My rating: After reading Kilmeny of the Orchard, an easy 10, but stepping back a bit, for general comparison to other novels of this vintage and genre (I’m thinking D.E. Stevenson here, I must admit, because I’ve been discovering her light romantic novels these past few months) how about a nice solid 8/10. Will that do, Blue Castle fans? I did enjoy re-reading this one, after a hiatus of many years.
Though often referred to as one of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s “forgotten” books, the internet abounds with reviews – its page on Goodreads – The Blue Castle alone has over one thousand reviews, and seven thousand plus ratings. It scores an extremely respectable 4.22/5. This is a well-loved book!
Anything I say here would be superfluous to the discussion; I know others have covered this ground before, often with great eloquence and passionate approval. I’ll put forward my opinion nevertheless.
Montgomery’s stories tend to be full of stuffy matriarchs and patriarchs making life miserable for their cowed extended families; the worm turning sets the narrative in motion and has the reader cheering for the underdog; if all goes well we come to the end with a better appreciation for what makes everyone in that fictional little world tick. The Blue Castle is no exception; it follows the pattern perfectly, and with satisfying results. This story almost defines the comfort read, and I suspect that is how most of its advocates use it, to administer a little boost of fantasy and happy ending to real lives fraught – and whose life is completely free of these? – with anxiety and sadness.
Valancy Stirling is having her twenty-ninth birthday, and her level of depression couldn’t be much lower. Living with her emotionally distant mother and whiny, elderly Cousin Stickles, Valancy’s days are a repetitive round of dusting and duty jobs; the attic chests overflow with the quilts the three have spent their countless hours piecing together, and every moment of Valancy’s time must be accounted for and justified.
Idleness was a cardinal sin in the Stirling household. When Valancy had been a child she had been made to write down every night, in a small, hated, black notebook, all the minutes she had spent in idleness that day. On Sundays her mother made her tot them up and pray over them.
But Valancy has an even more insistent woe. In a world which values a woman by her achievement of a “good” marriage, Valancy is a confirmed spinster. No man has so much as looked at her with interest, and as her unvoiced desire for love increases with the years, so does her drabness and depression. Valancy is very much on the shelf, an unwanted piece of merchandise, and her large extended family, from her own bullying mother, to her perennially teasing rich bachelor Uncle Benjamin, to her gorgeous, patronizing, engaged-to-be-married cousin Olive, don’t let her forget it for a second.
Valancy’s only escape is into daydreams of a fantasy life.
Valancy, so cowed and subdued and overridden and snubbed in real life, was wont to let herself go rather splendidly in her day-dreams. Nobody in the Stirling clan, or its ramifications, suspected this, least of all her mother and Cousin Stickles. They never knew that Valancy had two homes–the ugly red brick box of a home, on Elm Street, and the Blue Castle in Spain. Valancy had lived spiritually in the Blue Castle ever since she could remember. She had been a very tiny child when she found herself possessed of it. Always, when she shut her eyes, she could see it plainly, with its turrets and banners on the pine-clad mountain height, wrapped in its faint, blue loveliness, against the sunset skies of a fair and unknown land. Everything wonderful and beautiful was in that castle. Jewels that queens might have worn; robes of moonlight and fire; couches of roses and gold; long flights of shallow marble steps, with great, white urns, and with slender, mist-clad maidens going up and down them; courts, marble-pillared, where shimmering fountains fell and nightingales sang among the myrtles; halls of mirrors that reflected only handsome knights and lovely women–herself the loveliest of all, for whose glance men died. All that supported her through the boredom of her days was the hope of going on a dream spree at night. Most, if not all, of the Stirlings would have died of horror if they had known half the things Valancy did in her Blue Castle.
For one thing she had quite a few lovers in it. Oh, only one at a time…At twelve, this lover was a fair lad with golden curls and heavenly blue eyes. At fifteen, he was tall and dark and pale, but still necessarily handsome. At twenty, he was ascetic, dreamy, spiritual. At twenty-five, he had a clean-cut jaw, slightly grim, and a face strong and rugged rather than handsome. Valancy never grew older than twenty-five in her Blue Castle, but recently–very recently–her hero had had reddish, tawny hair, a twisted smile and a mysterious past.
Aha! That last lover has a counterpart in the real world, who shall soon be introduced. In the tradition of all romantic novels, something is about to happen.
In Valancy’s case, the immediate something is her independent decision to go secretly to a doctor for a consultation about her increasingly severe heart pains, which she has kept hidden from her overbearing family. She can’t go to the family doctor, as word would soon be out, so she decides instead to consult old Dr. Trent, a noted heart specialist who lives in the same (fictional) Ontario town of Deerwood as the Stirling clan.
