Mar 1, 2010

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

The Blue Castle opens on Valancy Stirling’s twenty-ninth birthday: an uneventful and depressing day, just like all the days before it in her life. Valancy lives under the thumb of her Respectable and domineering family. She isn’t married, and at twenty-nine everyone seems to consider her a hopeless old maid. She’s constantly unfavourably compared to her prettier, younger and more successful cousin, Olive. Valancy’s life is one of constant boredom, with only occasional small pleasures such as reading John Foster’s nature books. But she can’t even do this very often, as her family disapproves of Idleness, and reading naturally falls under Idleness in their eyes. Her only other pleasure, the one thing nobody can take away from her, is to daydream about life in her Blue Castle, a place where all her dreams would come true. But Valancy knows that she’s getting to a point where daydreams can no longer come to her rescue:
Afraid of her mother's sulky fits--afraid of offending Uncle Benjamin--afraid of becoming a target for Aunt Wellington's contempt--afraid of Aunt Isabel's biting comments--afraid of Uncle James' disapproval--afraid of offending the whole clan's opinions and prejudices--afraid of not keeping up appearances--afraid to say what she really thought of anything--afraid of poverty in her old age. Fear--fear--fear--she could never escape from it. It bound her and enmeshed her like a spider's web of steel. Only in her Blue Castle could she find temporary release. And this morning Valancy could not believe she had a Blue Castle. She would never be able to find it again. Twenty-nine, unmarried, undesired--what had she to do with the fairy-like chatelaine of the Blue Castle? She would cut such childish nonsense out of her life forever and face reality unflinchingly.
However, shortly after her birthday Valancy receives some news about her health that makes her decide to throw caution to the winds and begin to truly live. Confronted with the fact that there may not be a future, Valancy loses her fear: she stands up to her family, she stops worrying about what others will say or think of her, and she begins to do things her way. What follows is a delightful account of a young woman’s journey towards self-discovery, happiness, and love.

The plot of The Blue Castle could hardly be more predictable, but that doesn’t matter one bit. When I read older books, I always wonder if their plots felt fresher at the time, before they were done to death. I don’t think the secrets and surprises in The Blue Castle were ever meant to be truly secret or surprising, though: like the fairy tales it evokes, this story is comforting and charming exactly because of its predictability. We know how it’s supposed to go, and yet when it goes exactly like we expect it to, we’re as delighted as if we were hearing a tale of its kind for the very first time.

The Blue Castle reads like a romance, like a fairy tale for adults (the allusions to “Bluebeard” are impossible to miss, but worry not, the creepy factor is absent), and like a satire of small-town life. There were passages that made me laugh out loud, especially the ones about Valancy’s family and their reactions to her change. Valancy lets a lifetime of repressed sarcastic responses come pouring out, and the results couldn’t be more hilarious.

If there’s one thing about this book that I found mildly disappointed, it was the fact that it emphasises love and marriage as the be-all and end-all of a woman’s life. Example:
She was no longer unimportant, little old maid Valancy Stirling. She was a woman, full of love and therefore rich and significant--justified to herself. Life was no longer empty and futile, and death could cheat her of nothing. Love had cast out her last fear.
Possibly this shouldn’t really surprise me in a love story from 1926, but somehow I expected more of Lucy Maud Montgomery. Which puts me in mind of a conversation I had with my friend Jason about her recently: he said Montgomery always seems to want to go a little further than she actually goes, but changes her mind at the last minute and settles for conventionality. I get that impression too, especially with this book.

But this is a minor point, really. The romance was sweet and believable, and regardless of that passage, the story focuses as much on Valancy becoming her own person and it does on her falling in love. Plus in many ways, The Blue Castle is in fact quite daring and unconventional for its time: after all, it’s all about saying no to prejudice and small-town mentality; about a young woman deciding to live life on her own terms rather than be enslaved by conventionality and respectability. Also, there’s a secondary character, an unmarried mother who was shunned by the whole town after she “disgraced herself”, who’s treated with nothing but complete kindness and sympathy. I love the fact that she was portrayed in a way that dispelled the myth that sexually active young women were “bad girls” (a myth as popular in 2010 as it was in 1926, sadly).

