Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Blue Castle

Growing up, I was kind of obsessed with Lucy Maude Montgomery. I loved the Anne of Green Gables series (which will no doubt pop up on here one of these Thursdays) and the Emily of New Moon books. Then, maybe ten years ago, I discovered that Montgomery had written a couple of more adult stories, one of which is the relatively scandalous The Blue Castle

Maybe it's the setting – in Ontario's Muskoka region rather than small-town Prince Edward Island – or maybe it's just that Montgomery was a little older, but although the writing style is similar to her earlier novels, The Blue Castle just takes everything one glorious step further. Where Anne Shirley was a little prissy, Valancy (just the name tells you Montgomery was letting her hair down a little) is wild, filled with inappropriate desires and, shockingly, not afraid to act on them. 

The set-up is this: Valancy is an old maid (she's 29) and lives with her mother. She is described as unattractive and a little sickly (her mother is always forcing Purple Pills down her throat, although there's no evidence they do any good), and more interested in her books about the wilderness than in finding a good man to settle down with. Valancy's strangeness is brought into sharper focus when she's compared to her good sister Olive, who is beautiful, submissive and engaged to be married to a very respectable fellow.

Then one day Valancy gets a letter from her doctor. She has a heart defect, it says, and she has one year to live, but could be killed at any time from a strong shock. For many people, this would sound like a death sentence; for Valancy, though, the letter is license to live. After she gets over the shock of it, she tells her family exactly what she thinks of them and then leaves home to care for Cissy Gay, an old school friend who is dying of consumption. Cissy had a child out of wedlock and is therefore considered a scandal by the town. Her situation is not helped by her father, known as Roaring Able because of his frequent drunken outbursts. They are the exact opposite of Valancy's family and she loves living with them.

While caring for Cissy, Valancy becomes acquainted with Barney Snaith, a friend of the family's who lives alone on an island in the bush. He's quite affable and Valancy is surprised to discover that she loves him – of course, she assumes she is too ugly to be loved by any man, so she keeps that to herself. But then Cissy dies and Valancy is forced to decide whether to continue living with Roaring Able (which would be totally inappropriate and scandalous) or to move back home (completely undesirable). Valancy, who has still told no one about her heart condition, decides to do neither. Instead, she tells Barney about her diagnosis and proposes marriage, based on her belief that she'll die in a year. He accepts and they head out to his island.

Valancy loves living in his little cabin. She plays housewife during the day and they take walks in the woods together and then she reads to him from the nature books she loved to read when she lived with her mother. She doesn't take Purple Pills and she feels perfectly healthy and happy. For his part, Barney seems like a lovely man and treats her very well; for Christmas he even surprises her with a gift of a pearl-bead necklace, which she is thrilled with.

Then, in the spring, they're taking a walk along the railway line when Valancy's shoe gets caught. There's a train coming and Barney has to cut the laces and pull her out of the shoe in order to save her. Crisis averted, except that with her heart problem, the shock should have killed her. They both realize what that means and Barney disappears into the woods (ostensibly to think) and Valancy heads back to the doctor, where she discovers that she received a letter meant for someone else. On her way back to Barney's she meets a gentleman on the road, one Dr. Redfern, maker of the horrid Purple Pills. She discovers that Barney is his son (and heir to the fortune) and had never touched his trust fund due to a falling out some years back. But, her necklace was in fact real pearls and had cost $15,000, which is how Dr. Redfern came to know the whereabouts of his son. It also turns out that Barney is the author of Valancy's favourite books.

She leaves, thinking he will think she was using him for his money; instead, he thinks she's gone because she can't stand to be associated with his family after all the lies he has told. But, because this is an L.M. Montgomery novel, you just know that it all works out in the end.

Besides having some of the more outrageous names of any Montgomery book, The Blue Castle also has some of the crazier drama. It isn't part of a series, so Montgomery had to put all her plot points into one novel, which makes it quite a fast-paced read and a rather rollicking story. Where some of her earlier stories get weighed down with morals and religious elements (not a criticism so much as an observation), this one eschews all of that. Or rather, Valancy does. Those societal norms and pressures are very much present, but by allowing Valancy to be free of them, Montgomery frees herself of them as well. In some ways, I wonder if Anne Shirley was a foil for who Montgomery was, and Valancy represents what she wished she could be. That's pure speculation, but in a lot of ways, they are two sides to the same daring and imaginative coin.

The Blue Castle
by Lucy Maude Montgomery
First published in 1926 (cover image from Seal Books edition)

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