Dr. Trent doesn’t say much during the examination, and while Valancy waits for his return to the consulting room, a phone call sends the doctor rushing away on another emergency. Valancy goes home no more enlightened as to her condition than she was before the appointment, but some weeks later a letter comes from Dr. Trent. He is sorry that he had to leave her hanging, but he has some bad news for her. Miss Sterling has an incurable heart condition, and could die at any moment. She might last a year at most, with extreme care and good luck. In the meantime, avoid all exertion and strong sentiment, and hope for the best. (Those of you with keen eyes will spot a clue in this paragraph. It’s there in the book, too.)
The diagnosis of imminent death sends Valancy over the edge. With nothing to lose, she immediately starts to voice the many thoughts regarding her relatives which she has kept hidden all these years. They are taken aback at mousy little Valancy’s sudden outspokenness. Not sure how to handle her, they retreat into enclaves to murmur “Crazy!”, but by and large they back off and observe her with startled eyes, an improvement of sorts from the previous incessant teasing.
Valancy then goes one further. She decides to move in with a childhood friend who has been a victim of circumstance (summer job away from home, love affair, illegitimate baby which only lives for a year etc.) and is now dying of “consumption” (tuberculosis). The good people of Deerfield have distanced themselves from the sad fate of Cissy Abel, especially since her father just happens to be the town drunk, “Roaring Abel”. The only person who has shown any sympathy for poor Cissy is another social outcast, the mysterious Barney Snaith, who is a reclusive type who lives alone on an island in nearby Lake Mistawis, showing up occasionally to beat around town in his decrepit old car in the company of Abel.
Valancy has only seen Barney twice before, but has been intrigued by his oddly handsome appearance and devil-may-care attitude. Wonder if that means anything? What do you think, dear fellow readers?
So that’s the set-up. (And oops, I forgot to mention that Valancy’s only other emotional outlet in her long, dreary twenty-nine years, other than her Blue Castle daydreams, has been reading the works of a certain John Foster, who writes romantically about the wonders of the natural world. Valancy has whole passages of his works memorized; she has been surreptitiously reading his books for years, as often as she can smuggle them from the sympathetic librarian and past her eagle-eyed mother.)
Poor Cissy dies. The Deerwood townspeople, influenced by the Stirling clan who have decided they need to regularize Valancy’s move to the Abel home by rallying round her, hypocritically show up in great force for the funeral. With Cissy dead and buried, Valancy is now rather at loose ends, and, to prevent having to return to her stifling old life, she comes up with an audacious idea.
And here I will leave you. I’m sure you will be able to make some good guesses as to what happens next. Or maybe not!
Super-sentimental, but with a goodly leaven of outspoken criticism of societal and moral hypocrisies. Valancy speaks out and we cheer her on, wondering only that it took her so long to cast off the shackles of manners to do so. No, that’s not quite right. Valancy stays terribly polite; she merely exposes the sugar-coated – and sometimes blatantly naked – rudeness of the other people who have been immune to comment because of their aggressive superiority.
The plot has some cute twists and turns, and a not very surprising (but perfectly fitting) “surprise” ending.
Valancy’s island cabin to me is much more of a daydream ideal than her lavish Blue Castle in Spain; I sighed a bit over the thought of a cozy, tiny house on an island, with no need to earn an income or worry about the drains, or deal with obnoxious neighbours or bossy family members (not saying that I have either – oh no! – but Valancy has had them, in spades, so my pleasure in her escape was purely vicarious in that aspect) – anyway – the vision of her island idyll is pure comfortable fantasy and I wish I could go there occasionally in real life versus merely through the escape of reading.
A more mature book in many ways than the earlier novels featuring Anne, Emily and the residents of Avonlea and other P.E.I. environs. It is often mentioned that this was written “for adults”, but there is nothing objectionable which a teen of today couldn’t handle; I’d say age range twelve and upwards would be just right. Definitely a “romance novel”, and could be classified as something of a “girls’/women’s book”, though the men in my life have read and enjoyed it for the humour and the gently diverting story. Happy ending, in the best fairytale tradition.
And check out this Pinterest page, which I stumbled upon while searching out a picture of the probably fictional Grey Slosson car which Barney drives. Some lovely images collected here which I thought added greatly to this quite charming novel. And look at this lovely cover illustration, found on that page. I thought this was much better than that on the cover of my own paperback copy!