Valancy Stirling’s Inner Life

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My sister Bethie Baxter objects to my criticism of Valancy Stirling’s lack of ambition. She read the blog post I wrote last week, “‘Going in for realities’ in L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle,” and she wrote to tell me what she thinks of Valancy’s passion for reading and her “inner, creative, intelligent life.” And then she agreed to let me share her analysis here, as a guest post for The Blue Castle readalong that my friend Naomi MacKinnon and I are hosting this month. (Naomi wrote about the book on Monday: “5 Reasons Why I Shouldn’t Like The Blue Castle #ReadingValancy.”)

In this post, Bethie mentions that she doesn’t have a copy of the novel with her—she’s writing about the book based on what she remembers from reading it many times over the years. The copy she used to have was one she borrowed from me, maybe about twenty years ago, and I’m delighted that she has derived so much pleasure from it. She’s read it so many times that the cover and the first several pages are falling off, and I don’t mind that at all because it’s evidence of her love for the book.

I’ve reread Montgomery’s Anne and Emily books over the last few years, but I didn’t notice my copy of The Blue Castle was missing until Naomi suggested last spring that we read it together. Bethie kindly returned my book and she has since moved from Boston, Massachusetts to Bonn, Germany with her family. I’m thinking I’ll send the book back to her after the readalong, although she insists I ought to keep it because it matches my other McClelland and Stewart “Canadian Favourites” editions of Montgomery’s novels. I think she should have it, because while I do love the novel, she loves it more than I do!

Bethie Baxter

I’m really pleased to have this chance to share Bethie’s writing with you today. I have always thought of her as the Elizabeth Bennet of our family, because she’s lively, witty, and very, very smart, and also because her name, Elizabeth Baxter, is so similar. (I haven’t yet figured out parallels for the rest of our family.) For years, I’ve been impressed with my sister’s astute insights about the novels of Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, and L.M. Montgomery, three of my favourite writers. Bethie has an MA in Classics from Dalhousie University and she’s currently working on a PhD at Boston University, writing a dissertation on metaphors for poetic creation in the lyric poetry of Pindar.

Bethie tells me she has mostly classical texts with her in Bonn—”and not nearly enough novels!!!”—so I’m planning to send a few other novels to her when my parents go to Germany for Christmas. (Hi Mom and Dad, I know you read the blog, and I hope you won’t mind packing some extra books in your suitcases next month….) Fortunately, Bethie has all of Jane Austen with her—“Brought her in my suitcase,” she says. “Could not have waited the 6-10 weeks for the shipment to arrive. So far I have reread Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion (maximum comfort needed for extreme life changes).”

What shall I send her? Do any of you want to suggest some of your favourite novels? I’ve thought of Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War (my favourite novel of 2016). And I’ve been rereading Carol Shields recently—Small Ceremonies, Larry’s Party, and Unless—so maybe I’ll send a couple of her books, too.

In my blog post last week, since I didn’t have any photos of what November looks like in the Muskoka region of Ontario, I included some of my photos of November in Nova Scotia. For this week’s post, I asked Bethie to send some pictures from Bonn. She took these yesterday when she went for a walk in the fields near her house. And at the bottom of the post I’ll add a picture of that much-loved edition of The Blue Castle, which I now think of as hers instead of mine.

Path in Bonn

From the letter Bethie wrote to me earlier this week:

I enjoyed seeing your recent blog about The Blue Castle. As you know it has long been a favourite of mine. I wonder, though, if it is fair to say that Valancy isn’t courageous like Anne or Emily because she aspires only to take control of her own happiness, and does not also pursue education and a literary career as they do. For one thing, their circumstances are so different. She is not an eleven-year-old girl, she is (she thinks) an old woman, standing at the end of life, standing at death’s door. Doesn’t ambition (literary or otherwise) require hope for the future? Valancy has none.

She also has never met anyone in her life who would foster or respond to or encourage any sign of intelligence in her. Even orphaned Emily, who might seem to have no one, and many against her, always has the memory of her father. Her father took her creative talents seriously when she was a small child and that support powerfully fuels her ambition as she grows up. Emily also then eventually meets with a whole cast of sympathetic characters who nourish her ambition in valuable ways (Cousin Jimmy, Teddy, Mr. Carpenter…). In contrast, Valancy’s childhood and indeed her whole life have passed, and not once has she met with a single creative, sympathetic soul that responds to her own. What would that be like? What kind of ambition would be possible given that experience?

(A warning for those of you who haven’t yet reached the end of the novel: there’s a plot spoiler ahead, so you may want to stop reading here.)

Field near Bonn

I also think it would be wrong to assume (as I think the critic you quoted does) that Valancy’s romantic daydreams are the only (paltry) evidence we have of her inner, creative, intelligent life. Valancy doesn’t write, but she does read, and she is a dedicated and passionate reader. It is her one act of rebellion, even when still under the power of her controlling family, to take out library books! When she is not permitted to read novels, she turns to the philosophical nature writing of John Foster (or is it Forster? I don’t have a copy at hand). These books have been the only thing sustaining her through the narrow ugliness of her life.

Field near Bonn

I have always thought that it is a not very well-kept secret that the real identity of the mysterious John Foster (?) is not, after all, Barney, but Lucy Maud Montgomery herself. The elusive figure of the nature writer within the story provides the opportunity for Montgomery to infuse this novel particularly with a kind of writing that is important to her (and that she is especially good at). Those brilliant and shimmering, transcendent nature passages of “John Foster” are (for me) at the core of who Montgomery is as a writer. They are also the sort of passages that an Anne or an Emily would write. Valancy is their reader. And she is a good reader. She is an appreciative reader, receptive to the illumination and joy her reading brings her. I don’t think we should take this as “silence” on the education of women.

I’ve also always thought that The Blue Castle would make a great film. To me, the novel is so bright it’s basically already a screenplay. A few Canadian actors and some Ontario scenery are all that’s missing…

The Blue Castle, by L.M. Montgomery

More information about The Blue Castle readalong: “An Invitation to Read The Blue Castle, by L.M. Montgomery”

Blog posts on the novel:

Naomi MacKinnon (Consumed By Ink): “5 Reasons Why I Shouldn’t Like The Blue Castle #ReadingValancy”

Miss Bates Reads Romance: Opening-Line Mini-Review: L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle

Rohan Maitzen: “My First Romance?: L.M. Mongomery, The Blue Castle”

Brona’s Books: “The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery”