My trip to Charlottetown, PEI, last June to attend L. M. Montgomery and War brought me a greater appreciation for Montgomery as a writer, but also for the events of the Great War. Whenever I attend such conferences, I walk a line between my scholarly and personal interests, which means I’m not always terribly objective.
At the conference, I presented on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and how it figures into both Montgomery’s journals and rilla of Ingleside, the one book exclusively about WWI. I’ve taught a course on Montgomery, and I keep coming back to her as a writer, but my personal interest in this topic comes from learning to manage PTSD in my own life, and knowing a number of young men who served in Afghanistan.
In honour of this Remembrance Day, 2014, I thought to let Montgomery speak to you about war. I’ve collected here some brief passages from Lucy Maud’s journals that show her processing the events of the war, while she continued to work as a writer, a mother, and a minister’s wife. I’m also including Walter’s final letter to rilla on the eve of his death. The letter is a poignant farewell, but it stands as a tribute to the young men who fought and died in WWI, and serves as a reminder of the horrors of war, both real and imagined.
The journal entries come from The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery, volume 2, 1910–1921, edited by Elizabeth Waterston and Mary Rubio, and Walter’s letter is taken from a Project Gutenberg e-text of Rilla of Ingleside.
June 10, 1916
“This war is slowly killing me. I am bleeding to death as France is being bled in the shambles of Verdun.”
August 19, 1916
“I do my writing in the parlour now, as said parlour possesses the only door in the house which young Chester cannot open … Wednesday and Thursday I was miserable with an attack of bowel trouble. Naturally, visitors took that day for appearing. The Russians have captured Tarnapol heights and the British and French have renewed their offensive.”
May 29, 1918
“We went to Uxbridg today to see a military funeral. Colonel Sam Sharp … was buried. He came home from the front quite recently, insane from shellshock and jumped from a window in the royal Victoria at Montreal.”
Walter’s Final Letter, Rilla of Ingleside (chapter 23)
”We’re going over the top tomorrow, Rilla-my-Rilla,” wrote Walter. “I wrote mother and Di yesterday, but somehow I feel as if I must write you tonight. I hadn’t intended to do any writing tonight—but I’ve got to. Do you remember old Mrs. Tom Crawford over-harbour, who was always saying that it was ‘laid on her’ to do such and such a thing? Well, that is just how I feel. It’s ‘laid on me’ to write you tonight—you, sister and chum of mine. There are some things I want to say before—well, before tomorrow.”
“You and Ingleside seem strangely near me tonight. It’s the first time I’ve felt this since I came. Always home has seemed so far away—so hopelessly far away from this hideous welter of filth and blood. But tonight it is quite close to me—it seems to me I can almost see you—hear you speak. And I can see the moonlight shining white and still on the old hills of home. It has seemed to me ever since I came here that it was impossible that there could be calm gentle nights and unshattered moonlight anywhere in the world. But tonight somehow, all the beautiful things I have always loved seem to have become possible again—and this is good, and makes me feel a deep, certain, exquisite happiness. It must be autumn at home now—the harbour is a-dream and the old Glen hills blue with haze, and Rainbow Valley a haunt of delight with wild asters blowing all over it—our old “farewell-summers.” I always liked that name better than ‘aster’—it was a poem in itself.”
“Rilla, you know I’ve always had premonitions. You remember the Pied Piper—but no, of course you wouldn’t—you were too young. One evening long ago when Nan and Di and Jem and the Merediths and I were together in Rainbow Valley I had a queer vision or presentiment—whatever you like to call it. Rilla, I saw the Piper coming down the Valley with a shadowy host behind him. The others thought I was only pretending—but I saw him for just one moment. And Rilla, last night I saw him again. I was doing sentry-go and I saw him marching across No-man’s-land from our trenches to the German trenches—the same tall shadowy form, piping weirdly—and behind him followed boys in khaki. Rilla, I tell you I saw him—it was no fancy—no illusion. I heard his music, and then—he was gone. But I had seen him—and I knew what it meant—I knew that I was among those who followed him.”
“Rilla, the Piper will pipe me ‘west’ tomorrow. I feel sure of this. And Rilla, I’m not afraid. When you hear the news, remember that. I’ve won my own freedom here—freedom from all fear. I shall never be afraid of anything again—not of death—nor of life, if after all, I am to go on living. And life, I think, would be the harder of the two to face—for it could never be beautiful for me again. There would always be such horrible things to remember—things that would make life ugly and painful always for me. I could never forget them. But whether it’s life or death, I’m not afraid, Rilla-my-Rilla, and I am not sorry that I came. I’m satisfied. I’ll never write the poems I once dreamed of writing—but I’ve helped to make Canada safe for the poets of the future—for the workers of the future—ay, and the dreamers, too—for if no man dreams, there will be nothing for the workers to fulfil—the future, not of Canada only but of the world—when the ‘red rain’ of Langemarck and Verdun shall have brought forth a golden harvest—not in a year or two, as some foolishly think, but a generation later, when the seed sown now shall have had time to germinate and grow. Yes, I’m glad I came, Rilla. It isn’t only the fate of the little sea-born island I love that is in the balance—nor of Canada nor of England. It’s the fate of mankind. That is what we’re fighting for. And we shall win—never for a moment doubt that, Rilla. For it isn’t only the living who are fighting—the dead are fighting too. Such an army cannot be defeated.”
“Is there laughter in your face yet, Rilla? I hope so. The world will need laughter and courage more than ever in the years that will come next. I don’t want to preach—this isn’t any time for it. But I just want to say something that may help you over the worst when you hear that I’ve gone ‘west.’ I’ve a premonition about you, Rilla, as well as about myself. I think Ken will go back to you—and that there are long years of happiness for you by-and-by. And you will tell your children of the Idea we fought and died for—teach them it must be lived for as well as died for, else the price paid for it will have been given for nought. This will be part of your work, Rilla. And if you—all you girls back in the homeland—do it, then we who don’t come back will know that you have not ‘broken faith’ with us.”
“I meant to write to Una tonight, too, but I won’t have time now. Read this letter to her and tell her it’s really meant for you both—you two dear, fine loyal girls. Tomorrow, when we go over the top—I’ll think of you both—of your laughter, Rilla-my-Rilla, and the steadfastness in Una’s blue eyes—somehow I see those eyes very plainly tonight, too. Yes, you’ll both keep faith—I’m sure of that—you and Una. And so—goodnight. We go over the top at dawn.”