Kilmeny of the Orchard

- Lucy Maud Montgomery

Goodreads Book Blurb:

Eric Marshall, recent college graduate, has the world at his feet. He’s handsome, popular, wealthy, and surprisingly, single. Living the bachelor lifestyle with his widowed father, he’s never given much thought to romance. When an old school friend asks Eric to substitute teach for him on Prince Edward Island while he recuperates from an illness, Eric thinks, why not? He’s got some time to kill before diving into the family business with his father, and the rustic island may be a good diversion for him.

Eric falls into the easy routine of island life, and his status as eligible bachelor endears him to the locals. Eric is still not thinking of romance, but he’s about to find it in a most unexpected place…

Kilmeny Gordon is sweet and smart and beautiful, perfect in every way but one: she can’t speak. She’s been sheltered all her life due to her disability and the scandal surrounding her birth. She wiles away her hours helping her aunt and uncle on the farm and playing her violin in her favorite secluded spot. When Eric stumbles into her hidden orchard, he brings a whole new world with him, and a friendship that both frightens her and thrills her. As the summer days grow longer and their friendship blossoms, sweet, silent Kilmeny, with her sunny enthusiasm and haunting music, manages to do what neither the co-eds of Queenslea College nor the village lasses of Lindsay have been able to do—capture Eric’s heart.

But Kilmeny knows he’ll soon have to go back to his life on the mainland, a world of business meetings and parties and prejudicial people—a world in which she’ll hold him back and never fit in. None of that matters to Eric, but how can he get her to accept that she’s the only woman he’ll ever love, when she is convinced that the only way to love him is to let him go?


My Review:

not my cup of tea:

It was an elusive, haunting melody, strangely suited to the time and place; it had in it the sigh of the wind in the woods, the eerie whispering of the grasses at dewfall, the white thoughts of the June lilies, the rejoicing of the apple blossoms; all the soul of all the old laughter and song and tears and gladness and sobs the orchard had ever known in the lost years; and besides all this, there was in it a pitiful, plaintive cry as of some imprisoned thing calling for freedom and utterance.

Montgomery is a beautiful writer. Her prose evokes vivid imagery of idyllic maritime Canada, particularly Prince Edward Island. Her characters are bright and full of purpose and I have always loved her larger than life Anne, Valancy, and Emily (Anne of Green Gables, The Blue Castle, and Emily of New Moon, respectively). Their magic is weaved throughout my childhood and adolescence with multiple rereads and memories which allow for a pure nostalgia hit whenever I revisit them now. She has always made me wish I was more creative, closer to nature, more ambitious, and a better, kinder person in general.

Unfortunately, I won’t be adding Kilmeny, or Eric, to my list of favourite Montgomery protagonists. I am hoping that my unease is caused by the passage of time, but I can’t claim to know what PEI, Canada, or the world, was like in 1910 (when this book was published). Kilmeny of the Orchard is a quick, easy novella to read. I found it impossible to not get caught up in Montgomery’s narrative about a sweet love story between a sheltered, disabled young woman and the “perfect” man. I wanted to give in and appreciate that Eric saw past Kilmeny’s disability and fought to bring her out into the world and into his life. However, I just couldn’t disregard the blatant racism and sexism that ran rampant as the story continued.

Starting innocently, the story ran along for a time before introducing a new character. The initial description of Neil when Eric passes him on the road is a little strange, focusing on his feminine beauty and Italian heritage, but not overtly racist. I don’t know the Italian population in rural PEI in the early 1900s. Maybe the unusual description is due to a small or non-existent demographic in the area? Moving on, I’m swept back up in the story. But as Eric and Kilmeny become closer, the comments about Neil become more insistent, more volatile, increasingly aggressive. The excuse given for his changing temperament: his Italian nature which had been dormant until now was beginning to expose itself. There are actual comments from the family who took him in suggesting that they made him feel ‘too much like part of the family’ and they ‘should’ve known better.’ This came entirely out of left field for me. Sure, Montgomery has villains in her stories, but they’re not usually penned as villainous solely because of their ethnicity. Leading up to the climax of his uncontrollable Italian rage and violent nature, the increasingly flagrant comments become more insistent and play a central role in the story.

Similarly, the sexism here started small. Eric’s comments about dating, marriage, and love could be construed as naive and almost sweet. His, older, friend David and his father are more jaded and their comments aren’t quite as easy to pass over, but I remind myself it’s 1910. Of course love and romance are possible, but marriage is an expected norm, especially for a young man who has just completed his studies and happens to be an only child planning to take over the family business. And yes, Kilmeny is described as incredibly beautiful, but it’s her unexpected appearance and violin skill that first draws Eric to her. However, the comments about her beauty become overpowering as a description of her character. By the end, when Eric tells others of his love for Kilmeny and his (I’m not considering this a spoiler, it’s basically in the book description) desire to marry her, they express surprise that this usually pragmatic young man has succumbed to a mysterious spell, or curse, to spend his life with mute stranger. His response? “Wait until you meet her.” Is it her musical talent, her charming personality, her loving family that will convince Eric’s friends and family that he hasn’t been hoodwinked? Perhaps her excellent housekeeping skills, good genes, and family money are the reason a man in the early twentieth century has decided to suddenly settle down. Clearly we’re not reading the same book and you haven’t been paying attention to the rest of my review. Kilmeny is young, beautiful, and untouched by another man. What other skills or attributes would one desire in a bride? I suppose this could be construed as a spoiler, but the most aggravating for me was when…

… Kilmeny had finally found her voice, thanks to the violent actions of the evil Italian forcing her to overcome her mental block to prevent his attempt on Eric’s life (so villainous and helpless against the savage nature of his ethnicity, Neil immediately… runs away never to be heard from again). Eric’s father comes to the Island to try to speak sense to his son, convinced by their mutual friend David that he will understand in the end. Eric once again drops the “wait until you meet her” and his father agrees to go along. They meet her family, who are my favourite characters in the book, and off to the orchard they trek to meet Kilmeny. Surely, now that she can speak, her charming personality and unique perspective will quickly win over Eric’s father, a man whose overwhelming love for his departed wife has shaped Eric’s views on love and marriage so formidably. Try again. Girl barely gets a word out before Eric’s father is falling over himself to welcome her into the family, overcome by her beauty alone in the orchard …

… Talk about anticlimactic.

By now, my review is almost as long as the book. I suppose if you’re looking for a TL;DR: Kilmeny of the Orchard is a novella published in the early 1900s about an unexpected romance between a sensible young man with a promising future and a sheltered, mute girl in a remote community. Time has not been kind to the themes and characters, creating a blatantly racist and sexist narrative with little redemption. Not Montgomery’s best offering and one that could, and probably should, be forgotten to history.

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