One does not sleep well, sometimes, when one is twenty-nine on the morrow, and unmarried, in a community and connection where the unmarried are simply those who have failed to get a man.
LM Montgomery is best-known for her Anne of Green Gables series—and The Blue Castle must be one of her most obscure books. Nevertheless the world seems to be divided into two kinds of people—the people who have never heard of The Blue Castle, and the people who have read it, and love it.
I first made its acquaintance quite by mistake one rainy Saturday morning, and when I finished it soon after lunch, I had a new favourite Montgomery book. I'd forgotten what a quick read it is. Yesterday, feeling a little like spoiling myself, I read it again.
It tells the story of Valancy Stirling, a downtrodden, perpetual spinster—the butt of jokes at family gatherings, living a useless life with a controlling mother, her only happiness coming from reading John Foster's poetic, evocative nature guides and her daydreams of the Blue Castle in Spain where she has everything she always wanted—riches, friends, a handsome prince...
Then Valancy finds out that she has only a year to live, and bursts out of her prison. No longer afraid of the consequences of her actions, of dying a poor and lonely old maid, Valancy decides to stand up for herself, to enjoy life, and to do something worthwhile. After giving her relatives a sizable piece of her mind, she moves in with Old Roaring Abel, the town drunkard, to take care of his dying daughter who has been ostracised by the respectable people of the town since returning pregnant from a summer away. She also gets to know another local pariah who has befriended Abel and Cissy—Barney Snaith, who lives on an island on Lake Muskoka and is dimly rumoured to be an axe murderer.
When she finds herself falling for Barney, Valancy feels that her Blue Castle has materialised before her eyes. But only a year's happiness lies before her. How will she be able to let it go?
As I mentioned, I loved this book when I first read it some years ago. On the second reading, however, I found myself looking at it with a more critical eye. LM Montgomery's books have always given me a great deal of pleasure, but she had her faults, and this book seems to contain an equal measure of bad and good.
Valancy finds her freedom in rebelling against her clan and rushing into a life of rash romanticism. Tired of living for unappreciative others, she decides to live for herself a little (although to be fair, this does manifest in going off to care for Cissy, who really does need her).
LM Montgomery paints a somewhat unfair picture in this book. Establishment and established religion, with its false guilt, snobbery, and failure to care for people like Cissy, is justly castigated. But in denouncing that, Montgomery makes the classic blunder of falling into the ditch on the other side of the road. Valancy, in defying societal wrongs, also defies her family, abandons her reputation, and thoroughly enjoys shocking everyone.
On top of that, Montgomery takes some theological liberties. “Fear is the original sin,” one character says. When Valancy finds happiness, she says, “I understand now what it means to be born again,” and the narrative states, “Old things passed away and all things became new.” This language of grace and salvation relates to Valancy's liberation, but this seems to be a liberation of romanticism, not of Christ. To be charitable to Montgomery, perhaps she did mean to use the Biblical language to hint at real grace working in this story—shades of GK Chesterton here, whose Innocent Smith would shoot at people in order to bring them to life.
Whether my charitable impulses are correct or not, I really appreciated the way Montgomery wraps up her theme of freedom and bondage:
“There is no such thing as freedom on earth,” he said. “Only different kinds of bondages. And comparative bondages. You think you are free now because you've escaped from a peculiarly unbearable kind of bondage. But are you? You love me—that's a bondage.”“Who said or wrote that 'the prison unto which we doom ourselves no prison is'?” asked Valancy dreamily, clinging to his arm as they climbed up the rock steps.“Ah, now you have it,” said Barney. “That's all the freedom we can hope for—the freedom to choose our own prison.”
Not whether, but which—a distinctively Christian way of putting it, after all.
In the end The Blue Castle is probably LM Montgomery's best work, flawed as it is. It contains some of her most powerful writing, whether in describing Valancy's dreary life, her hilarious confrontations with the Stirling clan, or the idyll on Lake Muskoka—which alone is worth the price of admission. It's a more serious work than the Anne books, not as problematic as the Emily books, and just as sweet as it needs to be. A great book for a grey day.