My Lucy Maud Montgomery reading project has continued into the fall, and I am close to the end of it, with only one book left to go (out of all the LMM novels & short story collections available to me though my local public library system). One of the most interesting parts of this endeavour, to me, is encountering LMM’s lesser-known heroines, and seeing how they compare and contrast with her most famous protagonist, Anne Shirley (later Blythe). I briefly touched on Emily Starr and her trilogy in my reading round-up post for August; here are four more I have encountered this month.
Valancy Stirling, of The Blue Castle, has shot straight to the top of my list of favourite Montgomery heroines, and the book she comes from may also be my favourite so far. We first meet Valancy as a single 29-year-old (a hopeless old maid, to be sure) who lives with her overbearing mother and horrible elderly cousin. Valancy is completely browbeaten, not just by those two women, but by the entirety of her large and close-knit clan. When she receives news that she has less than a year to live due to a heart condition, however, Valancy decides to start living life on her terms. She begins to say exactly what she’s thinking to her family, and leaves the family home (!) to go into service (!!) as companion to an old schoolmate of hers, a Fallen Woman (!!!) who lives with her perpetually drunk father (!!!!) and is dying of consumption. As her family schemes to get her back home, believing her to have quite literally taken leave of her senses, Valancy finds herself and, of course, love — as is surely required to cap off the book in a satisfying manner.
The Blue Castle is a romantic comedy of the finest degree, and I would compare it favourably with novels by Jane Austen. Since it is a romantic comedy I don’t think I’m giving much away by revealing that Valancy does not die at the end of her year — but the reason for that, and its consequences, I will leave for you to find out on your own. This is also the only Montgomery novel that takes place entirely off Prince Edward Island. It’s set the Muskoka region of Ontario, and Valancy’s hometown is a lightly-disguised Bala. That gave it a little extra something for me, since I have never seen the famous red roads of PEI, but do know a little something about this part of Ontario, where my childhood summer camp is located. If for no other reason, I’m glad to have taken on this reading project because it brought me The Blue Castle.
Jane Victoria Stuart, called Victoria by her family but Jane by her self, is the young protagonist of Jane of Lantern Hill, a novel set half in Toronto and half on the Island. Young Jane lives with her mother in a shabby-genteel neighbourhood in Toronto, both equally under the thumb of her extremely strict and overbearing grandmother. Jane is domestically inclined, but is not allowed to do anything in the house by her grandmother; although she is being educated at an expensive girls’ school, her only friend is Jody, the orphaned servant who lives and works in the boarding house next door. Naturally, her grandmother disapproves of this friendship as well as of most other things that would bring Jane joy.
Jane’s world is turned upside-down when her father, whom she thought was dead, sends a letter to her mother asking her to send him Jane for a summer on PEI. Her parents, as it turns out, were only separated; Jane is summarily packed off to meet this unknown father. She lands in a world completely unlike that which she inhabited in Toronto, and is delighted to be trusted to keep house for her father — cooking, cleaning, and arranging to her heart’s delight — and to make friends without anyone being concerned whether her connections are “low”. It is a sweet story, and it was a pleasure to watch Jane blossom through her summers in PEI and learn to stand up to her grandmother. And of course, there is the requisite happy ending. All in all this was a satisfying read, and if Jane is occasionally a bit unbelievable in her domestic giftedness and enthusiasm, she makes up for it in other ways.
Marigold Lesley is the young protagonist of Magic for Marigold — very young indeed, as the novel opens when she is just four months old. I just read, when looking the book up online, that it is an expansion of four short stories. This explains some things about the structure: the novel makes large jumps in Marigold’s age between sections, which makes sense if those sections were originally stories in their own right. Marigold lives in a large, multi-generational home with her mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and various aunts, uncles, and domestic help. It’s more episodic than other books with a more overarching narrative, but the episodes (sections? vignettes?) provide a perfect blend of ridiculous (see: the family council called in order to name Marigold), touching (see: Marigold and Old Grandmother in the garden on the latter’s last night on earth), and funny (see: a terribly mischievous playmate who — so she says — is really a Russian princess). Magic for Marigold is a charming book.
Incidentally, Magic for Marigold makes me wonder if I have stumbled upon one of the reasons that a lot of these books by Lucy Maud Montgomery are so poorly known compared to the Anne series (besides the fact that Anne of Green Gables was published first and to great acclaim, giving it a natural edge on the competition). Her stories have aged very well, but I don’t think that her titles have all done the same. When I picked this book up from the library I had no idea what it would be about, but judging from the title alone I was expecting something, well, rather dumb. The Pat books (below) suffer from the same sort of thing, especially Mistress Pat. And in fact, even some of the Anne books have titles that don’t really recommend them (Anne’s House of Dreams leaps immediately to mind) — only those probably get an automatic pass since they are part of a very well-known series. There’s nothing in the title Magic for Marigold to make me think “yes, I want to read that” — which is a pity.
Patricia Gardiner, of Pat of Silver Bush and Mistress Pat, is the protagonist I had the hardest time liking — though I should qualify that by saying that I enjoyed her well enough in Pat of Silver Bush. It’s only in Mistress Pat that I began to find her… well, in all honesty, I found her unbearably tedious and by the time I was halfway through I was sorely tempted to just put the book down and walk away. I didn’t; I finished it, but the last hundred pages or so were certainly a bit of a slog. Pat’s whole schtick is that she is very attached to her family home, Silver Bush, and its inhabitants, and that she desperately hates change. She lives with her parents and various siblings, as well as the family’s old Irish housekeeper, Judy Plum, who speaks in a brogue that took some getting used to in terms of reading the accent as written. There are many, many cats.
The trouble is that what is charming in the young girl who graces the pages of Pat of Silver Bush is much less so in the woman of 20, 25, or 30 whose life is chronicled in Mistress Pat. Pat deeply resents even the happiest events in the lives of her family and friends, because she hates the thought of things changing; she rejects multiple suitors and breaks two engagements because she can’t bear the thought of leaving her home; she completely misses the fact that she’s really in love with her childhood friend, Hilary “Jingle” Gordon — misses it for decades — which drove me insane; and her constant raptures over Silver Bush and its environs eventually seem less sweetly sentimental than psychologically unwell. Pat of Silver Bush was an average sort of read; it lacks the sparkle of most of Montgomery’s other offerings, but didn’t grate on me either. Mistress Pat was a tremendous disappointment, and the only one of the new-to-me LMM books I’ve read through the past few months that I wouldn’t care to recommend.
Pat aside, it has been a pleasure encountering these additions in the Lucy Maud Montgomery canon. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Anne Shirley, the perpetual companion of my childhood and young adulthood, but most of these other heroines compare with her very favourably. Many of them deal with similar circumstances — note the theme of overbearing families in several of the books above — but each has her own unique personality and charm. None feels like a rehash of Anne; Lucy Maud Montgomery succeeded very well in making each of her protagonists and new and fresh creation. And some of them, I’m sure, will eventually become my old friends too. Except Pat!