In Defense of Pat Gardiner, Everyone’s Least Favorite L.M. Montgomery Heroine -The Toast

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silverbushIf you like your heroines pluck-filled and resourceful, it’s easy to enjoy just about all of L.M. Montgomery’s protagonists. Her most famous character, Anne Shirley, is charming and creative, at least until Anne’s six mediocre children hijack her personality and presumably bury it under some moon-kissed elfin rock in Rainbow Valley, where it remains for the rest of the series. Emily Byrd Starr writes with too many italics, has bursts of psychic power, and defends her self-worth when others attempt to demean her. Valancy Stirling tells off her emotionally abusive family to their shocked faces and begins a new life on her own, entering the workforce in outrageously low-cut dresses. Jane Stuart refuses to be “Janied” by saccharine relatives and arranges the adoption of her orphaned best friend into a nontraditional family. Even Kilmeny Gordon and Marigold Lesley, the Montgomery equivalents of Michael Keaton’s fourth clone in Multiplicity, are more or less inoffensive in their plodding imitations of earlier and better characters.

And then there’s Patricia Gardiner, the protagonist of Pat of Silver Bush (1933) and its sequel, Mistress Pat (1935). Pat occupies her own category. While Montgomery’s other heroines are defined by their imaginations, their talents, and their eager interactions with others, Pat’s defined by what she doesn’t do: just about everything. Unlike the orphaned Anne and Emily, Pat lives with her immediate family, one of the very few Montgomery heroines whose two parents are both alive, together, and consistently present in her life. Pat loves her unchanging place in the Gardiner family’s farmhouse, Silver Bush, to the exclusion of absolutely everything else, spending two books, several hundred pages, and more than thirty years choking on a glut of home comforts.

Readers familiar with Montgomery’s fiction know that homemaking is typically rewarding for her books’ characters. The process of creating and preserving a homespace often generates a sense of emotional intimacy and pleasure. That’s not the case in the Pat series, which implicitly suggests that domesticity can become a self-inflicting weapon. Anne adores Green Gables, Emily worships New Moon, but Pat’s devotion to Silver Bush is a relentless obsession, manifesting in a constant hum of anxiety that shudders throughout both books. The prospect of any change that threatens the unremitting sameness of her home life becomes terrifying.

Pat is Cathy from Flowers in the Attic, if Cathy wanted to stay in the attic for the rest of her life and the sibling incest was only vaguely subtextual. Pat is a compliant Bertha Mason Rochester, putting out fires and begging her husband to lock the door behind him. Pat is the warning story told late at night by Hufflepuff first-year students whispering between their beds.

There’s an endlessly replicating pattern to the Pat books. An event occurs or someone suggests the possibility of an event; Pat responds with horror and denial at the idea of the event, because “change [is] terrible”; Pat resentfully accepts that change is not a filthy fiction invented by modernists while still agonizing over the cruelty of time and physics; repeat several dozen times over the course of thirty years. Birth, marriage, death, and her father’s shaved mustache—he has to promise he’ll regrow it before she’ll stop crying—receive the exact same injured response. Whether happy, sad, or neutral, all incidents either inspire Pat’s change-related anxiety, prompt her to cling to her home, or both, so that the pull of Silver Bush and sameness grow stronger as she ages. Even innocuous comments expose fear: “And here was [a portrait of] Aunt Honor as a baby. Looking like [Pat’s infant sister] Cuddles! Oh, would Cuddles ever look like Aunt Honor? It was unthinkable. How terribly people changed!” A typical Pat moment alchemizes a sentimental observation into despair.

