Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote The Blue Castle in 1924, at the same time as she was attempting to write Emily’s Quest. Unlike the last Emily book, LMM enjoyed writing The Blue Castle. In The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery Volume III: 1921-1929, she writes “I have enjoyed writing it very much. It seemed a refuge from the cares and worries of my real world.” (Feb. 8, 1925) And “I am sorry it is done. It has been for several months a daily escape from a world of intolerable realities.” (Mar. 10, 1925)
When she wrote The Blue Castle, LMM had intended it to be for adults. According to Mary Henley Rubio in The Gift of Wings, she was tired of being pegged only as a children’s author. But it was often treated like a children’s book anyway. As a result, “its mature subject got it banned for children in a number of places”. LMM found herself facing the same unfairness her characters must face. “While she was censored for mentioning an unwed mother (who dies, no less), young writers like [Morley] Callaghan were earning praise for sympathetic treatment of down-and-outers and prostitutes.”
However, she did enjoy much success with The Blue Castle. She writes in her journal on Jan.22, 1927 that she received a letter from Mr. Stokes saying that “they have done so well with it that he wants me to write another similar to it as soon as possible.” Which, I believe, becomes A Tangled Web. (Maybe that will be the next Readalong?)
It’s probably been almost 10 years since I read The Blue Castle, and before that I was in my teens. I noticed this time around that there were several times I found myself wondering why I love this book so much. Because, despite all the reasons I can think of not to love it, I still do. Unabashedly.
5 reasons why I shouldn’t like The Blue Castle, but do anyway:
1) Constant reminders of Valancy’s plain and ordinary looks. And just as many of her cousin Olive’s great beauty.
Okay, I have to admit that I did get tired of hearing about the characters’ looks… I really noticed it in this book more so than the others I’ve re-read.
But… the point is that looks don’t matter. Olive may be beautiful, but she’s a pain in the butt. And Valancy may be plain, but she’s smart and interesting and kind and has earned the love of a better man than Olive will ever find (um, and other people too). And the plain girl turned glowing and lovely in the eyes of a man should make my eyes roll, and probably would if written by a contemporary author, but LMM wrote this almost 100 years ago when it was (presumably) still fresh material.
2) In her post about The Blue Castle, Sarah mentions the lack of ambition Valancy seems to have in comparison to Anne Shirley and Emily Byrd Starr, outside of personal happiness. “Valancy is ambitious about finding love—she despairs that “no man has ever desired her” (Chapter 1)—but while she is a reader, she’s never had any professional ambitions.”
But… Valancy grew up without love. When you have love, maybe it’s easier to focus on other ambitions, but when you don’t, perhaps it’s all you can think about. Her happiness with Cecily and Roaring Abel suggests she wasn’t necessarily looking only for romantic love. As well, it was 1926, a time when women didn’t have many choices; the easiest way to get away from her family for the long term was through marriage.
3) Implausibility. There are a lot of things that happen in The Blue Castle that are unlikely. If you’ve read it, you know what I mean.
But… this is actually part of what makes it a fun read. The implausibility also adds to the unpredictability of the story. In Rubio’s biography, she states “This book is wonderfully implausible, but readers willingly suspend their disbelief.”
4) Barney seems to get away with a lot of secrets while they’re married, and Valancy doesn’t seem the least concerned. This could be one of the items included in #3, but I wanted to mention it separately. If it were me, I’d be dying of curiosity about Barney’s past and what he’s doing in his secret room.
But… I don’t know what it’s like to know you could die at any time. Maybe you stop caring about secrets and pasts and just enjoy what you can. Maybe we should all try it.
5) The Blue Castle is basically a romance novel, and I don’t normally read romance novels. (Admittedly, I haven’t tried one in a long time, but the ones I’ve tried have not converted me.)
But… As much as The Blue Castle is a romance, it’s also full of truths about people and how the world works. I like to think of every feminist remark and scornful dig at society in her books as LMM’s way of fighting against it all, as well as a way for her to live vicariously through her characters.
As Mary Henley Rubio says in her biograpy, “The book provides genuine insights about how personalities are moulded. It also captures and defuses the corrosive and explosive rebellion in its author’s soul.” And… “The hard-hitting but hilarious verbal exchanges between well-sketched characters expose all of Maud’s disdain for social sham and hypocrisy, and must have left many of the readers of her time gasping for air – some in shock, others in laughter.”
But most of all… I love the way LMM writes. Reading her books makes me feel young again. And like the world is a beautiful place where anything can happen.
Some favourite passages…
[Opening paragraph] If it had not rained on a certain May morning Valancy Stirling’s whole life would have been entirely different. She would have gone, with the rest of her clan, to Aunt Wellington’s engagement picnic and Dr. Trent would have gone to Montreal. But it did rain and you shall hear what happened to her because of it.
“Fear is the original sin,” wrote John Foster. “Almost all the evil in the world has its origin in the fact that someone is afraid of something. It is a cold, slimy serpent coiling about you. It is horrible to live with fear; and it is of all things degrading.”
Isn’t it better to have your heart broken than to have it wither up?… Before it could be broken it must have felt something splendid. That would be worth the pain.
Men had the best of it, no doubt about that. This outlaw was happy, whatever he was or wasn’t. She, Valancy Stirling, respectable, well-behaved to the last degree, was unhappy and had always been unhappy. So there you were.
I’ve been keeping up appearances all my life. Now I’m going in for realities. Appearances can go hang.
But Valancy, between the devil of disloyalty to clan and the deep sea of fuss and clatter and advice, thought she would take a chance with the devil.
It had never occurred to him [Valancy’s uncle] that women had to be, or ought to be, made happy.
The greatest happiness… is to sneeze when you want to.
“Warm fire—books—comfort—safety from storm—our cats on the rug. Moonlight,” said Barney, “would you be any happier now if you had a million dollars?”
We chose November for our readalong because of this passage from the book about November in Mistawis, Ontario (where The Blue Castle is set).
November–with uncanny witchery in its changed trees. With murky red sunsets flaming in smoky crimson behind the westering hills. With dear days when the austere woods were beautiful and gracious in a dignified serenity of folded hands and closed eyes–days full of a fine, pale sunshine that sifted through the late, leafless gold of the juniper-trees and glimmered among the grey beeches, lighting up evergreen banks of moss and washing the colonnades of the pines. Days with a high-sprung sky of flawless turquoise. Days when an exquisite melancholy seemed to hang over the landscape and dream about the lake. But days, too, of the wild blackness of great autumn storms, followed by dank, wet, streaming nights when there was witch-laughter in the pines and fitful moans among the mainland trees. What cared they? Old Tom had built his roof well, and his chimney drew.
Who else could make November sound so good?
Other Blog posts on The Blue Castle (If you have one, let us know in the comments!):
Sarah Emsley/Bethie Baxter: Valancy Stirling’s Inner Life
Brona’s Books: The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery
Rohan Maitzen: My First Romance? L.M. Montgomery, The Blue Castle
Miss Bates Reads Romance: Opening-Line Mini-Review: L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle