of WWI, in some form or other.

L M Montgomery wrote Rilla a few years after the end of the war, when presumably everything was still fresh in her mind, and she knew these places in Europe and beyond as intimately as the Blythes did. Which will be why she put all of that in her not-so-idyllic novel, and why she had to send Anne’s and Gilbert’s sons off to war, and let the girls work at home for the war effort. It’s why she couldn’t let all her characters live. Because it wasn’t like that. Lots of Canadian boys went and never returned.

That is something Vera Brittain knew from personal experience. She lost everyone.

And then, I wonder if both women wrote their books believing they had gone through hell, but come out the other end, and that a new better world would be sure to come of it?

Vera had a son, but I don’t know if he fought in WWII. I’m thinking he might have been too young. But Rilla’s children, if she had any, would surely have had to fight in the next war, as would her nephews, as well as her soup tureen baby.

I hope Susan never found out about that.

As I read Rilla this time, I needed to go back and check when the other books were written, rather than when they were set. I had to know if L M Montgomery knew that Anne would have to lose a child to the war, and I suspect she must have, when she gave Anne and Gilbert their children.

Living through a war is not the same as reading ‘highlights’ later on, and by living I mean even those who are safe and far away. It’s the hearing of each battle as it happens, rather than learning it second hand.

I’m not saying authors now shouldn’t write war novels. On the contrary, I think they must. But it’s interesting to note the difference.

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Rilla of Ingleside

I’d read L M Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside before. A long time ago. It was the one I remembered well but couldn’t get hold of as I bought all the Green Gables books in English, thirty years ago, so I’m particularly pleased it’s one of the ones re-issued by Virago. It’s also the first book to bring the reality – for normal people – of WWI to my attention.

L M Montgomery, Rilla of Ingleside

I mean, if L M Montgomery couldn’t even fictionally keep Anne Shirley’s family safe from the war, then no one was safe. Which, obviously, was the truth. Before Rilla I had callously imagined that people back then were used to it and that it was a long time ago. And anyway, Anne lived in Canada, hundreds and hundreds of miles from the trenches.

Rilla of Ingleside is a sweet book, for all that it features the war so much that there is barely room for any romantic nostalgia for life on Prince Edward Island. Anne and Gilbert are growing old, and back then 50 was probably a lot older than it is now. So we concentrate on 15-year-old Rilla as war breaks out, and her brothers and friends go off to fight, one after the other, or at least to do their bit for the war closer to home.

The years between 15 and 19 were meant to be the best of her life. Instead they changed her completely; making her someone who could quite capably knit socks for the soldiers by the end of those four years. And a few other things, too.

Like what you can use a soup tureen for, and that it is possible to love an ugly baby that isn’t even yours.

There were just two things that made me cry, though. It was the neighbours’ little boy, Bruce, picking flowers for Anne (stupid Witch, crying again, now), and Jem’s dog, waiting all those years for his master to come back on the train. (Get me a hanky!)

You presumably know all this already, but when you love Anne and all those she loves, you do tend to go on about it a little.

Jane of Lantern Hill

Bullying is always bad, but I particularly dislike bullying within the home. Home should be safe. Strangers may be horrible to you, but not your ‘nearest and dearest.’

There is some quite ‘refined’ bullying happening at 60 Gay (yes, really) in L M Montgomery’s Jane of Lantern Hill. 11-year-old Jane is not loved by her fearsome grandmother. Presumably because her father was the wrong kind of father. Jane’s mother loves her, but is unable to stand up to her own mother, and is actually bullied herself, by this unpleasant, rich woman who rules over them all.

L M Montgomery, Jane of Lantern Hill

Having believed her father is dead, it is quite a shock to find he is not, and more so when her father sends for her to come and spend the summer on Prince Edward Island. Despite being so unhappy at home, Jane desperately wants to avoid going. But as soon as she arrives on PEI, the story turns into – more or less – Anne of Green Gables.

Her new Aunt Irene proves to be a meddlesome woman, second only to grandmother in being cruel while calling Jane ‘lovey’ and pretending she adores her. But the minute Jane meets her dad, she loves him and they are kindred spirits and everything is sweet, in that well known PEI way.

