Something Seraphic Single said about Canadian war dead reminded me that my awareness of Canadian soldiers in the First World War can be summarised as: Walter Blythe. And for you chaps out there, that means: Anne of Green Gables’s youngest son.
A Canadian relative of mine sent me the first three Anne books when I was in Primary 5, I think (eight years old? I was young for my year). After tearing through these, Wick Public Library – a fine little Carnegie library with a stuffed crocodile in the hall – provided most of the rest of the series. At some point someone gave me the Emily books. But it was only upon moving to the terrifying metropolis of Dundee at the age of nine that its much bigger (but ugly and crocodile-less) public library offered access to the last Anne book, Rilla of Ingleside. Although I’ve reread the books in my possession many times, I realised upon rereading Rilla last week (Edinburgh Central Library doing service this time – a rather larger Carnegie library, but no crocodiles) that it was probably the first time I’d read it since I was nine.
This may explain why I’d forgotton how thoroughly a World War I novel it is. Lots of bits and bobs from Anne stick in the mind, and I think they’re very good books to read at a formative age. I’ve never forgotten the line when Anne remembers what was said ‘by a very old, very true, very beautiful Book: weeping endureth a night, but joy cometh in the morning.’ Similarly Anne’s attitude to her family: when someone says to her rather sneeringly, ‘I believe you have six children?’, she replies, ‘Seven. Six living.’ But I suspect I’ve forgotten the structures containing such things. Was the weeping over Gilbert’s illness? Who was turning up their nose at large families? I forget.
As a result of such forgetfulness, then, I was surprised that Rilla began with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, and ended with the return of her sweetheart at the end of the war. Rilla is a unique Anne book – apart from Anne’s being a background character, it is entirely about a small Canadian community’s response to the war. The response is that all the brave young men volunteer to fight for their country (yes, their country; and we may also note that LMM has an entry in the new DNB, so the favour is returned). All the women wish they weren’t going, but would rather die than show anything less than a smiling face to their menfolk. And the local pacifist (who is not a personable example of the genre) ends up being shouted down at a prayer meeting. In case this sounds too paint-by-numbers, it is not: the characters are painted with their usual charm, and the story is of growth in virtue through adversity. The take on the War is very clear, however; there is a good deal of talk about how this is a battle for civilisation, and/or a period of judgement, which must be followed by a better world.
Here the comparison with Mrs Miniver comes in. I know practically nothing about WWI (I wrote a number of essays about its origins; none about the course of the war), but was vaguely surprised to see it presented in these very large-scale moral terms (rather than more simply repelling unjust invasions, etc). Quotations to follow when I update this. In any case, here again we seem to see largely (I think) false hopes that such catastrophe could surely only be followed by improvement. Rilla was published in 1920 (according to the LMM Institute – my ’50s copy said first published 1928, which would have been more interesting, really). I wonder what LMM was thinking? Did she think the world in 1920 showed signs of the right response to its situation? Was it becoming evident that the culture of the 1920s did not meet the moral standards set by the Blythe family? (The Emily books, come to think of it, seem generally untroubled by the passage of time into the ’20s – at least in terms of fashion. Hmm.)
Rilla is also monumentally unfashionable in the episode where Rilla rescues the baby of a recently-dead woman with a feckless absentee husband. Upon taking it home, Gilbert her father insists that if they are going to look after the baby, Rilla (aged 14) must do it herself, as her mother does not have the strengh. And Rilla does; and it is the making of her. It is hard to imagine anyone these days recommending becoming ‘primary carer’ for an infant in one’s teens, even in the context of a large and very supportive family. I’m not sure what I think about this, to be honest. It didn’t trouble me first time round, but I suppose I thought fourteen was impossibly grown-up by then, anyway.
The Anne series is particularly fine because it depicts life after the happy ending. Rilla is a very good end to the series because it opens up the next generation of happy endings; but, as various folk in the book remark, in Anne’s youth (Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908) no-one imagined that their children would be looking for happy endings in the midst of the Great War, or that the ending many would endure would be death in the trenches.