Rilla of Ingleside and an Altered View of Pre-War Literature
Updated: Oct 3, 2020
This article was originally published on January 1, 2019, and has been revised accordingly.
Contains spoilers for "Rilla of Ingleside" by L.M. Montgomery.
"She wanted to be alone - to think things out - to adjust herself, if it were possible, to the new world in which she seemed to have been transplanted with a suddenness and completeness that left her half bewildered to her own identity.”
― L.M. Montgomery, Rilla of Ingleside
Rilla Blythe - aka L.M. Montgomery's most underrated heroine; just as memorable as her mother, but about three times more flawed.
I dived into Rilla of Ingleside for the first time in December of 2018 and finished it in less than two days. I just couldn't put it down. Everything about this novel drew me into the storyline almost as ferociously as Anne of Green Gables did.
Rilla tells the story of the Blythe family, twenty-four years after Anne and Gilbert are married with six children. War is on the way, though no one is aware of it. Especially Rilla, whose only concern is her crush on the gorgeous Kenneth Ford. But as WWI forces itself upon the world, it doesn't leave our beloved Ingleside family alone. Quite the opposite, in fact, and much to my surprise - it tears them apart.
The Main Heroine
Unsurprisingly, given this book's overall contrast to L.M.M's other more wholesome works, Rilla is a very different heroine than what we've seen before. She has many flaws, vanity and laziness being the two that show the most. Rilla is actually a very difficult character to like for the first few pages because of how unconcerned she is with everything and everyone around her.
But as the story and the war goes along, her personality matures and changes to the point where she's nearly unrecognizable from who she is at the beginning of the story. I think having the care of her "war baby" was the biggest cause of change in her. Gilbert knew what he was doing when he said she was to be Jim's sole guardian. It caused her to grow up and gave her a purpose in her life, where before she was just a typical fifteen-year-old girl only concerned with parties and boys.
Rilla is one of my favorite L.M. Montgomery leading ladies because unlike Anne, she doesn't start out as being a very good person. She has to learn to be good, which I believe to be a very real struggle that many readers can relate to.
Walter Blythe, the second child of Anne and Gilbert, plays a crucial role in this story. He was my favorite character in Ingleside and Rainbow Valley. He's the sweetest and kindest of all the Blythe children and, because of that, I had a sneaking feeling that he was going to die.
I was pleasantly surprised that his passion as a poet is what makes Walter’s mark on this story. In the novel, Walter feels quite certain of his own impending death, so he pens his poem The Piper while off duty one evening. In the book, his poem becomes a classic known to all, a real-world tribute to the poem In Flanders Fields. I was glad L.M. Montgomery didn't kill him off without publishing him. His talent as a poet was one of the most endearing qualities about his character, and I was satisfied that L.M.M chose to honor it.
The Love Stories
There are a number of love stories weaved throughout this book. Pretty well all of the Blythe children pair off with the Meredith's, except for Rilla, who ends the novel engaged to Ken Ford. As much as I was intrigued by Rilla and Ken's romance, it was the relationship between Una and Walter that interested me the most.
There isn't much time spent on it, and they never really end up together. Una spends most of the novel pining for Walter in secret, who only seems to view her as a sister. However, when Rilla receives a letter from Walter after he died, addressing it to both her and Una, you're given the impression that he always had a measure of love for Una. This is first hinted at when he kissed her at the train station before he even kissed his own family members.
Walter explains earlier in the novel that he wouldn't want to go to the war with a sweetheart left behind, and I believe that's why he never tells Una how he feels about her. He didn't want to break her heart, should he die in battle. Nevertheless, her heart is broken. You end the novel with the impression that Una never really recovers from it, which in my opinion is the saddest aftereffect of Walter's death.
The Rilla and Ken love story contrasts quite heavily from Anne and Gilbert’s. Rilla and Ken's relationship develops very quickly and carries a lot of weight, as they don't know whether or not Ken will even come home from the war.
Nevertheless, the amount of love they both hold for each other is maintained, even though Rilla doesn't even set eyes on him for over two years. I felt like their romance wasn't really touched on as much as I hoped, and Ken certainly isn't in the story enough. Despite this, their relationship is the one part of this story that remains sweet and innocent, which I believe was intentional on L.M. Montgomery's part. It is, after all, Anne's world, which can only hold so much sadness before something positive comes in and interrupts it.
The Old World into the New
For myself, what made this novel so sad is that it was written in 1921, nearly twenty years before WWII was to break out. Walter's final letter talks of a civilized world, one without war. He believed the Great War would achieve this, as did many at that time. And when you read this book, you can tell L.M Montgomery believed it too. It saddens me to think about how she must have felt when WWII did break out.
Many look at classics from the 1800s and early 1900s and marvel at the amount of optimism and hope within their pages. Many fail to remember that even though war occurred through all those years, none of those battles were anything compared to WWI, nor were the casualties as extreme. Reading this novel made me view pre-wartime classics in a very different light, as the world before 1914 really was a different time and place. And I don't believe anyone alive today will ever be able to fully understand just how different it was. When you think about that, it makes those pre-war novels so much more precious, because they are truly the remnants of the age of innocence.
As I read this novel, I found I had a hard time placing it among the other Anne books. Its feeling is far different. It's more serious and has a deeper, more melancholy meaning. It breaks down Anne's childhood world and floods it with sorrow. This book takes this perfect and innocent world L.M.M created and tears it apart, drowning it with the realities of violence and death; it's really in a league all of its own.
Nevertheless, Rilla of Ingleside still holds the wholesome feeling of a classic. L.M. Montgomery's poetic and descriptive prose fills the pages, and her dry humor never fails to take up half the dialogue. And at the end of the day, no matter what tragedies they face, the Blythes are still blithe, and Anne is still our "Anne-girl."