The Blue Castle is a funny, charming and very comforting book - one I know I’ll be returning to again and again. I might be getting a bit carried away here, but I think I probably enjoyed it even more than the Anne books. Sadly, it seems to be out of print these days, but thank goodness for e-books. Side note: I would absolutely love to see it become a Persephone. I think it’d fit in perfectly with the rest of their catalogue.

A few bits I liked:
Valancy did not expect any mail, except the Christian Times, which was the only paper they took. They hardly ever got any letters. But Valancy rather liked to stand in the office and watch Mr. Carewe, the grey-bearded, Santa-Clausy old clerk, handing out letters to the lucky people who did get them. He did it with such a detached, impersonal, Jove-like air, as if it did not matter in the least to him what supernal joys or shattering horrors might be in those letters for the people to whom they were addressed. Letters had a fascination for Valancy, perhaps because she so seldom got any. In her Blue Castle exciting epistles, bound with silk and sealed with crimson, were always being brought to her by pages in livery of gold and blue, but in real life her only letters were occasional perfunctory notes from relatives or an advertising circular.

"Doss," said Uncle Benjamin, solemnly and helplessly, "you are not--like yourself."
"Who am I like, then?" asked Valancy.
Uncle Benjamin was rather posed.
"Your Grandfather Wansbarra," he answered desperately.
"Thanks." Valancy looked pleased. "That's a real compliment. I remember Grandfather Wansbarra. He was one of the few human beings I have known--almost the only one. Now, it is of no use to scold or entreat or command, Uncle Benjamin--or exchange anguished glances with Mother and Cousin Stickles. I am not going to any doctor. And if you bring any doctor here I won't see him. So what are you going to do about it?"
What indeed! It was not seemly--or even possible--to hale Valancy doctorwards by physical force. And in no other way could it be done, seemingly. Her mother's tears and imploring entreaties availed not.
"Don't worry, Mother," said Valancy, lightly but quite respectfully. "It isn't likely I'll do anything very terrible. But I mean to have a little fun."
"Fun!" Mrs. Frederick uttered the word as if Valancy had said she was going to have a little tuberculosis.
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37 comments:

  1. Oh, I'd love to read this but it's not exactly easy to get a copy. Great review!

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  2. What a wonderful review. I don't always like predictability, but it is nice to read about something comforting and warm. I love it when the beaten down girl stands up for herself!

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  3. My book club read this last year (and yes it was hard to find copies for everyone!). I thoroughly enjoyed it and read it in one sitting. http://libraryqueue.blogspot.com/2009/05/blue-castle.html

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  4. I hope to reread the Anne of Greengable books soon. I just love them. I didn't realise she had written other books too and I know I would love this.

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  5. Oh yay! So glad you enjoyed it! And I completely agree this would be a wonderful addition to the Persephone collection!

    I think you're right that in some ways the fact that novel focuses so firmly on the idea that a woman needs to marry/find love in order for her life to be complete is a bit of a let-down, but I suppose it didn't bother me that much because I went in expecting a romance, and I still found Valancy so spirited. It's kind of like how Jane Austen's novels all involve love and marriage, and yet I still find them deeply satisfying!

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  6. I'm so glad you reviewed this. Ever since I read Anne of Green Gables I've been meaning to request the "adult" books by Montgomery but keep forgetting. But now, thanks to your delightful review, I've jotted it down in a permanent place. I love the line about fun being like tuberculosis! I can just see Mrs. Frederick's expression when she says that!

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  7. Even though the book is predictable and very romance focused it has always been my favorite L.M. Montgomery! So good :)

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  8. I'm annoyed that I can't find a copy to read; where did you locate the e-book?

