Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Blue Castle by LM Montgomery



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.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The School for Scandal and The Critic by Richard Sheridan

Richard Sheridan (1751-1816) was a comic playwright of particularly fine vintage. His two most famous plays, The School for Scandal and The Critic, are still side-splittingly funny even though their primary target is eighteenth-century society.

The School for Scandal, peopled with characters named Teazle, Backbite, Surface, Sneerwell, &c, is a play about gossip, hypocrisy, and true worth. In some ways it's a retelling of the parable of the two sons, the one that said "Yes" and didn't, and the other that said "No" and did. An old bachelor with a young extravagant wife; two brothers in love with the same girl; and a collection of intriguing scandalmongers add up to a sparkling comedy of intrigue.

But The Critic is my favourite--a play-within-a-play, with hilarious commentary. The main characters are Mr Puff, a playwright who invites the author Plagiary and the critics Dangle and Sneer to attend the rehearsal of his new tragedy, The Spanish Armada--a little history, as Mr Puff explains, filled up with some romance:
Sneer: No scandal about Queen Elizabeth, I hope?
Puff: O Lud! no, no. I only suppose the Governor of Tilbury Fort's daughter to be in love with the son of the Spanish admiral.
Sneer: Oh, is that all!
Dangle: Excellent, i'faith! I see it at once. But won't this appear rather improbable?
Puff: To be sure it will--but what the plague! a play is not to show occurrences that happen every day, but things just so strange, that though they never did, they might happen.
The lovers, even more improbably, are named Don Ferolos Whiskerandos on the one hand, and Tilburina on the other... As the play rollicks on, Sheridan mercilessly lampoons all sorts of things: Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Christopher Hatton enter the stage, telling each other the backstory--
Sir Walter: You also know--
Dangle: Mr Puff, as he knows all this, why does Sir Walter go on telling him?
Meanwhile Mr Puff must deal with fractious actors, who keep cutting their lines--
Whiskerandos: O matchless excellence!--and must we part?
Well, if--we must--we must--and in that case
The less is said the better.
Puff: Hey day! here's a cut! What, are all the mutual protestations out?
Tilburina: Now pray sir, don't interrupt us just here, you ruin our feelings.
Puff: Your feelings!--but zounds, my feelings, ma'am!
Needless to say, the play is one laugh from beginning to end, when Tilburina goes "stark mad in white satin"--
Sneer: Why in white satin?
Puff: O Lord, sir, when a heroine goes mad she always goes in white satin--don't she, Dangle?
Dangle: Always--it's a rule.
They say the past is a different country. But fortunately, in Sheridan's England, they liked to laugh just as much as we do.

Gutenberg etext of The School for Scandal
Gutenberg etext of The Critic

Monday, December 5, 2011

Margaret's Story by Marjorie Douglas

This book was recommended--and loaned--to me by my lovely friend Fiona. I sat down to begin reading it and before I knew it I has halfway through the book and almost completely through the afternoon.

Margaret Disbrowe is a lady of leisure approaching her twenty-first birthday. She realises how frivolous and irreligious she is beside her best friend Phyllis, who spends her time in ministering to her family and the people of the parish, but isn't quite sure where to begin, even if she wished for, improvement. Then a terrible blow falls. Margaret's mother falls ill and a terrible secret is revealed--a secret which sends Margaret out into the world alone, with no family, no friends, and no means of support. Eventually she is able to find a position as a parlourmaid with a kind mistress, but her life is saddened by her separation from her family and the disapproval of her mistress's nephew, who seems to threaten the only security she has in the world. As she faces difficulty and sorrow, Margaret learns to cling to the only real security in life--our Lord.

This book, originally published sometime in the 1920s, is a wonderful, sweet, and gentle coming-of-age story. I enjoyed the heroine's sweet narrative voice and while I don't generally approve of preachy passages in books, this was mostly unobtrusive and profound enough not to come across as simple platitude. Meanwhile the plot was mostly credible and very enjoyable. Margaret's journey from frivolity to real usefulness and concern for others is the main stuff of the plot, but there was also an understated romance that reminded me a little of the one in Emma.

If my life was a novel, chances are it would look rather similar to Margaret's Story. I thoroughly enjoyed it, felt a lot in common with the heroine, and would recommend it to anyone.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Friday poem: The First Spring Day

I was able to read a small volume of Christina Rossetti's poems lately. It was the first serious reading of Rossetti that I've done, and now I wish I hadn't let it so long! Here's one of my favourites:

The First Spring Day
by Christina Rossetti

I wonder if the sap is stirring yet,
If wintry birds are dreaming of a mate,
If frozen snowdrops feel as yet the sun
And crocus fires are kindling one by one:
Sing, robin, sing!
I still am sore in doubt concerning Spring.

I wonder if the spring-tide of this year
Will bring another Spring both lost and dear;
If heart and spirit will find out their Spring,
Or if the world alone will bud and sing:
Sing, hope, to me!
Sweet notes, my hope, soft notes for memory.

