Valancy 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.