    Do you fancy emailing Persephone to suggest that they re-publish it?!

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  9. I'd love to read this, but I haven't found a copy yet, and it's too expensive to buy new. You've made it sound wonderful, and it doesn't really bother me that Montgomery posits love and marriage as an ideal for a woman's life. It may have been for many women and perhaps Montgomery was aiming at them with this book.

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  10. Lalalalalalala...not listening to you! This is at the top of the stack of books I have out from the library, and I cannot wait to read it, based on what Steph said about it. I will be back to read the review when all is said and done. I read the first few sentences, and I am already excited for it.

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  11. I know, I know I need to read this! I will get on it once I am able to find it. I don't know if I want to read an entire novel in e-book format...

    I just read your review of The Graveyard Book! I am going to write mine today :-)

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  12. Mrs B, if you don't mind e-books, the title link will take you to one. The chapters are very short, so it's actually a very easy book to read online in small doses.

    Sandy: Me neither, but in certain types of stories it works, and this is one of them!

    Tricia, thank you for the link! Will add your review.

    Vivienne: She has written many other books, actually! There's a whole other series, Emily of New Moon, that also seems to be a big favourite.

    Steph: The Austen parallel is perfect! Valancy really was very spirited - I loved her :D

    Jill: lol, I can imagine it too :D It really cracked me up.

    Amy: I think it's my favourite too to date. Of course, I've only read a handful of them, so I may change my mind yet :P

    Claire, *you* should suggest it :P As they already know you, maybe they'd be more likely to listen? As for the e-book, click the title link or the book cover and you'll be taken to it!

    Meghan: Once again I have made a complete mess out of explaining what I meant (I do this often) - sorry! I didn't mean there's anything wrong with Valancy, Montgomery or any woman valuing love and marriage above other things. I dislike that passage (and a few others in the book) because it implicitly passes judgement on women who don't value/want/have husbands - it says their lives are insignificant, empty and futile unless they find love. Which some women may feel is true, but definitely not all. It's the generalisation (which is a very commonplace one - the whole stereotype of the bitter spinster relies on it) that disappointed me.

    Priscilla, I can't wait to hear what you think!

    Aarti: It's actually very easy to read on the screen - very short chapters, so easy to take breaks. Looking forward to reading your Graveyard Book review!

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  13. Valancy sounds like such a wonderful character...that last passage you quoted just cracked me up! :) And on a totally irrelevant sidenote: I really like the name "Valancy"...I don't think I've ever heard it before.

    I've got a quick question though--did she go waterskiing? ;)

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  14. I always say "feel the fear, do it anyway" and this book reminds me of that philosophy. Life is so much better when we are no longer focused on other people's expectations of us and we just think about what we want to do and how to live.

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  15. This was one of my favorite "older" discoveries. Loved that she finally stopped letting her family walk all over her and decided to do what she wanted.

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  16. Nymeth - I'm de-lurking (I've been a long time reader) to respond to your new post, mostly because L.M.Montgomery has been a dearly cherished writer of mine for about 20 years now. Montgomery wrote several books, I have about 30 or so including the short story collections. The most adult of her books is probably A Tangled Wed - it's fabulous and I think you would appreciate the humor. Lucy Maud has a wonderful sense of humor doesn't she?! Second to Emily of New Moon, you'd probably love Jane of Lantern Hill even more.

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  17. I adored the Anne books when I was a girl, and this sounds like something I'd really enjoy. Thanks!

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  18. Oh, Nymeth, I'm so glad you liked Blue Castle! It's just wonderful, and as one of LM's lesser known books, it is such a hidden delight to find.
    But guess what else? I've seen the musical!! It's been produced here on PEI several times, and it is, maybe, even better than Anne, the Musical. The songs were delightful, and it's such a great story, yes, predictable and all, but you explained so well why it works. Darling Valency. Can you imagine it a musical? I hope it gets produced again. There is a VHS copy in our library of one of the productions that I should rent.