The death of Pat’s blandly virtuous friend, Bets, who contracts a fatal plot device towards the end of the first novel, reaffirms Pat’s total dependence on her life’s sole constant: “Silver Bush was all her comfort now. Her love for it seemed the only solid thing under her feet.” While Pat’s grief is believable and understandable, she responds to death not as other Montgomery characters do, by reevaluating her beliefs, commitments, and goals. Instead she turns inward, both literally and figuratively, into herself and inside her home, so that the house and the person become indistinguishable. Silver Bush, Pat informs her patronizing cousins, would “hate you if you changed it.” Of course, it’s Pat who threatens hate, not the house, but for Pat the two are one and the same.

Often viewed by Montgomery scholars (the few who acknowledge she exists) and readers (ditto) as an unsuccessful heroine, Pat’s qualities typically don’t captivate us in the same way Anne, Emily, Valancy et al. often do. But while Pat’s neuroses and anxieties aren’t particularly easy to like, her likability or lack thereof isn’t what sets her apart from Montgomery’s other heroines: it’s her inability to act. Pat is almost entirely passive. Her interactions with other characters are defined by response rather than initiation.

One of the most appealing aspects of Montgomery’s fiction is that her protagonists are typically active and agential, whether in enjoyable ways or frustrating ones. Anne starts an improvement society, gets her best friend drunk, and non-consensually attempts to inflict figurative language on everyone around her. Emily solves multiple missing persons cases and pursues a disturbing relationship with a man her father’s age. Pat, on the other hand, is completely lacking any desire to act, since doing something, anything, would require her to recognize the inevitability of change. She isn’t active. She’s not strong—not in the sense that we typically understand and apply that term to female characters.

But Pat doesn’t need to be active or strong in order to be compelling. Ultimately, it’s her less appealing qualities that show us why she’s important. Among a crowd of Montgomery protagonists known for their prolixity, Pat’s unsettling and undefined anxiety gestures towards the power of the unspeakable.

Pat’s intense responses are somewhat more understandable in light of her creator’s own experiences with severe emotional pain. In a journal entry written prior to the publication of Silver Bush, Montgomery notes that while Emily and Anne were important to her, “I really put more of myself into Pat than into any of my other heroines” (italics hers). This confession is somewhat surprising, given the wide gap between Pat’s characterization and the optimistic confidence Montgomery’s readers typically associate with her writing. However, as her journals reveal, the latter years of Montgomery’s life were marked by mental illness: persistent clinical depression and anxiety that escalated in response to devastating personal tragedies. In 1942, less than a decade after the publication of Mistress Pat, she committed suicide, leaving behind a heartbreaking note on the bedside table. “May God forgive me and I hope everyone else can forgive me even if they do not understand,” she wrote, the cramped handwriting badly slanted in stuttering ink. “My position is too awful to endure and nobody realizes it.” Her language here and in other late journal entries mirror Pat’s unremitting despair, expressed in equally vague and imprecise terms: “She simply couldn’t bear it. Everything gone! Who could bear it?”

We’re not given an explanation for Pat’s anxiety, unhappiness, or passivity. We’re never told why Pat hates change so much, or why she needs to cling to Silver Bush to the exclusion of all other life experiences, or why she refuses to act. We’re never provided with an attempt at a solution. Instead, her hopelessness threads through chapters without source or justification, with no tragic backstory or trauma. Pat’s just Pat. The ultimate absence of explanation for her pain may be frustrating, but it accurately mirrors the objectless way depression often manifests, an experience with which Montgomery was deeply acquainted. Pat’s imprecise anguish is a reminder that even in the hands of a gifted writer, the felt experiences of depression and anxiety must escape the restrictive economy of language. Yes, she’s arguably less appealing and engaging than Anne, Emily, or Valancy in a number of ways. Unlike these characters, however, who rely on language to communicate and move in the world, Pat’s defined by the eloquence of her silence: the realistically vague blur of undefined emotional agony.

