How precious are Your thoughts to me, O LORD ... how vast is the sum of them!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Patricia Gardiner: Montgomery's Forgotten Heroine

Maybe Pat isn’t completely forgotten, but she is certainly on fewer bookcases than the other fictional young women Prince Edward Island is known for—Anne Shirley, Emily Starr, and Sara Stanley.

I read her story this August in Pat of Silver Bush and Mistress Pat. Like the other heroines, we meet Pat Gardiner as a precocious little girl and watch her come into her own as a strong young woman. She has imagination and a deep, poetic love for beauty. Her world is peopled with idiosyncratic relatives, friends, love interests, and characters from Judy Plum’s stories (more on that later!).

But she’s different from the other heroines in a myriad of ways. She has a complete family, with a surviving father, mother, and four siblings. She lives in one place throughout the course of her story—Silver Bush, the old family home passed down from Gardiner to Gardiner since the last century. She’s intelligent, but not in a scholarly way; she’s not ambitious and prefers to excel in domestic wizardry. Mathematics is actually her thing, although she’s good in English, too. Though she’s not supposed to be as beautiful as Anne and Emily, she’s a sweet and eligible young lady, so countless men fall at her feet. But she refuses them all because she doesn’t want to leave her beloved Silver Bush.

It’s entertaining to see a nuclear family in Montgomery’s hands, but actually we barely get to know Pat’s parents and older siblings, Joe, Winnie, and Sid. Her relationship with Sid, who’s one year older, is important to the story, but we don’t become all that familiar with him, just with what he means to Pat. However, little sister Rachel, aka Cuddles, develops beautifully in Mistress Pat as a vivacious lead character.

The other star of the show is Judy Plum, a charismatic character with the unforgettability of Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert and Rachel Lynde. She’s the Gardiners’ servant, but far, far more than that, she’s part of their family. Silver Bush could not do without her. On any given day, she tells dozens of stories about people near and far: funny gossip, tall tales, ghost stories, and family anecdotes. She keeps the house running with her old-world wisdom (she’s Irish), constant labor, and fiercely loyal and loving heart. Pat has the enviable distinction of being her favorite.

More than any of the other houses in Montgomery’s titles, Silver Bush factors heavily in the lead heroine’s story. As I mentioned earlier, Pat will not leave her home. When she’s a child, her clinging loyalty is a little hard for me to understand, but as she grows older and takes part in running it, my heart, too, becomes knit to Silver Bush through seeing her devotion. It’s a delightful place, old and full of personality, set in a wood of silver birches and a wild garden. It’s full of heirlooms and history and even has a family graveyard. Everyone who comes to Silver Bush loves it, even the despicable Binnie family in their own twisted way. Charming, old-fashioned hospitality is a matter of honor with Judy Plum, Pat, and her mother. The 1920s and 30s are roaring by, so this is becoming rarer.

Pat hates change, whether it’s in her family or her home. As a child, she gets legitimately ill at the prospect of moving away from Silver Bush. Although I’m not as averse to change as Pat, I do tend to like things to stay the same and am overly fond of my childhood and even the past that proceeds my birth. So I can identify with some of her longings and fears. The climax of Mistress Pat spoke to me more powerfully than any of Montgomery’s other novels, because I need the same life lesson as Pat. 

The hero of the story is Hilary Gordon, aka, Jingle. He’s even more charming than Gilbert Blythe and Teddy Kent, in my opinion. When he appears on the scene as a ragged little boy who becomes one of Pat’s two childhood friends, the story in Pat of Silver Bush instantly gains intrigue. He’s devoted to Pat, his relationship with his mother will make you cry, and his determination to pursue his architect dreams is inspiring.

In one sense, Pat’s books are slower moving than Anne’s and Emily’s. Not as many exciting things happen, because Pat herself doesn’t seek change. (But they’re interesting because they are so different than a conventional story that proceeds crisis to crisis.) And yet the years bring inevitable change, and the two volumes cover many years quickly.

You’ll certainly feel an autumnal atmosphere in Pat’s story, through the theme of change and nostalgia; through Pat’s character—her favorite season is autumn, and her coloring is like autumn; and through the important events that happen in this season. You might even sense it woven in the writing itself…Montgomery seems more melancholy and mature. She wrote these books less than ten years before her death.

To conclude, here are a few quotes to give you a taste of these books:

“Aren’t you glad our birthday is in September? I think it is one of the nicest things that ever happened to me because September is my favourite month in the year. It’s such a friendly month and it seems as if the year had stopped being in a hurry and had time to think about you.” (Pat to her friend Bets in Pat of Silver Bush)

“‘Pat of Silver Bush,’” said Pat happily. It was beautiful to have home and love and family ties. Bold-and-bad, the kitten of the summer, came flying across the yard to her. Pat picked him up and squeezed some purrs out of him. No matter what dreadful things happened at least there were still cats in the world.” (Pat of Silver Bush)

“Pat took stock of things. She was at peace. Her whole world had been temporarily wrecked…ruined…turned upside down, but nothing had really changed in Silver Bush. There was no longer anything to come between her and it…never would be again. She was through with love and all its counterfeits. Henceforth Silver Bush would have no rival in her heart. She could live for it alone. There might be some hours of loneliness. But there was something wonderful even in loneliness. At least you belonged to yourself when you were lonely.” (Mistress Pat)

Have you read or heard of the Pat books? What did you think?