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  19. I'm glad you liked it! Try the Emily ones next, if you get a chance. The thing about those books is that they logically conclude with Emily's publishing a book (which is the thing that's most important to her from the beginning), but L.M. Montgomery has to finish the book by marrying her off.

    But other than that (and a slightly creepy love interest guy), I love them so so so much.

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  20. This is one of my favorites, but I do agree that the marriage theme is a bit overwhelming. That said, I do find that Valancy's awakening challenges the notion of how women were expected to behave; she finds contentment in marriage... but on her own terms. I reviewed it a couple of years ago (http://wp.me/p9KTB-J), it might be time for a re-reading :).

    I found my copy through Amazon, but I'm not sure if they still have new ones. I have seen some up on Paperback Swap. It's probably easier to find a used copy.

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  21. Just thinking, if a person wanted to order it, they should check some of the Canadian booksites. A quick check of amazon.ca or chapters.indigo.ca show that Blue Castle is in stock, for 6.99 Cdn. Of course, I'm in PEI, and I'm sure I've seen it at the Anne of Green Gables store. (yes, we have one of those)

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  22. I'm squealing with delight that you loved it so much! I had no idea it was out of print. Now, I am very glad that I kept all of my LMM books from childhood for my daughter, including this one. Like I said on Twitter the other day, I do think this is better than the Anne books, and that is saying something!

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  23. "When I read older books, I always wonder if their plots felt fresher at the time, before they were done to death."

    I look at older books this same way and tend to enjoy them more for it. It seems very natural to me anymore to be able to put myself in that time period and imagine that sense of wonder for readers who were enjoying the book when it was fresh and new.

    I got this a few years ago from my wife but haven't read it yet. Bad me! I had put it on my wishlist from the reviews of several people who read it for one of the challenges.

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  24. wow, I've never heard of this book before, it goes on my Wishlist immediately. Great review Nymeth...

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  25. This sounds so very nice! I LOVED Anne as I grew up, and hearing that you enjoyed it even more puts it right on my wish list.

    Too bad it's out of print!! Why, oh why?!

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  26. I may just have to read it in e-book format :)

    I did email Persephone, however, but I foresee there being an issue with the rights.

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  27. I found this copy published in 2007, so it doesn't look like it's out of print?

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1550026666/

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  28. Rebecca, that's a small Canadian press and it is an expensive book. I'd hope perhaps that it could become more widely available.

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  29. I have lots to say here, so I'm numbering the points.

    1. Yay Blue Castle! Valancy! Barney! Yay what fun!

    2. You are not getting carried away when you say it's better than Anne. While they are by the same author and have some similar characteristics, they are so totally different, and Blue Castle is a much more mature novel as far as writing style goes.

    3. This book has some of the best character development in it. Oh, how Valancy changes throughout it!! From being a depressed woman who hides who she is from her family, to someone who is so secure in herself and who finally loves life... it's brilliant!

    4. I'm so so so happy you enjoyed this book! (The paperback can typically be found around here in used bookstores fairly easily. If you want, I can pick one up if I see it, and send it your way.)

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  30. I tried reading this when I was going through my first Montgomery phase, having burned through the Anne books and the Emily books (I second the comment above: these are wonderful) but I couldn't get into The Blue Castle. Hadn't thought about it for years. But am realizing through your review that it wasn't really an ideal read for a 12-year-old; I'll try it again!

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  31. So funny - I was just talking to Jill about the Blue Castle and then I saw your review! I first read this when I was a teen and have been in love with it ever since. I found that the focus was more on love being life changing rather than marriage, though - the depiction of the marriages of secondary characters isn't particularly flattering :)

    Reading Montgomery's journals, it's so clear that she was a woman born to the wrong time. I've always thought she'd fit in so well in today's world. There was so much unhappiness in her life, and much of it was because of the restrictions she faced as a woman. I would have liked to have known her.

