The Great War: L.M. Montgomery

MARCH / APRIL 2012: BY RACHEL McMILLAN

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When readers think of  L.M. Montgomery they are immediately reminded of the sunny and spirited Anne Shirley…

A feisty, quick-tempered redhead who embodies hope and optimism. Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote extensively of imaginative heroines who quelled tempestuous circumstances with spirit and sass: from the irrepressible Emily Byrd Starr to the romantic Valancy Stirling. Unfortunately, her life was far from the idyllic world she painted with her purple prose. Both Montgomery and her husband Ewan Macdonald suffered from bouts of depression and anxiety: Ewan, certain he was doomed to an eternity condemned in hellfire despite his spiritual rigor as a Presbyterian clergyman, and Montgomery from battles with her publishers over rights, pressures from familial obligations to relatives all too aware of her social and financial success as an author, and plagued by insecurities regarding her immediate family, her husband’s mental condition, and the failure of Canadian literary criticism to recognize her as anything more than a writer of juvenile fiction.

When WWI hit Canada’s home front in 1914, Montgomery did more than write of it as an avid journalist, she allowed the darkness to seep into her usually light fiction as she penned Rilla of Ingleside: one of the most famous tomes representative of the home front experience of the First World War and one of the first fictionalized accounts of the conflict.

L.M. Montgomery was already a well-established author in the early months of 1914, having put Canada on the literary map of the world. Though living in Ontario, she continued to write of Prince Edward Island and would do so for at least another decade when she would write her first books set either entirely or somewhat away from the beloved isle of her formative years. She counterbalanced her life as a rural minister’s wife and mother with her presence on the world stage.  Though portentous clouds threatened to mar her silver lining, her fiction was a much-needed escape. The year 1914 was couched in tragedy from the start when her son Hugh died soon after birth: an emotionally tumultuous experience she would fictionalize when Anne and Gilbert lose their young daughter in Anne’s House of Dreams. In April, Maud’s depression was echoed on the world scene as she saw her beloved country join a world-wide conflict. She writes, on April 5, 1914: “England has declared war on Germany… it must be a horrible dream.” Maud tells her journal that it was foreshadowed to her by Earl Grey four years previously: “Civilization stands aghast at the horror that is coming upon it.” Tied to the Commonwealth, Canadian forces were sent to aid the war effort at an alarming rate and like so many citizens, mothers, sons and relatives Montgomery watched the papers with feverish interest terrified from hundreds upon hundreds of miles away. She speaks of meeting her beloved cousin Frede, a true “kindred spirit” on the same day as the sinking of the Lusitania and goes on to express her devastation at the impending doom surrounding the world she knew: “… I dreaded the Spring for what the War news might bring […] the fearful slaughter of our Canadian soldiers who saved the situation at an awful cost.” Montgomery continued to journal, in horror, the major battles which thrust Canadian soldiers to the front: from the Somme, through Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele: the resulting casualties nearly emptying communities of all of their young working men.

At the end of 1918, as the war drew to a close, Maud had just finished writing Rainbow Valley: a sunshiny and somewhat ironic precursor to Rilla of Ingleside: a novel devoted to reflect the tumultuous experience of the Great War in Canada and on the warfront.  Here, she drives the tragedy of the war close to our hearts when Anne’s poetic and imaginatively romantic son Walter is killed in action at Courcelette: a week-long battle in France in September 1916. While the eldest son Jem, returns to the homestead, the lives of Anne and Gilbert and their family are forever changed by this sacrifice of the son who closely resembles Anne in nature and personality. This is especially telling in the work of an author who used fiction to block out the negativity of life through the happy circumstances of her heroes and heroines. When Walter dies, the rift between Montgomery’s dark reality and her light fiction is momentarily blurred.  She writes of Anne: “She belongs to the green, untroubled pastures and still waters of the world before the war.” Montgomery felt deeply and lived vicariously through her heroes and heroines. It is emphatic that she who used books to scrape happiness and a keen sense of nostalgia would infiltrate a perfect world with the setting of war, thus making Rilla of Ingleside an even more important work.

“I am sure no one could feel more profoundly thankful that the war is over than I… I am sure that no one, except the mothers and wives, could have felt it more keenly […] after being fed for four years on fears and horrors” Montgomery pens when the terror has finally ceased. Canadians often cite the Great War as having a significant impact on National identity and Montgomery, as an emblem of Canada’s literary heritage and one of the country’s greatest cultural icons, does much in representing the years on the home front during the four years of conflict. Interestingly, she fought her publishers to keep the Canadian focus of Rilla of Ingleside: “I wrote of Canada at War, not the U.S.”  This is not to slight the universality of the experience; rather to assert that the book reflects her own dashed hopes and cultivated despair during the four years of Canada’s overseas involvement. This argument also speaks to the close personal experience threaded throughout the novel, her thoughts and terrors and her empathy as a mother of sons.

Unlike many authors we study and love, Montgomery has left us a telling document recounting the grand and small happenings in her life.  Maud was an avid diarist and scrap-booker. Although she often would edit and re-edit the pages of her journal, they continue to offer a telling insight into her daily world. Fortunately, they also act as a primary document of some of Canada’s most integral years. While the Victorian Era she read about, wrote about and loved offered the solace of imagination, the Edwardian Era thrust Maud and the entire world into a black cloud: a precursor to the continued inner turmoil, depression and anxiety she would suffer until her death in 1942.  ♥

marchapril2012

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