Set in the early 1930s, it’s more modern than Anne, with cars and phones, but still very rural and basic. After a wonderful three months, Jane has to return to Toronto and 60 Gay, where the people are as bad as they always were, but Jane herself has changed and can – almost – deal with it.

I find it difficult understanding Jane’s mother, while it’s easier to see where the grandmother is coming from. And reading this from the cynical 21st century, it’s a little hard to shake off another interpretation of Jane’s dad’s behaviour. You do know though, that being an L M Montgomery story it will be – mostly – fine.

This is a tale about home and love. It’s about the perfect house, and loving people, and how it is so much easier to love when you are not constantly put down, but surrounded by kind people who like you. People who believe in giving you snacks to ‘line your stomach’ with. In case you get hungry between meals.

And it was a treat to be introduced to another L M Montgomery, after all these years. Although I don’t suppose I can ask her about a detail that I wondered about…

Emily is back

Did you read Anne of Green Gables first? And when you’d read all the Anne books and was desperate for more, did you welcome Emily? That’s what I did.

L M Montgomery’s Emily trilogy is nowhere near as well known – or talked about – as those about our favourite redhead. But they are that marvellous thing; further reading by someone whose other books made you want more.

When you’re young (if you had the sense to read these books as a child – unlike me) you won’t know as much, so finding sequels and prequels and ‘new’ series by any author is like finding hidden treasure. The older reader might have heard of the other books, so will be expecting them. Or they will be aware that more books are a distinct possibility (unless the author’s name is Harper Lee, perhaps).

(When I was very young I was delighted to find Barbara Cartland had written more books than the ones I’d come across…)

I have no way of knowing if Anne is better than Emily. I don’t believe so. I was pretty old when I found the Emily books, and was mostly past the stage when you re-read like crazy.

L M Montgomery - The Emily trilogy

But I find myself wanting to, now that there is a new edition of all three Emily books. The covers are fabulous, and I can see how my hand is reaching out to stroke them, a little. I’m hoping the covers will tempt many new readers to try them, and perhaps seduce a mother, or grandmother, into buying the books for a girl close to them. (I’m really not trying to be sexist here…)

I need happy books

so I don’t sink into any depths of despair. I was glancing at the book reviews in Vi, my quality Swedish monthly magazine, and finding some possibly very worthy books, but it all sounded very despairish, really. Even the bright sunshine failed to stop me feeling low.

And I’d been feeling very happy, even though I’d just finished my latest re-reading of Anne of Green Gables. Anne is a happy book, by my reckoning, despite her desperate beginnings and the death of Matthew, which had my tears running freely, but in a happy sort of way.

For the Anne and hanky brigade there is now another book to cry over. To celebrate the centenary of the original Anne, Canadian writer Budge Wilson was given the job of writing a prequel to L M Montgomery’s series of books.

I’m not a prequel person, and I’d never hankered after any knowledge about what happened before Anne was picked up by Matthew at the station. I was more than satisfied with knowing that Anne went on to have a good life.

The one thing that had stuck in my mind was the ipecac and the croup, and that was before I produced croupy Offspring and started handing the ipecac out myself. So, I’m quite pleased to have read about the background to Anne’s going round saving children’s lives like that.

Budge Wilson’s Before Green Gables feels very much like a biography covering the early years of someone famous. Someone real, I mean. It’s absolutely amazing what Budge was able to do with the little snippets of facts that Anne mentions when she talks about her past. To build a whole book on this and to make it credible, is a real achievement.

Before Green Gables starts with introducing Anne’s parents, Bertha and Walter. Then it’s swiftly on to Anne’s life with the Thomas family. There’s a lot of bad, but there is good too, and maybe both Anne and the reader need this, for Anne to turn out as lovely as she did. After the Thomases it’s the Hammond family with all the twins, and finally the orphanage.

This is not only a story about our old friend Anne, but it’s a piece of (Canadian) history. To read about daily life in those days, and to find out what it was like for the women in particular, is very interesting, as long as I don’t have to live through it myself.

One of my reasons for quickly re-reading Anne again was to see exactly what is “true” and what’s made up. So much in the prequel struck me as things I already knew, except I can’t have. Budge has done a great job, and she has added a new dimension to Green Gables forever.

And it’s a happy book, even though it ought to come with a very large handkerchief. Preferably pink and with flowers.