5.02.2012

Currently Reading: The Blue Castle

The Blue CastleValancy slammed the magazine shut; she opened Magic of Wings. Her eyes fell on the paragraph that changed her life.

“Fear is the original sin,” wrote John Foster. “Almost all the evil in the world has its origin in the fact that someone is afraid of something. It is a cold, slimy serpent coiling about you. It is horrible to live with fear, and it is of all things degrading.”

Author: L.M. Montgomery

Synopsis: Valancy Stirling, spinster, has lived her twenty-nine years under the hard thumbs of the Stirling clan, afraid of upsetting the fragile family peace. But when a doctor tells her she has a year at most to live, Valancy decides that for her last year, she will live. She flaunts the family taboos, moves into drunken Roaring Abel’s house to care for his dying daughter, and proposes marriage to the disheveled and secretive Barney Snaith. The only problem with dying, then, is that for once she’s in love with life.

Notes: In The Blue Castle, Lucy Maud Montgomery touches on one of the deepest yearnings, delights, reliefs a soul can feel: the experience of unexpected freedom after unbearable restriction. Her stifled heroine is in a truly pathetic state at the beginning of the novel: sick of familial jabs at her singleness, of complaints and ugly rooms and sulking mother and comparisons to her beautiful cousin Olive.

Valancy’s sudden reversal is a little unlikely at moments, but a lot of fun to watch. All at once, the shy and sensitive woman is saying exactly what she thinks to her relatives’ faces, regardless of consequence. More wholly believably, she embarks on an act of charity in caring for her old chum Cissy Gay, and there the fun really begins. It's there, at Roaring Abel's, that she begins to know Barney Snaith.

Despite Barney’s awful name, Gilbert Blythe can just make room on the hero bench, because the pipe-smoking, shaggy-haired recluse in the derelict car is every bit as likable. It’s arguable that he comes off as a little too good to be true, but then, in a story centered around the dream of the Blue Castle, that’s perfectly allowable.

The Blue Castle is Valancy’s escape dream, the fairyland she has recourse to in her dreary life. If one may judge by an oeuvre, Montgomery—who had a very difficult life—believed firmly in escape to fairyland as a way of dealing with trouble. Anne Shirley and Emily Starr both have their imaginative refuges, and it’s no stretch to imagine that the lives of the heroines, Valancy included, were Montgomery’s own.

While the meme of rebellion against a traditional Christian family is generally wearying in 2012, Valancy’s frustrations with her society-obsessed relatives in a stricter time (the 1920’s) are thoroughly understandable. Mrs. Frederick Stirling isn’t hateful because she’s Anglican; she’s hateful because she’s selfish and unreasonable. Dr. Stalling isn’t annoying because he’s a Reverend; he’s annoying because he shook his forefinger in a child’s face. The errors are human, and Valancy’s response—to suddenly see straight through them, and then to start attending the Free Methodist Church—is likewise human.

Because it’s all human, it’s very sympathetic, and Valancy had this reader’s heart as she sassed her family at dinner, went to Cissy Gay’s aid, and asked a good-hearted supposed jailbird to marry her. That held true and more true as she lived out her year on Mistawis with Barney. There, Montgomery captured the height of Valancy’s transformation from fearful, cheerless daughter to fascinating and lovely wife.

The story wraps up, not with Anne’s long-wrought understanding of where happiness lay, nor with Emily’s sudden and inexplicable salvation from loneliness, but with a perfection that itself might fairly be called an escape to fairyland. Some may find it too neatly tied up, but I am shameless about such things. I can’t believe it took me thirty years to find this book. I adored it.

Recommendation: Read it for a pleasant excursion to a castle made of sapphire, where all the best dreams may come true.

15 comments:

  1. NEW FAVORITE! I knew you would love it!

    Barney Snaith's awful name is just part of his charm! I think he's LMM's best (romantic) male lead.

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  2. Wonderful review and thoughtful comments! It's such a fun book. Glad to find another Blue Castle fan!

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  3. Ooh - I need to find this one! Never heard of it before.

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  4. I need to find this, too; it sounds like I'd love it, especially after having read all of the Anne books this this past winter. Thanks, Jenna!!

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  5. The Blue Castle is my very favorite book by Montgomery! And I will shamelessly admit that I adore Barney Snaith, above and beyond Gilbert Blythe, and I even adore his name. And Valancy is such a delight!

    I mostly appreciate the end - but I always think though that Barney being Foster would have been enough of a surprise ending without the Purple Pills being involved. And I think Valancy would have been happier just living on Mistawais instead of motoring off into the sunset.

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  6. Yay! It's fun to see all the love for this little book. I'm still a bit floored that I'd never heard anything about it until the last year or two.

