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Interview with Jane Ledwell and Andrea McKenzie, editors of L.M. Montgomery and War

On the 27th of July, Jane Ledwell and Andrea McKenzie sat down with me to discuss their incredible new collection, L.M. Montgomery and War. In this interview Ledwell and McKenzie discuss what they hoped to achieve with this collection and the collaboration process.

Melanie Fishbane (MF): What was your intention on putting this collection together, and how did it change or evolve during the process?

Jane Ledwell (JL): I think the intention was to capture some of the spirit and range of the presentations from the L.M. Montgomery and War conference in 2014, which had given a glimpse into L.M. Montgomery’s world, and her engagement with war throughout her lifetime. But beyond that, to establish Montgomery’s place as one of the most important war writers in Canadian history; beyond Rilla and beyond the Great War. And, acknowledge the four conflicts that she had a connection to in her lifetime, and how that wove through her writings from her life writing, poetry, and fiction.

Andrea McKenzie (AM): We have ten very strong essays that showed the complexity of Montgomery’s thoughts and writing about the war. So, I think the intention was accomplished. I really hope people will see the importance of Montgomery as a war writer. She is one of the few writers from the time whose war writing is still in print today.

MF: What were some of the obstacles of putting together this collection, if any?

JL: We did have the advantage of working with authors who were both excellent and willing to respond to questions and editorial suggestions, and also asked good questions about the shape of the volume, which made everything quite smooth.

What I like best about working on essays for the Montgomery community is that it encourages really good academic writing that is accessible to enthusiasts and to the most particular scholars. It is an editorial challenge, but one that makes for better writing and makes for better books. At the same time, there is a high expectation in the community that a book is readable and engaging and people—who know a great deal—will learn something new.

MF: In your introduction, you discuss the shifts in Montgomery’s ideas about war. What do you think will surprise readers the most, and what surprised you?

AM: I think one of the surprises is that Montgomery experienced conflict so early in her life. Because her father was a volunteer soldier during the Northwest Resistance in 1885 when she was only 11 years old, Montgomery experienced the suspense of not knowing if her father was alive and well, injured, or even killed. Because Prince Albert was blocked off, she didn’t hear from him for a number of months. She recalled this in her journal during the early months of the First World War. I think entering into the experience of another conflict brought up that memory.

But, I do think the shift in perspective she went through across her lifetime may be surprising for readers. She experienced war as a child, then saw the South African War (popularly known as the Boer War) very differently. She was in her twenties when that war began in 1899, and she saw war as exciting and glamorous. (You see the same thing with Vera Brittain at the beginning of the First World War.) The Boer War was far away and nobody Montgomery knew was involved. When she met soldiers who had been in South Africa, she invested them with an air of glamour and romance, even when she found their conversation boring. By the time the First World War occurred, she was mature enough to recognize war’s horrors and the pain that grief and loss would cause. And finally, The Blythes Are Quoted shows a definite shift in Montgomery’s thinking about war. At the end of that book, she appears to undercut the myths of sacrifice in wartime, yet she paradoxically recognizes that those myths are necessary for Hitler to be defeated.

JL: What surprised me most, as ever in Montgomery’s writing, is the interplay of fiction and life, and how brilliant she is at selecting from what she knows to present a vision of the world. Because the volume includes historical reflections, as well as reflections on the fiction, we get to see that interplay in really intimate ways. Whether it’s what she would have been learning in her education about war and what images were there about war in the literature she read as a student, such as in the chapter by Holly Pike, or how the myths and tropes of war appear in her poetry, as explained in an essay by Susan Fisher – all the way to the complex world she created that elides war completely. In the Emily books, even though the timeline of Emily’s life span is during the war, Betsy Epperly’s brilliant reflection shows why it isn’t there and what that means. And, of course, Andrea’s own contribution to the book looks at the visual imagery on covers of Rilla and comments on what gender stereotypes and images of war are – or aren’t – there. Caroline Jones talks about grief in real life and fiction seamlessly, because of course Montgomery’s depiction of grief is so recognizable. And Sarah Glassford looks at the specific selections Montgomery made of what kind of women’s war work is represented in Rilla of Ingleside, which seems so documentary, and is still deliberate and selective at every moment. So, seeing that interplay of history and fiction is really fascinating to me.

