The Blue Castle is the first non-Anne Shirley book of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s that I’ve ever read. Difficult to say whether it is a young adult or an adult novel: it has much the same style as the early Anne novels, but it’s difficult to picture a twelve-year-old being that interested in either spinsterhood or death, both of which are preoccupations of the novel. Of course, “young adult” did not exist as a category when the book was written – books were either for children or for adults – so perhaps it’s a moot point anyway. It opens with Valancy Stirling, spinster of the Deerwood Stirlings, waking in the wee fretful hours on a particularly grey and drizzly day. In fact, the day is her 29th birthday, which is destined to go unnoticed by anyone apart from the woman herself.
The first fifth of the novel is given over to Valancy’s experiences as a single woman just trying to get by. The picture of spinsterhood is simultaneously very relatable, and very far from it. It will be recognisable to any woman who has had the temerity to be single over the age of 25 in a church: the constant remarks about marriage, the unfunny jokes, the busybodies who present their little digs as “concern”, the constant chat about how Wives and Mothers are Truly the Best of Us, Aren’t They? (I know whereof I speak: I’ve recently moved church after a decade, in large part because I lost patience with all the nonsense). This joke [sic], for example, I could practically hear someone telling:
And Uncle Benjamin would ask some of his abominable conundrums, between wheezy chuckles, and answer them himself.
‘What is the difference between Doss [Valancy] and a mouse?’
‘The mouse wishes to harm the cheese and Doss wishes to charm the he’s.’
At the same time, it is a much grimmer picture than most single women in liberal democracies would experience these days. Although Valancy herself is pretty resigned to her singleness, caring more about the associated rejection than about the state itself, it has a terrible stranglehold on her freedom. As she reflects – better by far to be an old maid than to be married to a man like Uncle Benjamin, though she wishes she’d had the choice to be an old maid. Yet Valency is so constrained by her singleness – living in the same room where she grew up, still being told off by her mother and Cousin Stickles, not even permitted to change her hairstyle because she still has to put it up the way she did when she was seventeen. At one point, the whole clan debates whether 29-year-old Valancy is too old to be spanked for being rude to a family member.
It’s difficult to remember that the book was published in 1926. Anne Shirley graduated from Redmond College in the 1880s, after all, before Valancy was even born, so the latter’s lack of agency is hard to fathom. I’m not sure exactly when the book is set – we get a few hints that it’s not as late as 1926, but cars are reasonably common. Montgomery makes it just about believable, though, with a focus on the behaviour of the Stirling family – they have crushed and confined Valancy, as a result of her plainness, since she was a young girl. This section drags a bit. Were it any longer, I think the point about the terrible, horrible no good, very bad Stirlings would have been emphasised beyond reason. As it is, there’s more than enough of it – but at least it means that we get as fed up as Valancy is herself. I won’t go into all the circumstances that turn her into an unexpected rebel, but suffice to say that Valancy eventually has her fill and decides to stand up for herself. The remaining 80% or so of the novel is given over to the consequences of this shocking behaviour.
This is, ultimately, a romance novel, which is outside my normal scope of reading. I guessed where the plot was heading pretty early on, and none of my expectations were confounded. Right now, though, it made for a very necessary break from the news. I cannot in good conscience claim that I cared about the romance for its own sake, but I absolutely loved seeing Valancy have the confidence to stand up for herself to the bullies and petty tyrants in her family. I was also pleased that the confidence came first, and the romance was the result rather than the cause of it. She isn’t rescued from her situation; she rescues herself. One of the first things she does is take a job, to the absolute scandal of the Deerwood Stirlings. Given the extent to which I grumble that women in these older novels never do anything proactive to change their situations, I was delighted that Valancy took steps on her own to improve her lot.
I also enjoyed the tonal shift that occurred alongside this change. In the early part of the novel, Montgomery’s trademark nature writing is confined to the brief excerpts from Valancy’s beloved John Foster books (the only things she is permitted to read – because they are “improving”), and the rest of the work is fairly cynical and grey – still beautifully written, of course, but lacking the verve and spirit that I associate with her work. But as Valancy breaks her bonds and steps out of her expected role, the tone becomes much more what one would expect from a Montgomery novel. The title is a nod to Valancy’s “Blue Castle” – the place she escapes to in her imagination as a break from her surroundings – and the book is really about her building up her own version of the Blue Castle, and not needing her imagination so much any more. All of a sudden, she is surrounded by nature and beauty and peace, and that is reflected in much richer writing.
But now she loved winter. Winter was beautiful “up back” – almost intolerably beautiful. Days of clear brilliance. Evenings that were like cups of glamour – the purest vintage of winter’s wine. Nights with their fire of stars. Cold, exquisite winter sunrises. Lovely ferns of ice all over the windows of the Blue Castle. Moonlight on birches in a silver thaw. Ragged shadows on windy evenings – torn, twisted, fantastic shadows. Great silences, austere and searching. Jewelled, barbaric hills. The sun suddenly breaking through grey clouds over long, white Mistawis. Ice-grey twilights, broken by snow-squalls, when their cosy living-room, with its goblins of firelight and inscrutable cats, seemed cosier than ever. Every hour brought a new revalation and wonder
Really, the plot of this little novel is extremely slight. In normal circumstances, I doubt I would have loved it as much as I did, though I’m sure I would have enjoyed the writing for itself. Valancy is a delightful character (especially post-rebellion Valancy), as is Roaring Abel, the man she goes to work for – but they wouldn’t have been enough on their own to carry the novel for me. I found Valancy’s love interest pretty flat until the final pages, where he does improve a bit. Still, as I said above, it was precisely what the doctor ordered on this occasion – highly recommended if you want a sweet, funny, well-written story that won’t tax your brain too much.