Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Rilla of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery

Source of book: My wife owns the entire Anne series.

For those of you who have not been following my blog, I participate in an online book club, hosted by my friend Carrie at Here is our 2013 list, with instructions on how to participate if you wish. As usual, I will be picking and choosing which books to read, based on my level of interest, available time, and sunspots.

This month’s selection was anything by L. M. Montgomery, picked by Carrie, who is a huge fan of the author. I recommend searching her blog if you want to know more about the author or her books. On to the review!

Embarrassing confession time. I had a HUGE crush on Anne of Green Gables in Junior High. I read the first four books multiple times, and watched the movies more times than I wish to recall. In fact, I could say I crushed on Megan Follows in her Anne portrayal as well. As a musician, I was also fond of the Hagood Hardy soundtrack. My string quartet still uses the music from the scene where Anne dances with an imaginary man until Gilbert cuts in. I have been singularly unsuccessful at finding this on youtube, so I can’t paste a clip here, but true fans will know exactly what I am talking about.

Over the years, I have thought of what exactly drew me to the stories when I was young, and why I was never able to go past the first four books.

The Anne books are, more than anything else, a delightful coming-of-age story. Anne is awkward, emotional, horrifyingly honest, and yet loving and loveable all in the mix. In many ways, she is familiar to anyone who felt out of place in those horrid years between childhood and the later teens. (You might be able to pay me enough to go through High School again. But it would be a lot of money, believe me! You couldn’t pay me enough to do Junior High again. No way.) Anne is a notable character because she is so real and believable, and not just in an aspirational way. Many of us, when we were young men, thought it would be cool to be Robin Hood, or Odysseus, or Tom Sawyer, but these were dreams. I felt like Anne could be me. (At least internally. I was far too square to ever get into her kind of trouble. Although staging The Lady of Shalott was pure genius.) I have always felt a bit odd - a male bookish introvert is rarely popular - to say nothing of a short one. My homeschooling experience, if anything, helped with this, as it freed me to hang out with similarly geeky sorts and discover who I was without the constant disapproval of the cliques. However, this certainly led me to feel that Anne was, to use her phrase, a “kindred spirit.”

I was thinking about it as a read the book over the last few weeks, and I have decided that, in retrospect, I both wanted to marry Anne, and wanted to be her. One the one hand, Anne was similar to the woman I wanted to marry. Perhaps not one quite as prone to extremes of emotion, but one who was real and adventuresome, and wanted to talk about literature and life and dreams and so forth. One who felt herself neither superior nor inferior to me, but who wanted to be a friend first. The last thing I wanted was to be a “husband,” that is, the cardboard cut-out of a man that would fit the woman’s dream of her perfect life. This was why it was satisfying to read of the Anne/Gilbert romance, because they respected each other, and didn’t give their hearts away lightly, nor their hand in marriage to anyone they could not respect and love passionately.

On the other hand, I found that Anne was not simply a “real woman.” She was a real person, someone who represented the universal struggle of humans, male and female, to transition to adulthood. It was this facet of her that, I think, prevented me from enjoying the later books.

Montgomery is in some ways the other side of the coin from Charles Dickens, who could not write a believable young female to save his life. Montgomery had the opposite problem: she did not write young male characters well. Gilbert is probably the best, but he becomes the equivalent of Agnes (in David Copperfield) as the stories progress. Too good to be true, and thus boring. The related problem for Montgomery is her difficulty with adulthood. Like Dickens, her portrayal of quirky old folks is excellent. There are a gallery of memorable characters - but no ordinary adults. At least not real ones.

This particularly struck me in Rilla of Ingleside. Rilla herself is a great character. She is believable and relatable, and she grows from a shallow and flighty teen to a more serious and responsible grownup, as the result of war, responsibility, and loss. So far, so good. A good character, well drawn, and a compelling story. What was disappointing to me is that Anne herself has become completely colorless. What the heck happened? How did she go from a vibrant personality to being a “generic mother” such as might be purchased in my friend Sara’s shop-of-stock-characters? She and Gilbert have NO recognizable personality in the book. They both do and say the perfect thing in every situation.

