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The Blue Castle

June 15, 2013

I’m exceedingly thankful to Jenn right now for recommending a book that sounded so exactly like what I wanted that, less than seven hours after she posted the link, I’m already writing a review. I think this means my reading drought is over, although it will probably be hard to tell until after the Stanley Cup final is over too.

The book is The Blue Castle, and I expect that some of you have already read it, because it’s by L.M. Montgomery, and if you love Anne of Green Gables and are in the habit of reading public domain fiction, you’ve probably read everything of hers that’s available. I sort of love Anne of Green Gables, just…selectively. And The Blue Castle isn’t public domain here in the US, but Project Gutenberg Australia is a beautiful thing.

Anyway. This is one of those books where a woman with a deeply unsatisfying life turns over a new leaf — or has one turned over for her — and comes into her own. Like Gertrude Haviland’s Divorce, or Now, Voyager. Or A Woman Named Smith, but less so. It’s such self-indulgent fantasy, but it’s my favorite kind. The heroine of The Blue Castle is Valency Stirling, a 29 year old spinster, frustrated and unhappy and firmly under the thumb of her widowed mother and a vast array of aunts and uncles. When she visits a doctor to ask about her recurring chest pain and he diagnoses her with terminal heart disease, she finds that knowing she’s only got a year to live is what she needed to cure her of her fear of her family. She strikes out on her own, becoming nurse/housekeeper/companion to the dying daughter of the local drunk, and then marrying a man who is rumored to have done all sorts of terrible things.

She gets the material things she’s been wanting — a husband, nice clothes, a home of her own, better looks — but, more importantly, she learns to speak her mind and trust in her own judgment and, you know, have fun. And it’s a delightful journey to accompany her on. There were things I didn’t love, too: the specific awfulness of Valency’s family would have worked better for me if Montgomery rubbed their faces in Valency’s transformation a bit more, for example, and I would have liked some of the romantic bits to be taken down exactly one notch. Also, there was one of those passages where a woman discovers she’s in love and doesn’t expect anything to come of it but somehow feels that her unrequited love has transformed and validated her life, and I find passages like that kind of irritating. On the whole, though, The Blue Castle is approximately as perfect as I want it to be.

There were ways in which I identified with Valency very much. Her feelings — at least, the ones that don’t feel a little performative — are real feelings. But one thing that interested me as I read was the ways in which I didn’t identify with her. I (obviously) read a lot of old books, but somehow they don’t usually make me think of the ways in which certain things — the things that have an impact on my day to day life — have changed since they were written. This one did. I’m not that much younger than Valency, and I have things in common with her, but…I don’t know. In Valency’s world whether a woman is married or unmarried is barely her choice, and I took a moment this evening to be thankful that even whether or not you want to be married is a choice in mine. It was nice.

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19 comments

  1. I’m kind of surprised you’ve not read this one before, tbh.

    I have to say I adore it. It’s utterly sentimental and melodramatic goo, but I love it nonetheless – possibly because it has some of LMM’s best frightful relations to cut the sugar level a bit…possibly because sometimes you just want utterly sentimental melodramatic goo and it’s a particularly good example of the type. (I admit I tend to skim the purple prose descriptions of Nature, mind you.)


    • Yeah, I probably should have read this before. But I only ever thought of Montgomery as an author I read in childhood whose books I was kind of iffy about. The point at which I realized she’d written a bunch of non-Anne of Green Gables stuff wasn’t very far removed from the point at which I read a bit too far in the Anne series and decided I didn’t like it anymore.

      I actually only found The Blue Castle a little too gooey, and only in a few spots. But yeah, sometimes that’s what you want. I’m not surprised you love this book; it’s pretty awesome.


      • Yes, LMM wrote assorted other stuff, some of which is rather better than the AoGG books. I like “A Tangled Web” quite a lot – it’s very small-town-gossip-y, which she does very well I think. Also “Rilla of Ingleside”, the last Anne book, which is actually about Anne’s youngest daughter and WWI. “Kilmeny of the Orchard”, on the other hand, is utterly awful and I highly DISrecommend it.


        • A Tangled Web is clearly next on the list for me — I read Jane of Lantern Hill yesterday and it was delightful. I think Rilla of Ingleside has been recommended to me before, but I stopped where I did with AoGG because I’d come to hate all her kids, so…maybe not.


