I have loved Anne of Green Gables since I was a very small child, and I read it and all of its sequels over and over again. But it never occurred to me to find out whether L M Montgomery had written anything else. It was only a few years ago, thanks to a chance find in a bookshop bargain bin and meeting any number of bookish folk on the internet that I learned that she had. And that The Blue Castle may be the most beloved of all her books.
I went looking for a copy, and it took a while, because it wasn’t in print in the UK at the time, but I found a lovely old copy that wasn’t too expensive. I enjoyed owning it and admiring it, I enjoyed the prospect of reading a lovely book. Reading isn’t the only pleasure in book ownership!
Earlier this year I spotted a reissue, and I decided it was time to take my book off the shelf and read.
I loved it!
the Blue Castle tells the story of Valancy Stirling. She is twenty years old and she is trapped in the role of spinster daughter, living with her widowed mother and her Cousin Stickles. They treat her like a child, restrict her like a child, and make her feel that she is a burden and a disappointment to them. They don’t listen. None of her extended family, who live around and about a Canadian country town. They tease her, they laugh at her, but they don’t listen. Nobody listens.
Valancy escapes into her head, where she has created a rich fantasy world that she shares with her dashing prince in her beautiful Blue Castle.
“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 queen 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 sung among the myrtles; halls of mirrors that reflected only handsome knights and lovely women – herself the loveliest of all, for whose glance med died…”
And she escapes into her books, especially into the works of naturalist John Foster. Nothing was more magical to Valancy than nature.
When her birthday dawns Valancy awakes to the realisation that imagination and books are not enough, and that she has to do something, anything, to change her life.
She begins with one small trip: a solo trip to the doctor, to talk privately about a strange feeling in her heart that has been worrying her for quite some time. The news is shocking: the doctor tells her that she has just one year to live.
Valancy decides that in that year she will live. Really live! She spoke her mind, she stood up to her family. She tore up the rule book and followed her instinct instead. And then she decided to move out, to nurse a sick school-friend, the daughter of the town drunk who was ostracised by the town when she bore an illegitimate child. Valancy was happy keeping house, having someone to care for, being needed and appreciated.
When Valancy’s friend died her family thought that she would come home, that she would settle down again. But she did something worse. She took up with someone else who had been ostracised by town society, a friend of her friends. And she married him. They lived together in his country home, and Valancy was blissfully happy. At the very end of her life she had found her Blue Castle, and her handsome prince.
It felt like a happy ending, but of course it wasn’t that simple …
I fell in love with Valancy on the very first page, and I lived and breathed with her to the very last page. My heart rose and fell so many times, I wanted to cheer for her, I wanted to weep for her, and most of all I wanted to hug her. I loved her spirit and I loved the spirit of her story.
L M Montgomery catches everything: the sadness of Valancy’s constrained life; the selfish, snobbish, thoughtlessness of her family; the pleasures in life and friendship that she discovers; the vitality of her rebellion; the joy to be found in simple pleasures; the romance of what might be her happy ending …
And there were so, so many rich, vivid descriptions to get lost in.
“Sometimes they took a lunch with them and went berrying–strawberries and blueberries. How pretty blueberries were–the dainty green of the unripe berries, the glossy pinks and scarlets of the half ripes, the misty blue of the fully matured! And Valancy learned the real flavour of the strawberry in its highest perfection. There was a certain sunlit dell on the banks of Mistawis along which white birches grew on one side and on the other still, changeless ranks of young spruces. There were long grasses at the roots of the birches, combed down by the winds and wet with morning dew late into the afternoons. Here they found berries that might have graced the banquets of Lucullus, great ambrosial sweetnesses hanging like rubies to long, rosy stalks. They lifted them by the stalk and ate them from it, uncrushed and virgin, tasting each berry by itself with all its wild fragrance ensphered therein. When Valancy carried any of these berries home that elusive essence escaped and they became nothing more than the common berries of the market-place–very kitchenly good indeed, but not as they would have been, eaten in their birch dell until her fingers were stained as pink as Aurora’s eyelids. Sometimes they went trouting on little nameless rivers or hidden brooks on whose banks Naiads might have sunned their white, wet limbs. Then all they took with them were some raw potatoes and salt. They roasted the potatoes over a fire and Barney showed Valancy how to cook the trout by wrapping them in leaves, coating them with mud and baking them in a bed of hot coals. Never were such delicious meals.”
But I do have to say though that the plot is a little stretched, that it does go on rather – even as I was reading happily I found myself thinking from time to time that I had got it, that she didn’t need to labour the point, that it was time to move things along. And that she laid on the romance and sentimentality far too thickly in the later chapters.
But now I’ve gone on. It’s that sort of book!
I did love The Blue Castle, I just need to remember that it is a book that needs the right moment. A sentimental, leisurely, comfort-reading kind of moment …