AM:  Yes, as a historian who also analyzes literature, I found that play of life experience mingled with fiction fascinating, too. And I found Jonathan Vance’s essay especially interesting, because he looks at the specifics of Montgomery’s local war, then broadens the canvas to argue that her work has lasted in part because, unlike many other war writers, she used that local experience. It grounds her work in authenticity - in her own experience and emotions.

I also appreciated the contrast in the writers’ essays. For instance, Vance gives us minute details about Montgomery’s local war, while Maureen Gallagher finds many commonalities between Montgomery’s Rilla and German war writer Else Ury’s heroine. Both these authors depicted specific gender roles for their heroines, then subtly undercut both gender and nationalism in their works. And Laura Robinson’s essay extends our reading of Montgomery’s gender definitions by exploring their ambiguity, then sheds new light on women’s domestic work in wartime and peacetime through a delicious analysis of two marriage proposals.

The world of art is also so illuminating. Montgomery is a writer, Mary Riter Hamilton is a Canadian painter, and Irene Gammel’s essay explores the two worlds of artists and writers intertwined with the war. Irene’s essay is fascinating in mapping how these two women commemorate war, though I won’t spoil the surprise for readers.

MF: Why do you think that people don’t see Montgomery’s influence in other fields, such as war, gender studies? And, how do you think it has changed—if it has?   

AM: My first response is always going to be because when Montgomery started publishing she was perceived as a writer whom anyone could read, from the prime minister of Britain to Mark Twain, from children to adults. At some point, probably around the emergence of modernism, she was re-categorized as a children’s writer. I also think it has to do with the First World War and with Rilla. Canada’s national myth about the war is still about the men who went over the top at Vimy Ridge, all the Canadian units together—a male-oriented, battle-centred myth. At the time, women were not supposed to be writing about war - only soldiers’ stories were accepted as legitimate. The stronger the battle myth, the less a part women are “allowed” to play. Categorizing Montgomery’s Rilla as a “juvenile” work downplays women’s role in the war. Recently, Jane Urquhart and Frances Itani have written women-centred novels about the First World War, but Montgomery is still mostly ignored as a war writer.

JL: I blame the patriarchy.  smiley

MF: How did you approach collaborating on this collection? And how did you use each other’s specialty to develop a consistent voice in the introduction?

JL: I defer to Andrea on all matters of content. She has more knowledge of the scholarship and certainly historical writing. Really, I see my role as contributing to the readability, contributing to making the writing as accomplished as it can be. And, then for writing the introduction, I let Andrea do all the heavy lifting.

AM: No…she did not.

JL: I liked appreciating and summing up what inspired: me with the essays, and how they connected with each other. All the historical stuff, the smart stuff, the stuff for the footnotes, goes to Andrea.

AM: While I hate to contradict Jane, I deny that she didn’t do any of the heavy lifting. It has been a wonderful collaboration, it really has. I think the reason this collaboration worked so well is because my strength is for the historical, although I do have a background in English literature, but Jane has the sensitivity to read and draw the authors out on points of content and clarity. Of course, she gently and diplomatically worked at getting clarity that impacts the idea the author is trying to express. She is superb at it. My part was easy.

MF: What do you hope that this collection will contribute to L.M. Montgomery and/or war and/or Canadian Studies? 

AM: I hope it reclaims Montgomery, restoring her to her rightful place as one of the foremost Canadian and international war writers. She deserves a place there because she has inspired other writers, as we know.

JL: I hope it bring people back Montgomery’s writing, to read the complete journals, Rilla, and The Blythes Are Quoted. To read the books that are mentioned in the collection and to come back to Montgomery with new enthusiasm.

AM: And I also hope that people will think about what Montgomery said about war and how she wrote about war. We face many of the same problems and issues today, as the world continues to experience global conflict.