Rilla of Ingleside is number 619 upon the Virago Modern Classics list, and is another addition to the children’s literature which the publishing house is introducing to a whole new generation of readers. This particular L.M. Montgomery novel is recommended for those from the age of nine onwards. I decided to add it to my ‘Classics Club’ list as I already had a copy on my bookshelf, and it looked like a nice easy read with which to balance out some of the heavier novels which I had already chosen.
Rilla of Ingleside, first published in 1921, is the last book in Montgomery’s famous Anne of Green Gables series, and can be read as a standalone book. It takes place when title character Anne Shirley is an adult with her own grown-up children, almost all of whom have flown the nest. The only one who remains within her care is her youngest daughter, fourteen-year-old ‘high-spirited’ Rilla. Just as Rilla’s life is at the height of her enjoyment, it is announced that Britain has declared war on Germany, and will be fighting for the full four years of the First World War. This affects Rilla more than she imagines at first, and serves to alter her landscape entirely: ‘… as her brothers go off to fight in the Great War and Rilla brings home an orphaned newborn baby in a soup tureen, she is swept into a drama that tests her courage and will leave her changed forever.’
Rilla of Ingleside starts in a charming way – ‘It was a warm, golden-cloudy, lovable afternoon’ – before it introduces the character of Susan Baker and the historical context which the story is set against: in the newspaper, she sees that ‘some Archduke Ferdinand or other had been assassinated at a place bearing the weird name of Sarajevo, but Susan tarried not over uninteresting, immaterial stuff like that; she was in quest of something really vital’. The historical details have been set out in such a way that they are easily accessible to Montgomery’s intended younger audience. Each child reader, whilst being swept into the story, is sure to learn a lot from the novel.
Montgomery is an incredibly perceptive author, always ensuring that her readers are able to see exactly what she imagined a particular person, scene or setting to look like. On the whole, her characters are wonderfully drawn, and their differences help to make them distinct beings. A few of the characters introduced in the novel’s beginning, however, felt rather flat and lacklustre. Throughout, Montgomery’s writing is gorgeous; it feels as though she set out to weave a spell of enchantment each and every time she sat down to write. The storyline which has been crafted fits its historical setting very well indeed.
There were several flaws within the novel which let it down for me, however. Rilla herself was an issue; I found her at once almost entirely vacuous, and yet a little endearing. The shallow and self-important elements of her character did irk me almost immediately, and I was prevented from liking her in consequence: ‘There’s five of us going to college already. Surely that’s enough. There’s bound to be one dunce in every family. I’m quite willing to be a dunce if I can be a pretty, popular, delightful one. I have no talent at all, and you can’t imagine how comfortable it is’. The entire plot took a long while to get going, and was more involved with frivolities such as dancing and courting than anything else in places. I closed the final pages of Rilla of Ingleside believing that I had not read a book with so little substance within it for quite a while. I’m hoping that my next Classics Club read will be more enjoyable!