(But also other books, to the point that this isn’t really a Rilla column.)
The many times I’ve spoken on this blog about how great Antonia Forest is tend to blur into one another in my head, so I’m not sure if I’ve ever made clear what a huge relief it was as a child to get into Nicola Marlow’s head and discover in there thoughts that were sometimes petty and sometimes callous (and sometimes involved spending a lot of time looking at Jan Scott). The children’s books I was familiar with weren’t very good at introducing one to the idea that other people also had rich interior lives, and the fact that they did, and that those lives included being flawed and sometimes genuinely bad, was a revelation. I don’t want to create an image of my childhood self constantly beating herself over the head for not being morally perfect, but in a different world this could have been my supervillain origin story.
And I wonder how much of the love for Frozen (a film which, in the process of being made, came around to embracing its original villain as its other hero) is simply a celebration of the idea that you can fuck things up epically, hurt people, and still be the compelling/loveable/less annoying one.
Below is a version of last weekend’s column.
Rereading L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside recently, I found myself comparing it to other books whose heroines live through wartime. Rilla is the last book in the series that begins with Anne of Green Gables; its title character, Rilla Blythe, is Anne’s youngest daughter, fifteen at the beginning of the novel. She is also pretty, not inclined towards motherhood or academics, and eager to grow up—all of which seem reasonable traits in a fifteen year old, particularly in the youngest of many siblings. But then World War One happens, and her brothers, friends, and the man for whom she has feelings enlist and go to Europe. War is not conducive to a happy girlhood, and in between reading the news and worrying Rilla also learns to organise, fund-raise, do household work, and even raise a baby whose only blood relative is also a soldier.
During a different, earlier war, the scandalous Lady Barbara Childe grows and changes. The protagonist of Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army and in Brussels before the Battle of Waterloo, Babs upsets everyone by contracting an engagement with an attractive young soldier (Charles Audley, who has previously appeared in Heyer’s Regency Buck). She is entirely unfitted to being the sort of wife she is supposed to be, but when the battle begins and the bodies of the wounded and dead begin to arrive in the city she shows herself to be capable, loyal and in love, and wins the approval of her future sister-in-law, among others. Barbara is very different from Rilla in some ways; she’s socially and sexually more experienced, and is more deliberately frivolous than immature and heedless. Plus 1815 Brussels is far more close to the war than 1915 Prince Edward Island, and so Babs’ encounters with the effects of political conflict are a lot more physical and bloody. But there’s something so similar about these books; the ways in which the women are removed from the action and must piece together incomplete, delayed information, the way in which war work is shown to build or reveals character, even the ways in which the books stand in relation to the others in their respective series.
The popularity of Montgomery’s books can easily seem baffling (as Nicole Cliffe at The Toast has recently shown through extensive quotation, if real people talked like Anne Shirley the natural response would be to back away slowly). One of the reasons I still enjoy them is for the way in which they take people as they are, gently mocking rather than judging or reforming. And certainly Rilla is far less preachy than a number of books for children that expect moral perfection of their protagonists without even the excuse of a war. And yet.
In recent years I’ve read a number of critiques of media for children that focus on the importance of positive role models for girls. Heroines, women who are strong (morally or physically), the sort of women young girl readers can aspire to be.
But I think of Rilla Blythe and Lady Barbara, and I think of another wartime heroine, Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. In Atlanta during the Civil War, Scarlett too must do war work—and is thoroughly bored by it. There’s a lot that is wrong with Gone With the Wind (its racial politics are particularly obscene) but moments like this were genuinely important to my childhood reading. By the time I was reading relatively widely I was resigned to the fact that I probably did not have the basic nobility of character seen in your average protagonist of fiction. The books that mattered to me were the ones in which people were shallow, or cowardly, or petty, or easily bored, not so that they could bravely overcome these flaws by the end of the book, but because that was what people were. And so though I love Montgomery and Heyer, and find much of Gone With the Wind repulsive, and though Mitchell doesn’t entirely approve of her heroine (and who could?), it’s Scarlett for whom I’m grateful.