The sap will surely quicken soon or late,
The tardiest bird will twitter to a mate;
So Spring must dawn again with warmth and bloom,
Or in this world, or in the world to come:
Sing, voice of Spring!
Till I too blossom and rejoice and sing.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Descent Into Hell by Charles Williams


I think everyone must know about CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, the two great Christian fantasists, who also happened to be both Oxford dons, firm friends, and members of the famous Inklings—the writing group in which early drafts of The Lord of the Rings and the Space Trilogy were read and discussed. There were many members—Hugh Dyson, Owen Barfield, Warnie Lewis, Christopher Tolkien, and Roger Lancelyn Green all attended over different periods—but none of these achieved the same level of fame as Lewis and Tolkien. However, there was one member who arguably achieved the same level of greatness, though his work has never been so well-known. This was Charles Williams, a man who, like Tolkien (who never really got on with him), appeared to have been born in the wrong time-period. At first glance one might say that he lived his life as a mystic poet of the courtly-love period. As far as scholarship goes, his great contribution to English letters was his book on Dante, The Figure of Beatrice. His magnumopus is his unfinished cycle of Arthurian verse, contained in Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars. But probably it is his novels which are most widely-read today.
They have been called supernatural thrillers. That is somewhat misleading; it suggests a book full of plot and sensation. Williams’s novels are more meditative than otherwise, and while the plot usually involves a desperate struggle with unspeakable evil, it is the kind of struggle where souls and symbols are at stake, not earthly lives or kingdoms. The result is somewhat unlike anything else you’ve ever read, but immensely rewarding.
Descent Into Hell is one of the most famous of these. Broadly speaking, it chronicles the spiritual journeys of three people in a quiet new suburb called Battle Hill. An unnamed suicide, trapped in the pocket of time when he killed himself, awaits grace or damnation. Pauline Anstruther, who has been haunted her whole life by a doppelganger which comes a little closer each time it appears, lives in blind terror of the day it will actually meet her. And finally, Lawrence Wentworth, watching the girl he wants being competently wooed away from him, marinates in self-pity until his desires take physical form as a succubus.
All this against the backdrop of a play written by Stanhope, the local poet, whose doctrine of substituted love prompts him toward a somewhat literal interpretation of the command to “bear one another’s burdens”. Other characters include Pauline’s dying grandmother, who deals out love and grace indiscriminately; Adela, the woman who Wentworth believes he loves; and Lilith, guardian demon of the city of Gomorrah, whose citizens are consumed by love of themselves.
I cannot pretend to have grasped all the meanings and allusions of this book, and I could not even begin to fully discuss all the rich themes that I did grasp. As far as I could see, there are two main themes intermingled in the book. There is the theme of “the doctrine of substituted love”, as previously mentioned. Bearing one another’s burdens, in this sense, means taking on the fears or troubles of another. Christ’s substitution, Williams says, is a law of the universe for all. As He took our sins, so we must take each other’s burdens. This does not, of course, extend to carrying each other’s sins; only Christ can do that:
Pauline said: “But let’s try at least. Look, let me go and learn your part.” She was not quite sure, as she said it, whether this came under the head of permissible interchanges. She had meant it but for the part in the play, but this new fashion of identities was too strong for her; the words were a definition of a substitution beyond her. Adela’s past, Adela’s identity, was Adela’s own. A god rather than she, unless she were inhabited by a god, must carry Adela herself; the god to whom baptism for the dead was made, the lord of substitution…
This doctrine of substituted love is the thing that will save the souls of the book from Hell and Gomorrah. Self-love is the second theme. It is self-love that Lilith emptily promises; it is Wentworth’s self-love that takes form as the succubus, so that in some incredibly creepy way he becomes the object of his own love. “Greater love hath no man than this,” said Christ, “that he lay down his life for his friends.” “Learning to love yourself,” says the old power ballad, “that’s the greatest love of all.” These are the two intertwined themes of Descent Into Hell.
There is a third, which grows out of these. In the book it is named as Joy and Fact, or Joy in Fact. The word, I fancy, should be “contentment”. To love outside yourself includes loving God first and God’s will as it is revealed, even before loving your neighbour. This is a deep, rich, far from passive contentment:
She looked out of the window. There would be few more evenings during which she could watch the departure of day, and the promise of rarity gave a greater happiness to the experience. So did the knowledge of familiarity. Rarity was one form of delight and frequency another. A thing could even be beautiful because it did not happen, or rather the not-happening could be beautiful. So long always as joy was not rashly pinned to the happening; so long as you accepted what joys the universe offered and did not seek to compel the universe to offer you joys of your own definition.
This is something that, unlike Wentworth, Pauline is able to learn, so that at the end when she confronts Lilith, who offers her “anything, everything; every--“
“But I don’t want anything,” Pauline cried out; and as she heard her own vain emphasis, added with a little despairing laugh: “How can I tell you? I only want everything to be as it is—for myself, I mean.”
“Change,” said the shape. “I don’t change.”
Pauline cried out: “And if it changes, it shall change as it must, and I shall want it as it is then.” She laughed again at the useless attempt to explain.
When I reviewed Elizabeth Goudge’s book The Rosemary Tree on this blog, my friend Kate (who has always encouraged me to read Charles Williams, and even went to the trouble of sending me a copy of the Arthurian poetry, which was perfectly marvellous of her) responded by saying she thought Charles Williams was better. That puzzled me at the time; I was not sure how the two could be compared. After Descent Into Hell, it became clearer. The thing I loved about The Rosemary Tree was Mrs Goudge’s ability to depict the spiritual undercurrents of everyday life, so that a somewhat everyday story became the mask for a deep fantasy, the kind of fantasy that is actually true. Descent Into Hell also depicts the spiritual undercurrents of everyday life, but with this book the fantasy breaks out; Lilith, the succubus, the doppelganger, all intrude into the world of the senses. I am not familiar enough with either author to say that one is better than the other. Williams is more challenging, more profound; Goudge is more accessible, with simpler imagery. Both are worth reading.
Like all Williams’s books, Descent Into Hell is profound and challenging; perhaps more challenging than either War in Heaven or The Place of the Lion, the two others of his novels which I have read. I would not necessarily recommend it to the first-time reader of Williams, but it’s well worth the challenge.

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