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  32. Debi: lol! I'm afraid she did not ;) But possibly good old L.M.M. just forgot to write that scene ;)

    Kathleen: That is a wonderful way to put it :)

    Melissa: I loved it too :D

    Lucylucia: Hi, and thank you for delurking! It's always nice to know who's reading :) I really appreciate the tips about her other books, as I confess I know nothing about what she wrote beyond the Anne series. I'll keep an eye out for them!

    Stephanie, I hope you do enjoy it if you decide to pick it up!

    raidergirl3: That's an excellent tip about trying Canadian bookstores online! And I love that you guys have an Anne shop, hehehe. The musical sounds so so fun :D

    Jenny: A friend was urging me to read the Emily books the other day, and of course that the fact that she wants to write makes it all the more appealing. What you said is another perfect example of LMM stepping back at the last minute, but I love her all the same.

    Gricel, Thank you for your link! I did find that the book challenged conventionality a lot in many ways. And I LOVED that she was the one to propose :D

    Michelle: It really is saying something!

    Carl: You definitely need to read this - I think it will delight you :)

    Violet, I hope you enjoy it!

    Rebecca: The fact that Amazon doesn't have it readily available makes me wonder if it's not hard to get a hold of, even though the edition is so recent. And plus like Claire said it's a small press, so possibly the printing was small :\

    Claire: Yeah, there might be issues with the rights :\ But at least it was brought to their attention! The e-book really is easy to read! Short chapters plus a very gripping story = perfect online reading :P

    Court: yay indeed! You're definitely right about the writing here being more mature. And oh, the character development! And aww, thank you so much for offering, but it's okay - the e-book served me well :P

    Kiirstin: I think you're find it a lot easier to get into now! And I definitely need to get my hands on the Emily books.

    Belle: I really liked the emphasis on love, and I thought the romance was adorable. But I don't like how that passage (and a few others) says that "old-maids" live bitter, empty, futile lives, you know? That's what rubbed me the wrong way. Nothing wrong with love and romance, though! And poor L.M.M. :\ It makes sense that all those restrictions made her unhappy - so many of her characters are all about fighting them. I do wish she was around today.

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  33. I have this book on my shelf, and have lately been reading a spate of great reviews of it. Glad that you loved it too! Now I just need to get off my lazy butt and read the darn thing. I have a feeling I will not be disappointed!

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  34. I loved this book so much when I was younger, but it's been a good fifteen years since I last read it! I think it's more than overdue for a reread.

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  35. This book isn't out of print...at least, not in Australia anyway :) You can buy it quite easily on amazon and better world books too.
    Love this review, this book is a true treasure.
    So warm, wise, witty and full of heart and GIRL POWER!

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  36. I'm a huge LMM fan and have read almost everything she ever published, with the exception of her poetry. I'm so glad you liked this book -- it is a bit of a predictable plot, but I'd still like to see it become a movie someday.

    To be fair about the passage where Valancy felt "She was a woman, full of love and therefore rich and significant--justified to herself," remember that when she first thinks she's sick, what horrifies her most about her life is that she has never loved anyone, not even her mother or a pet. It's not *romantic* love that is what makes life worthwhile; it's feeling any kind of love for anyone. At the point of that statement, she still IS an "old maid," in that she is unmarried and has no man's romantic love. But what makes her "justified to herself" is that she loves, even if she isn't loved in return.

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  37. I love this book! It's definitely my number one "comfort read." It's a rare gem which, sadly, few know about.

    I love all LMM's books, but the Emily series I really fell in love with. I always feel a little guilty for sometimes thinking I like it just a tad more than the Anne books. Lol!

    Anyway, The Blue Castle... Barney Snaith... definitely keepers in the literary world.

    I sometime wonder, too, what kind of writer LMM would be today. I wonder which genres she would write or even just read for pleasure.

    Kristin

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