The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery
originally published 1926
Bantam, 14th printing, 1989
Genre: Romance, satire, young adult
Synopsis & Review: Valancy Stirling—called ‘Doss” by her family because they’re jerks—turns thirty and is suddenly overwhelmed by how drab, unpleasant, and just plain loveless her life is. Mocked by her relatives for her unmarried state, her plainness, and her delicacy, she is treated like a child by her stuffy, judgmental relatives—and a halfwitted one at that. Worried over a chest pain, Valancy indulges in a very minor rebellion by going to a doctor not approved of by her family, but ends up feeling worse than ever when he races out of her appointment as though he forgot her entirely. A few days later, however, Valancy receives a letter from the doctor, a letter announcing that he has diagnosed her with a fatal heart malady, and that she has no more than a year to live, and perhaps far less. After a long, white night in which she examines her paltry life, Valancy rises in the morning with a sense of purpose.
She begins casting off her family’s oppressiveness by hacking away at the rose bush given her by Cousin Georgiana, a rose bush that has flourished, but never bloomed (HIGHLY SYMBOLIC). Her mother and cousin Stickles begin worrying as Valancy begins rearranging her bedroom furniture and answering back impudently instead of meekly assenting to any request/order. Uncle Benjamin notices something different when she fails to laugh along with his (terrible) jokes. But it is at a family dinner where Valancy lets loose which such a stream of perversity and unblushing observation that her family begins to think she’s quite mad.
Spurred on to ever greater heights of rebellion, Valancy then promptly packs her things and goes to stay with Roaring Abel Gay in order to care for her former schoolmate Cecily, who is dying after a long illness following the death of her out-of-wedlock child. Though the rest of the community shuns Cecily, Valancy makes the girl’s last days more comfortable, and earns the friendship of Roaring Abel and his friend, the mysterious and much gossiped about Barney Snaith. After Cecily’s death, Valancy presumes upon the friendship that has sprung up between herself and Barney, and explains to him that she too is dying, and would he marry her and help her to live her life tot he fullest for the time she has left?
Life with Barney is everything Valancy could have dreamt of, and she has never been happier. The only fly in her ointment is knowing that it will not last–and wondering whether Barney could learn to love her as she does him.
Oh, Lucy Maud, you are wicked! Who else could pen such a delightful romance and biting social satire in one slim novel? The Blue Castle is marvelously entertaining, and so funny–SO FUNNY. When Valancy let’s it all hang out at the family supper, anyone would be hard put to not laugh. It’s really a pity that Lucy Maud spent so much time writing so many series books when her stand-alone adult output is so very good.
For once Lucy Maud has written a male lead who isn’t hopelessly bland; Barney Snaith is interesting and alive (more than I can say for Gilbert Blythe), and an excellent foil for Valancy’s shyness as she begins clambering out of the shell she’s spent her life in. The romance between the two is entirely satisfying; Lucy Maud carefully develops their characters, allowing Valancy–after her primary outburst–to slowly grow and change. And it is so fun to watch her.
There is a great deal of rhapsodizing over nature, but it is at least essential to the plot and less sentimental than in some of the other novels. It’s also nifty to see glimpses of modernity that are so uncommon in the juvenile novels: bobbed hair, automobiles, and even Chinese food. The only weak point of the novel is the “twist” ending, which any observant reader could see from the first chapter or two; the overly contrived coincidences used in so many fo her short stories tend to work better in that format, and also reflects her years of experience writing for magazines. But, I quibble.
Enormously fun is the way Lucy Maud handles Valancy’s family, paragons of respectability and snobbery all. Well, not Cousin Georgiana, who really is a good sort. Here all the little background bits we get in dribs and drabs in the short stories or juvenile novels comes into the foreground as Lucy Maud beautifully lampoons the small town personalities and interactions. These passages sparkle with wit and humor, but Lucy Maud is careful not to reduce her characters to mere caricatures. They have their own complexity, and she doesn’t take the easy route of making them evil or completely heartless. Rather, they are banal and self-important, and puffed up with their own vanities, but they do have kind streaks or good intentions. But for all that, this is still a good deal darker in tone than the juveniles and short stories; in The Blue Castle, Lucy Maud finally gets to say out loud things that were hardly mentioned in other works, touching on sex, alcoholism, illegitimate children, even fisticuffs. Fisticuffs!
An excellent addition to any library, juvenile or adult. Perfect for readers who have exhausted the Anne or Emily books and are ready to move on.
Read also: Chronicles of Avonlea and Further Chronicles of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, The Joyous Season by Patrick Dennis
Cover: Truly wretched. Supposedly Valancy and Barney, though they look like mid-Eighties preppies (WHY IS HIS SWEATER WORN LIKE THAT, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD?) of a particularly insipid sort. Gross. I’m sure this cover was most of the reason I had never read this one before. Someone should write a letter to Bantam, telling them they’re assholes. SO FUGLY. It really upsets me.
Valancy said nothing, of course; but she wondered to herself if Roaring Abel’s periodic sprees were not his futile protest against the poverty and drudgery and monotony of his existence. She went on dream sprees in her Blue Castle. Roaring Abel, having no imagination, could not do that. His escapes from reality had to be concrete. So she waved at him today with a sudden fellow feeling, and Roaring Abel, not too drunk too be astonished, nearly fell off his seat in amazement.
By this time they had reached Maple Avenue and Uncle Herbert’s house, a large, pretentious structure peppered with meaningless bay windows and excresent porches. A house that always looked like a stupid, prosperous, self-satisfied man with warts on his face.
“A house like that,” said Valancy solemnly, “is a blasphemy.”
Mrs Frederick was shaken to her soul. What had Valancy said? Was it profane? Or only just queer? Mrs Frederick took off her hat in Alberta’s spareroom with trembling hands. She made one feeble attempt to avert disaster. She held Valancy back on the landing as Cousin Stickles went downstairs.
“Won’t you try to remember you’re a lady?” she pleaded.
“Oh, if there were only any hope of being able to forget it!” said Valancy wearily.
Mrs Frederick felt that she had not deserved this from Providence.