Canadian author L. M. Montgomery is best known for her Anne series, which commenced with Anne of Green Gables and finished with Rilla of Ingleside. The first seven books in the series are basically domestic ‘coming of age’ end in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and ending before WW1. The last book, Rilla of Ingleside, is more of a war story, as told from the viewpoints of the women left behind as their young menfolk go off to war.
Even though the main protagonists of these books were Anne and her family and friends, the stand-out feminist character in Rilla of Ingleside is Susan Baker, the family’s cook and housekeeper, though she is not treated as a domestic and is considered by Anne & Rilla to be more of a senior family member. Susan is in her early sixties, which makes her an unusual choice for a secondary character in book written for Young Adults. She has a few scenes when she is the comedy relief, but she is the representative of all the older women who threw themselves into supporting their soldiers and their countries while the war was fought.
Dear old Susan! She is a perfect dynamo of patriotism and loyalty and contempt for slackers of all kinds, and when she let it loose on that audience in her one grand outburst she electrified it. Susan always vows she is no suffragette, but she gave womanhood its due that night, and she literally made those men cringe. When she finished with them they were ready to eat out of her hand. She wound up by ordering them–yes, ordering them–to march up to the platform forthwith and subscribe for Victory Bonds.
Montgomery was able to support herself comfortably with her writing, and she avoided accepting marriage proposals for the first part of her adult life. It wasn’t until the release of Anne of Green Gables cemented her success as an author did she eventually marry. Because her novels always feature strong female characters of all ages, we can assume she had suffragist leanings.
All the women ‘who have got de age’–to quote Jo Poirier, and who have husbands, sons, and brothers at the front, can vote. Oh, if I were only twenty-one! Gertrude and Susan are both furious because they can’t vote.
‘It is not fair,’ Gertrude says passionately. ‘There is Agnes Carr who can vote because her husband went. She did everything she could to prevent him from going, and now she is going to vote against the Union Government. Yet I have no vote, because my man at the front is only my sweetheart and not my husband!”
As for Susan, when she reflects that she cannot vote, while a rank old pacifist like Mr. Pryor can–and will–her comments are sulphurous.
Susan Baker is the classic Victorian woman coming to terms with new social structures that were emerging at the start of the Twentieth Century. She was the ‘voice’ of the mature single woman, to contrast with the married mother, Anne, and the teenager, Rilla. From a Steampunk feminist’s perspective, Susan exemplifies how a sensible woman would manage to remain both respectable and support the rights of women. It is not just the young who feel passionately and deeply about their beliefs.