  2. This and Jane of Lantern Hill are my two favorite L. M. Montgomery books!


    • That may or may not be the next thing I read — It’s definitely going on my kindle.


      • Her short stories are great too, many available on Project Gutenberg. She used many of the plots in her later Anne books.


  3. I love this book SO much. Definitely my favorite LMM book. I, too, wanted more shaming of the family, but I suppose it’s nicer for Valancy that she doesn’t *need* that at the end.


    • Oh, definitely it’s better for Valancy to maintain the moral high ground. But it’s such a self-indulgent book that I wanted that one extra bit of indulgence. And also I can’t shake the feeling that her family is sort of being rewarded for being awful to her.


  4. I have read (and own) all of LMM’s books…love this one and Jane of Lantern Hill. Also try A Tangled Web…


    • It sounds like the consensus is that other than The Blue Castle, Jane of Lantern Hill is best, so it’s definitely going on my reading list.


  5. I’ve been meaning to read The Blue Castle for years – decades in fact – after Colleen McCullough was accused of plagiarizing the book with The Ladies of Missalonghi. This was back in 1987, and was such a big deal – in Canada, at least – that it was covered in the dailies. Sad to say that after all these years the only Montgomery I’ve read is Anne of Green Gables.


    • I’d never heard of The Ladies of Missalonghi, so I just went and looked it up. Without venturing an opinion on whether ir not McCullough consciously plagiarized, it sounds like the things McCullough did differently are almost calculated to anger people who love The Blue Castle. And that’s on top of the offense against someone who has the stature in Canada that Montgomery does. It’s an interesting situation.

      Anyway, The Blue Castle is a lot of fun. You should definitely give it a try.


  6. I LOVE the Blue Castle. I love all LM Montgomery but The Blue Castle is my favourite. And I’d second all the other comments about Jane of Lantern Hill and A Tangled Web. They’re my second favourites!


    • Just read Jane of Lantern Hill and it was great, so I’m looking forward to A Tangled Web.


  7. You’re a hockey fan?

    I’ve actually NEVER read LM Montgomery. I saw the Anne of Green Gables miniseries and that seemed like enough. But this one sounds like it’s worth checking out.


    • The hockey thing is sort of new for me? But I’m pretty into it, so on one hand I want the playoffs to be over so I can think about other stuff, and on the other hand I’m not looking forward to not having any hockey to watch until the fall.

      I have kind of a difficult relationship with Anne of Green Gables — I can’t think of a book in the series that I don’t hate bits of. But the first book is definitely worthwhile, and the next few are mostly okay.


  8. Yay, glad you read and liked it! I agree some parts are toothachingly saccharine. Like how Barney calls her “Moonlight”–yuck.

    But I actually don’t mind too much about the horrible relatives not getting their comeuppance. The point is that you know they’re awful, Valancy and Barney know they’re awful, but they themselves are completely oblivious to their own awfulness, and that’s their karmic punishment–to live the “unexamined life”, incapable of self-insight, genuine empathy or compassion.

    I also like her painting the unwed mother, Cissy Gay, as an overtly sympathetic character. Although the book fails to break away from the era’s grand literary tradition of painfully killing off any female character who commits The Unforgivable Sin, Cissy at least gets a brief chance to tell her story. She gets to explain her decision to decline the halfhearted proposal of the father of her child, and revels in the memory of her unashamed adoration of her baby. You pity her because the baby died and she’s dying young of consumption, but at the same time, she doesn’t regret her choices. Pretty bold for small-town Canada, even in the 1920s.


    • The “Moonlight” thing didn’t bother me that much, actually, but the bit where Valancy realizes she’s in love with Barney and bits of their reunion at the end seriously made me cringe.

      Re: the relatives, I do think it’s nice that Valancy, Barney and Montgomery all retain the moral high ground. And everything you’re saying about their terribleness being its own punishment is true. I guess it just felt like a little bit of a tonal mismatch: Montgomery is happy to indulge in pettiness and fantasy elsewhere, so why not here?

      And yeah, Cissy was great — not just her transgressions and lack of regrets, but also her agency. I loved that she wasn’t just an object of Valancy’s charity and pity, but a person with her own feelings who brings things to her relationships with Valancy and with her father.

      (mostly, though: :D :D :D such a fun book!)



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