The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

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The Blue Castle

by L.M. Montgomery
1926
Classic

This guest review on The Blue Castle is from Erin M.

Erin M is a high school English teacher living in Oklahoma City, and she writes romance as Laine Ferndale with her amazing writing partner. Her first book, The Scandalous Mrs. Wilson, is published by Crimson Romance: it’s set in turn-of-the-century Canada and the hero shares a last name with Valancy. Good artists borrow, great artists steal, right? On that note, please don’t rat her out to the librarians at Live Oak High School, who presumably have a “Wanted” poster with her picture posted behind the checkout desk.

The Blue Castle was one of those random, magical finds that prove the importance of idle browsing in libraries and bookstores. I picked up the paperback in my high school library just because I liked the color of the cover; I’d never read the Anne of Green Gables books, so L.M. Montgomery’s name also didn’t ring any bells for me. But it only took maybe a chapter and a half before this book all rang my bells. Thoroughly.

The story’s set in a small town in turn-of-the-century Canada, and the main character, Valancy Stirling, isn’t young, or pretty, or confident, or charming. At twenty-nine, she considers herself an ugly, timid failure, and everyone and everything in her shabby-genteel life reinforces her self-hatred. What she does have is an innate love of beautiful things and a dramatic inner life: her recurring fantasy of life in a romantic “Blue Castle” gives the book its title.

She also nurses a burning desire to tell her extended family where they can shove their endless “old maid” jokes and backhanded advice. But things have never been bad enough to make her risk being ostracized and becoming even more alone than she already is.

Montgomery’s writing in these early chapters is so good that when Valancy is diagnosed with a terminal heart condition, it seems completely reasonable for that to be the best thing that’s ever happened to our girl. Her life is just a never-ending grind of small losses and embarrassments, and she’s relieved to discover that it won’t drag out for another sixty years:

Valancy did not sleep that night. She lay awake all through the long dark, hours — thinking — thinking. She made a discovery that surprised her: she, who had been afraid of almost everything in life, was not afraid of death. It did not seem in the least terrible to her. And she need not now be afraid of anything else. Why had she been afraid of things? Because of life. Afraid of Uncle Benjamin because of the menace of poverty in old age. But now she would never be old — neglected — tolerated. Afraid of being an old maid all her life. But now she would not be an old maid very long. Afraid of offending her mother and her clan because she had to live with and among them and couldn’t live peaceably if she didn’t give in to them. But now she hadn’t. Valancy felt a curious freedom.

She decides to keep her diagnosis a secret because she doesn’t want to “cause a fuss” (so Canadian, right?), and she also decides that life is too short for the ugly clothes and unflattering hairdos her mother has always insisted she wear. From now on she’s going to wear her hair the way she wants, damn it. And she’s going to stop laughing politely at her gross uncle’s gross jokes. And she’s going to redecorate her room.

Her series of small rebellions builds, and the success of each one leaves her happier and braver. By the time she works up the courage to propose (!!!) to local ne’er-do-well Barney Snaith, it feels entirely in character.

Let’s talk about Barney Snaith. Terrible name? Yes, absolutely. But otherwise? Freaking SWOON. He’s the local Man of Mystery: nobody knows where he’s from, he dresses like a day laborer but never seems to work, and he lives alone way out in the woods. Everyone is town is fairly sure he’s “an escaped convict and a defaulting bank clerk and a murderer in hiding and an infidel and an illegitimate son of old Roaring Abel Gay and the father of Roaring Abel’s illegitimate grandchild and a counterfeiter and a forger and a few other awful things.” But he’s also got a warm smile and a great sense of humor, and Valancy likes him immediately. And so will you.

By the way, this book was my first lesson in Never Trusting Covers. 1980s Cover Valancy was gorgeous, and scruffy-looking nerf-herder Barney is apparently Robert Redford fresh off the set of a movie about yachts. Like so:

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montogmery. A woman in a white dress next to a bush of flowers. A man lurks in the background.

Anywhoozle. Barney agrees to marry Valancy. He’s motivated almost completely by pity, and they’re both very up front about that. Valancy moves into his Pinterest-worthy cabin on the lake, meets Barney’s cats Good Luck and Banjo, and generally begins living my best life. Seriously, read this:

Autumn came. Late September with cool nights. They had to forsake the verandah; but they kindled a fire in the big fireplace and sat before it with jest and laughter. They left the doors open, and Banjo and Good Luck came and went at pleasure. Sometimes they sat gravely on the bearskin rug between Barney and Valancy; sometimes they slunk off into the mystery of the chill night outside. The stars smouldered in the horizon mists through the old oriel. The haunting, persistent croon of the pine-trees filled the air. The little waves began to make soft, sobbing splashes on the rocks below them in the rising winds. They needed no light but the firelight that sometimes leaped up and revealed them — sometimes shrouded them in shadow. When the night wind rose higher Barney would shut the door and light a lamp and read to her — poetry and essays and gorgeous, dim chronicles of ancient wars. Barney never would read novels: he vowed they bored him. But sometimes she read them herself, curled up on the wolf skins, laughing aloud in peace. For Barney was not one of those aggravating people who can never hear you smiling audibly over something you’ve read without inquiring placidly, “What is the joke?”

They go on long walks and develop inside jokes. Barney starts calling her “Moonlight” after she tells him she’s never really liked her name, and gives her thoughtful little gifts. As they slowly realize they “like like” each other, the stakes in their relationship go up exponentially.

The book was published in 1926, and while Valancy reads as surprisingly modern, in other ways The Blue Castle is very of its time. Sex, for example, is never directly mentioned. It’s not even clear if Barney and Valancy are sleeping in the same bed after they get married. But their rapport, built on companionship and empathy and shared interests, is so much fun that I didn’t even notice that sex was AWOL until my sixth or seventh reading. Plus Valancy’s medical condition provides a perfect justification for keeping the racing hearts to a minimum.

Show Spoiler
Toward the end of the story, Valancy’s fatal diagnosis is revealed to be a mistake, and the discovery of that mistake leads to a cascading series of twists and reveals in the third act.

I was insanely lucky to read this book when I did, smack in the middle of my awkward late-bloomer period. While my friends all saw themselves as Buffys looking for their tortured-yet-redeemable Spikes and/or Angels, Valancy and Barney became my model for what I wanted in a relationship. They are great friends who are unfailingly kind to one another, even when they argue. They share interests. They share cats! And the idea that plain, frightened Valancy could find love and live the life she wanted without compromising? That was liberating.

Finally, a confession: when I retrieved my battered paperback edition to re-read for this review, I realized that I have the actual copy from my high school library. This book is such a keeper I freaking stole it at some point. You should probably try to acquire your copy legally. (#noregrets)

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