The Pat novels are thick with this muteness. Like Jane Eyre, like Flowers in the Attic, like many other Gothic domestic novels that portray the home as haunted by the unspeakable, Pat of Silver Bush and Mistress Pat suggest that Silver Bush is haunted, too, a place where something walks that Pat can’t acknowledge or name. The home space in these novels becomes horrifying, something achieved simultaneously through Pat’s uncritical fixation on Silver Bush and our growing understanding as readers that her attachment is not healthy. Nowhere is this clearer than in Pat’s fever delirium towards the end of Silver Bush, a nightmarish segment that herds all of her anxieties into unforgiving imagery:

The cracks in the ceiling wouldn’t stay in place but crawled all over. She was on a lonely road, where the dark was waiting to pounce on her [. . .] She heard [her brother] Joe’s whistle but could never see Joe. Somebody had changed all the furniture in Silver Bush and Pat was vainly trying to get it back in place. [. . .] Faces were looking in at the window…pressed against the pane…or leering in a row along the footboard of the bed like the Bay Shore ghost. Hideous faces, cruel, crafty, terrifying faces. […] Time was running by her like the dark river of the hymn. She couldn’t catch up with it. If we stopped all the clocks couldn’t we stop time, Judy? Please!

This passage, which reads more like Shirley Jackson than Anne Shirley, is flooded with horrifying images. The language brings to life what’s lifeless (“crawling,” “running”), blurs the boundaries between exterior and interior, and suggests the homespace is already breached, intruded, threatened by a terror that Pat can’t wholly identify, except to call it time. Throughout both novels, time is Pat’s primary antagonist, her anointed enemy, the only way she can articulate her terror; and yet time, we know, is inevitably going to defeat Pat’s desire for sameness. Things have to change.

mistresspatBut do they? At the end of the second book, Mistress Pat, Silver Bush burns down, destroyed in a sudden fire of suspiciously vague origins. Given what’s come before, Silver Bush’s total destruction is likely the only way Pat—now in her thirties—would ever leave behind her childhood home. The book’s conclusion, however, is much more ambiguous about the possibilities of real departure or change. In a reunion at the Gardiner family graveyard, Pat’s childhood friend Hilary, now an architect, reveals that he’s built a new house for the two of them, “painted white [with] bottlegreen shutters like Silver Bush.” Pat eagerly accepts his marriage proposal. “In a trance of happiness,” they gaze at the tombstone of Silver Bush’s beloved housekeeper Judy, recently dead. Wind sways “the long hair-like grass growing around the slab on Judy’s grave, giving the curious suggestion of something prisoned under it trying to draw a long breath and float upward.” Montgomery closes the book with a final sentence that personifies the graveyard, which listens to “the low yielding laugh of a girl held prisoner by her lover.”

In some ways, this final chapter aims at providing a happy ending for an unhappy character. Ultimately, though, it’s even more horrifying than what’s come before: we’re reading about a trapped corpse and a passive “girl held prisoner” in the aftermath of the revelation that Hilary’s created Silver Bush 2.0. (I have a theory that Hilary, who “hate[s]” Silver Bush and thinks of it as “the only rival [for Pat] he fear[s],” burns down the house himself because he knows he’ll never comes first with Pat otherwise.) Despite the pretense at a new beginning, reaction, imprisonment, and sameness are still what’s emphasized here. Hilary acts, and Pat accepts, shrouding herself in what’s familiar. If we stopped all the clocks couldn’t we stop time, Judy? Please?

In another one of Montgomery’s series, a dying mentor offers writing advice to his former student, an aspiring author. “Don’t–tell the world–everything,” he falters. “That’s what’s the–matter with our–literature.” No one could accuse Pat of Silver Bush and Mistress Pat of telling the world everything. Instead, Montgomery’s characterization and prose uncomfortably elide what festers between her words: the ideas that resist articulation, the fears that come through the walls, the silent narratives that shape our lives. Here is a girl who will always be home, and a woman who will always be home, and the clocks are stopped, and the cracks are crawling.

Kate Slater is an assistant professor of English at Rowan University, where she teaches and researches children's and young adult literature. Her favorite Pat is played by Julia Sweeney.

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