There is a stunning moment in L.M. Montgomery’s Rainbow Valley that continues to itch at my mind. I know that Anne of Green Gables is so filled with life and light that it is hard to ignore, and that Montgomery‘s Emily of New Moon is a new level of artistry and invention. But for substance and thoughtfulness, I continue to find myself returning to Montgomery’s WWI-haunted Four Winds trilogy, Anne’s House of Dreams (1917), Rainbow Valley (1919), and Rilla of Ingleside (1920).
In my first peer-reviewed paper on this trilogy, “Rainbow Valley as Embodied Heaven,” I include this pivotal scene of the book. The motherless children of Rev. John Meredith have been wandering around Glen St. Mary, creating scandal and suppressed laughter among the adults. Though the “Manse children” are well-meaning–even all their lusty songs, personal punishments, and handsprings in the Methodist cemetery–their father, bereaved and lost in dreamland, is in danger of being so heavenly bound that he is no earthly good. Besides shenanigans, this results in a good deal of childhood theology worked out by the Manse children.
While some of the Rainbow Valley theology is speculative–such as the question of whether heaven can be as grand as the streets of Charlottetown–there is stunning truth and fresh thought that tumbles out of the mouths of these babes. One of the moments at the centre of the vision that L.M. Montgomery is inviting is into, I believe, is when the aptly named Manse child, Faith, challenges a dour widow on the church porch by declaring that the
“world isn’t a vale of tears, Mrs. Taylor. It’s a world of laughter” (Rainbow Valley, 22).
I love that Montgomery privileges the child’s point of view in her work. A “vale of tears” is a much different view of life than a “world of laughter”–though there are still tears.
What I have never known, though, is whether Montgomery saw life also, in Keats’ words, as a “vale of soul-making.” I have gone some distance in suggesting that her writing invites this perspective, but I don’t know if Montgomery was able to let this worldview penetrate her own reality.
Keats’ idea of the world as a soul-making valley came to me by C.S. Lewis in his Problem of Pain (1940).
“If the world is indeed a ‘vale of soul making’ it seems on the whole to be doing it’s work” (The Problem of Pain, ch. 5).
Again, what a succinct truth–this time from the pen of an Oxford don and public intellectual rather than a Canadian novelist and minister’s wife. Not long before Lewis wrote this first work of Christian thought, he used the phrase in a letter to a friend, Leo Baker, during a period of his suffering. This 24 Jun 1936 letter is a miniature primer to The Problem of Pain, including an encouragement to endure the current suffering. In a 23 Apr 1942 letter to Martyn Skinner, Lewis suggests that his theodicy can only ever take the reader to the point of seeing life as space for soul-making–and thus give people an opportunity to respond to pain and suffering, more than to defend it before other people.
There is a kind of honesty to the vale-of-tears idea. “In hac lacrimarum valle” has a ring of truth to it, as we see in Psalm 85. Lewis’ first pseudonym for A Grief Observed, the memoir of the loss of his dear love, Joy Davidman, was Dimidius, a man cut in half. Lewis’ optimism about the soul-shaping frame of suffering is tempered in his memoir, though the potential remains the same–as does the realism of life’s difficulties. But Lewis’ fiction, like Montgomery’s, encourages us to stand against a “vale of tears” spirituality even in the struggles of life.
What of John Keats? While I don’t know of many better lyric poets than Keats, and I am richly blessed and elevated by his work, I cannot speak to his theology of life. In an 1819 letter to his siblings, where the quote originates, Keats reacts to vale-of-tears spirituality with some energy. You can see the full letter on Arend Smilde’s blog, but here is the relevant bit:
In how lamentable a case do we see the great body of the people (…) The whole appears to resolve into this – that man is originally “a poor forked creature” subject to the same mischances as the beasts of the forest, destined to hardships and disquietude of some kind or other. (…) The common cognomen of this world among the misguided and superstitious is “a vale of tears” from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven – What a little circumscribed straightened notion! Call the world if you please “the vale of soul-making”. Then you will find out the use of the world (see Smilde’s selection here, from The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins, vol. 2, 101-103).
I like that these three poets and writers use their pen to resist tear-valley theologies. And yet, we only begin to have a sense of what life as a “vale of soul-making” might be. I think that’s the adventure, the road that we set our foot upon.