I think this is why I lost interest in the later books. Montgomery neither understood nor liked adulthood. Perhaps it is because she never really had a true childhood, perhaps because her own relationship with the adult world was unpleasant. (She married because she felt it socially necessary, not because she truly loved. By most accounts, she was unhappy in her role as preacher’s wife, and her husband suffered from mental illness. She probably committed suicide.) Perhaps it is just that balancing adult responsibility with one’s personality is hard work. The tension between the requirements of society and the needs of the inner life have made for many a great novel, of course, and one wonders if she might have written a devastatingly bitter book for adults had she felt free to do so. I feel like she never really figured out how to be herself in the context of society, and that she was deeply unhappy outside of the confines of her books. However, she wrote some remarkable young adult literature, the first of which captured that elusive moment in such a memorable way.

Aside from the disappointment that the real Anne disappeared, here are my thoughts on Rilla.

I found it interesting that Sarajevo has played such a crucial role in both ends of the 20th Century. One tends to forget that the Balkan War of the 1990s was really a continuation of a conflict that started a century or more before World War One, sparked that war, and continued as soon as the Soviet era dictatorship crumbled. Some hate lives beyond time and circumstance.

Second, I loved the line about fifteen year old girls. Rilla was “as fond of italics as most girls of fifteen are...” And fifteen year old boys, I might add.

Rilla, in the tradition of Montgomery’s heroines, completely misunderstands men throughout the story. She figures that Ken Ford, who she loves, doesn’t return her affections, because he calls her by a childhood name that irritates her. (Montgomery understands this stage of male infatuation, but one doubts she quite understood deep, adult passion, though.)

Also good was Walter’s view of war. (Walter is the poetic brother of Rilla, and he predictably gets offed in the war, as he is too good for this earth. Perhaps this was an echo of the real life deaths of poet Joyce Kilmer and author Hector Hugh Munro, aka Saki?) Unlike the rest of the men, he finds war to be “a hellish, horrible, hideous thing - too horrible and hideous to happen in the twentieth century between civilized nations.” Montgomery died before the Second World War, and I doubt she ever knew just how terrible Stalin’s purges were. If only Walter had known how ghastly the history of the century would be, I doubt he would have remained as poetically optimistic. Or perhaps he would have. Walter is not exactly believable as a character, but as an archetype, he is in the vein of Tom Joad and others who live beyond death as an inspiration to the living.

Other fun stuff: I loved the references to parenting books. (Rilla adopts a war orphan and raises him “by the book.”) Anyone with a real child, let alone a crowd of them knows that there is no such thing as a “typical” child, and that they will do everything in their power to ruin any preconceived notion of parenting. The scene with the “war wedding,” where so much went wrong, and yet it worked out in a memorable way was well done. Another good one was Susan rejecting the ludicrous proposal from “Whiskers-on-the-Moon.” These are the things that one eagerly anticipates in Montgomery’s writing. Susan is a memorable character in general, and the only one other than Rilla that is well developed in this book.

One final note. There is an intriguing exchange between the clergyman, Mr. Meredith, and some others on the nature of the Divine, and whether the affairs of men, even a great war, are somehow beneath His notice. Mr. Meredith opines that “an infinite power must be infinitely little as well as infinitely great.” Thus, “He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others.” (Daniel 2:21) is balanced by, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.” (Matthew 10:29)

Overall, I have mixed feelings about this book. Rilla’s story was well written, and the book had some moments of humor, pathos, and introspection. However, I was disappointed by the lack of development of the secondary characters. One wonders what Anne’s inner life would have been throughout the dramatic events in this book.


  1. I think you are mostly right about Montgomery's difficulty with writing well-rounded adults. (Really, Jane Austen has a similar problem--almost all the middle-aged are dull or idiots). I can think of a few in her other works, but you're right, mostly they are "characters" and misfits. It is a weakness of the later Anne books that Anne herself recedes. I do enjoy her children's adventures, though.

  2. I totally forgot about the war orphan that Rilla raised "by the book"!

    I think you are also write about Montgomery being able to write children's literature so well because she loved childhood but not so much adulthood. (It was met with so many disappointments, as you have listed here.)

    I, too, was thinking about why it is that I love Anne the other day. I have a blog post brewing in my head to answer the question. I surprised myself a bit, I think.