I’m still reading, believe it or not, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. I mentioned some while back that it had to come to me to read this. I had no idea why. I’m not Canadian. I have no connection with the book except for a dim memory of a children’s TV series. Then starting to read, I began to see the reasons I might have been pointed in its direction by the Power-that-is. The role in the books of the natural environment is one – and is such a powerful and important force in the series. Actually, I’m reading Rilla of Ingleside. It’s the darkest of the books as it is set during World War I. Rilla is one of Anne’s children, named for Marilla, who adopted orphan Anne at the beginning of the first book and who has now passed away. Two of Anne’s sons have enlisted in the army, one is fighting in France, another about to go. It’s uncanny that I’m reading this now, because in two days time it’s Remembrance Sunday and a time when I recall my maternal grandfather and his brother who falsified his age to enlist (twice) and followed my grandfather out to France. My grandfather had him sent home the first time, but he was unaware of his second enlistment and he was killed – and lost, as like so many, his body was never identified – near Arras on the Belgian border, one month before the end of the war. It’s uncanny that I’m reading this exact section in the book, because I’m in the middle of a serious outbreak of insomnia. I am not generally an insomniac, unless upset about something. For a couple of weeks, I’ve not been sleeping much at all during the night, hence I’ve been getting up and reading the Anne books. Had I not had insomnia, I would not have reached this section.
Reading the Anne series is proving profitable as a writer. I’ve cried and I’ve laughed over the exploits of the characters, who are all drawn so brilliantly. The voice of each is distinct. Rilla brings vividly to life, the ways in which people coped with having to watch their sons, brothers, friends, lovers, go off to war and with the acute awareness that they may never, perhaps, see them again.
Though, as I say, Rilla is the darkest book, it has its humour. Here’s an extract which brings together Susan, Anne’s long-time housekeeper/cook/maid and Gertrude Oliver, local schoolteacher and boarder at Ingleside.
“Susan, tell me – don’t you ever – didn’t you ever – take spells of feeling that you must scream – or swear – or smash something – just because your torture reaches a point when it becomes unbearable>”
“I have never sworn or desired to swear, Mis Oliver dear, but I will admit,” said Susan, with the air of one determined to make a clean breast of it once and for all, “that I have experienced occasions when it was a relief to do considerable banging.”
“Don’t you think that is a kind of swearing, Susan? What is the difference between slamming a door viciously and saying d – .”
“Miss Oliver dear,” interrupted Susan, desperately determined to save Gertrude from herself, if human power could do it, “you are all tired out and unstrung – and no wonder, teaching those obstreperous youngsters all day and coming home to bad war news. But just you go upstairs and lie down and I will bring you up a cup of hot tea and a bite of toast and very soon you will not want to slam doors or swear.”
“Susan, you’re a good soul – a very pearl of Susans! But, Susan, it would be such a relief – to say just one soft, low, little tiny d – .”
“I will bring you a hot-water bottle for the soles of your feet, also,” interposed Susan resolutely, “and it would not be any relief to say that word you are thinking of, Miss Oliver, and that you may tie to.”
“Well, I’ll try the hot-water bottle first,” said Miss Oliver, repenting herself on teasing Susan and vanishing upstairs, to Susan’s intense relief. Susan shook her head ominously as she filled the hot-water bottle. The war was certainly relaxing the standards of behaviour woefully. Here was Miss Oliver admittedly on the point of profanity.
“We must draw the blood from her brain,” said Susan, “and if this bottle is not effective I will see what can be done with a mustard plaster.”
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