    Jenny, I think I'd take Barney over Gilbert, too. :) And yeah, I'm kind of with you on the ending; I totally saw the John Foster thing coming, so that wasn't a surprise, but the Redfern connection definitely was. But the two of them together seemed a little overenthusiastic, and Foster was more important. As for motoring off into the sunset, well, I like to think that they eventually had a couple of the babies Valancy wanted so much, and settled more fully back on their little Mistawis island. :)

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  7. I'm so glad you've finally read this gem and what a good review, capturing the essences of this story. Yes, the Foster connection was there all the time, but the Redfern one was a big twist.

    The ending is a fantastical explosion of good stuff that damages the story, but it's in keeping with the fairy tale quality of the book and Valancy's blue castle fantasy. To me the funniest scenes are the ones at the family get together when Valancy gets "dippy," and the one where our pair is stranded on the road. And what's not to like about the cats? And Valancy saying she didn't like ad collar men. Too funny. And maddening Uncle Benjamin with his cruel puns. Such memorable characters.

    Barney anytime. To me Gilbert has always been rather blah.

    Favorite quote, from Barney: "I don't care a hang for any cat that hasn't stripes." We're tabby lovers at our house.

    --Arabella

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  8. Something else I meant to add. Given several cues, I've always thought this book took place around 1910-1912 or so, definitely before WWI. The cues: bobbed hair before it was popular, the pompadour Valance was wearing well past its expiration date, the description of the dresses.

    But the big cue is unspoken. There's no mention of the war, which had a huge impact on Canada. Barney surely would have fought in this war. He makes no mention of it in his biographical information to Valancy. As Montgomery felt very strongly about the war, writing a whole book about it (Rilla of Ingleside), I can't think she'd leave this out. Instead we have a peaceful peacetime world without out the scars of war.

    Just my thoughts. Anyone else?

    --Arabella

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    1. Hmm. I'll have to check Maia to see if her tabby spots are large enough to have any real stripes. :D

      The war is an interesting question. The book was published in 1926, which is where I was placing it mentally, but I hadn't thought through those cues at all. You might well be right. Montgomery, putting together a daydream story, probably preferred to not have a reason to include that.

      Barney's vague about his history, but if I recall correctly, the time he spent travelling is mapped out enough by Dr. Redfern to make it unlikely that he went to war before meeting Valancy. And yeah, I agree that he would have fought.

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    2. I've always tended to place it before the war, too, because of the total absence of the war. 1912 or 1913 would make Valancy's daringly gauzy clothes plausible though daring (about equi-daring with Ilse's wardrobe in Emily's Quest) A lot of that avant-garde, art-deco, practically-naked-all-of-a-sudden shift in fashion actually got going a bit before the war. It would have been fairly outre in Deerwood, and trebly so for a Sterling who wasn't Olive, but not outlandish or exactly shocking as it would have been five or ten years earlier.

      Here's a Valancy-friendly, corset-unfriendly evening gown design from 1912: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lesoirtombe.jpg

      Bobbed hair would have been very fashion-forward in Canada in 1912, but not unheard of. Some of her neighbors may have assumed that she had been ill, and had her hair "shingled" as Aunt Elizabeth threatened to do to Emily back in 1890-whatever.

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    3. Oh, thank you for bringing this up, I've been desperately trying to make Barney's timeline work with the 20's, and it just DOESN'T! He ran off to the Klondike just after the bust-up with Ethel Traverse, which happened in the year or so after college, which means he was in his early 20s in the late 1890s, when the Yukon gold rush happened. And he's only 34 in the story! All those other things were bothering me, too, especially the absence of the shadow of the war, but I'm not well-versed enough in those decades to be sure of the things about the clothes and the cars and the hair. So, thank you!

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  9. Ah, yes, it was Dr. Redfern that gave Barney's travel history. The scarcity of autos also places it pre-war, I think. Yet the story also has some twenties feel to it. Oh well, the blue castle knows neither time nor space in reality!

    --Arabella

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  10. And Maia needs no stripes. She'd probably take anyone down who disagreed, as would any self-respecting cat.

    --Arabella

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  11. I see that all these comments are a bit old, but I'm going to add some of my own. I have been reading LMM since I was a child (now 75) courtesy of my mother. Always loved them, and my daughter and g'daughter do too. The beautiful Blue Castle has always been obviously pre WWI for all the reasons stated here. Loved Emily but grieved over the seasons marching by her doorstep (how horrible!) before she and Teddy comes to their senses. However, I did and still do wonder how Emily, someone who never travelled, could have written books published to such acclaim. My very, very favourite is A Tangled Web, to me set very much in the 20s, and Pat of Silver Bush - but not the agonising wait at the end a la Emily! Also Magic for Marigold, Jane of Lantern Hill. Could go on.......

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    1. Thank you for commenting! I still need to read Marigold, Jane, and A Tangled Web--thanks for the reminder! Pat of Silver Bush is absolutely wonderful, a favorite of mine too, and of course I love The Blue Castle and Emily and Anne and Kilmeny ... So many lovely stories. :)

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