“Valancy was in the midst of realities after a lifetime of unrealities,” writes L.M. Montgomery in her 1926 novel The Blue Castle (Chapter 17). Her heroine rejects the colourless, conventional life she’s been leading and decides to speak the truth and pursue independence. Her mother reports that she’s said “I’ve been keeping up appearances all my life. Now I’m going in for realities. Appearances can go hang.” “Go hang!” her mother repeats in astonishment (Chapter 15).
Faced with the news that she has just one year to live, Valancy chooses to shape the story of her life, instead of continuing to allow her mother and other relatives to control everything. As Elizabeth Waterston writes in Magic Island: The Fictions of L.M. Montgomery (2008), “She opts not to languish, but to live her own life, a mark of her modernity.”
Valancy may be modern in this, and ambitious about taking control of her life, but in other ways she is far less ambitious than some of Montgomery’s other heroines, such as Anne Shirley and Emily Starr, both of whom are ambitious about their education and professional accomplishments as well as about 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. Laura M. Robinson writes that “The only ambition [Valancy] has is tied up in her Blue Castle in Spain, a reference to her constant daydreams of riches and lovers which enable her to tolerate desperate daily conditions in her ugly home with her ugly room and her unloving relatives. The novel is silent, at best, on higher education for women” (“‘A Gift for Friendship’: Revolutionary Friendship in Anne of the Island and The Blue Castle,” in L.M. Montgomery’s Rainbow Valleys: The Ontario Years, 1911-1942, edited by Rita Bode and Lesley D. Clement ).
My friend Naomi and I are hosting a readalong for The Blue Castle this month (see my post from last spring, “An Invitation to Read The Blue Castle, by L.M. Montgomery,” and Naomi’s post from a few weeks ago, “The Blue Castle Readalong: #ReadingValancy”). Please join us, by commenting on her blog and/or mine, by discussing the novel on social media, or by writing your own blog post (please send us the link!).
When I write about Montgomery’s novels, I usually try to illustrate blog posts with photos from trips to Prince Edward Island (or, in the case of Anne of the Island, Nova Scotia), but The Blue Castle is set in Ontario, and I haven’t been to the Muskoka Lakes region that inspired the setting for this novel. I suggested to Naomi that we read the novel in November because of this beautiful passage about November at Mistawis:
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.
“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?” (Chapter 31)
I hadn’t read The Blue Castle since I was about twelve, and I didn’t remember very much about the story. The only thing that really stuck with me over the years was the letter Valancy receives from her doctor, in which he tells her she has a dangerous form of heart disease, and only a year to live. I didn’t remember any details about the terrible way her relatives treat her, or about her romance with Barney Snaith.
On this reading, I was especially interested in the many references to “reality” and “unreality.” Valancy leaves behind that “lifetime of unrealities” to look for “reality.” When Barney accepts her proposal of marriage, however, he says contradictory things. He wants them to be honest with each other: “we are never to pretend anything to each other”; “we’ll never tell a lie to each other about anything—a big lie or a petty lie.” But he also says, “I have things I want to hide”; “You are not to ask me about them.”
I was a little surprised that Valancy accepts these conditions without question (even though she also makes her own condition, that he must never speak of her illness). They begin their marriage promising to be open and honest about everything, except about the things that will always be kept secret. And I was surprised that she doesn’t resent the time he spends shut up in “Bluebeard’s Chamber.” She isn’t even very curious about what he does during those hours. When she thinks of it at all, she speculates that “he must be conducting chemical experiments—or counterfeiting money.” Yet “she did not trouble herself about it,” because “His past and his future concerned her not. Only this rapturous present. Nothing else mattered” (Chapter 29). However, it isn’t just in the past that he locked himself in this room for hours at a time—this is something he’s doing in the present, with no explanation for why he spends all this time away from her. Given that she’s so concerned with “reality,” why doesn’t the truth about what he’s doing matter more?
It was fascinating to learn that Montgomery said she was sorry she’d finished writing The Blue Castle: “It has been for several months a daily escape from a world of intolerable realities,” she wrote in her journal (quoted by E. Holly Pike in “Propriety and the Proprietary: The Commodification of Health and Nature in The Blue Castle,” in L.M. Montgomery’s Rainbow Valleys). She was writing about Valancy finding happiness with Barney at a time when she herself was extremely worried about her husband’s mental illness. Her work on The Blue Castle also helped her postpone her work on the third and last novel in the “Emily” series, as I mentioned when I wrote about Emily’s Quest in the spring.
(A note for those of you who haven’t finished reading The Blue Castle yet—I’m about to talk about the ending, so you might want to stop reading at this point….)
Montgomery escaped her own “intolerable realities” by inventing a happier story, a happier reality, for Valancy. She put off writing a conventional happy ending for Emily, and focused instead on this new novel about a heroine who rejects convention and revels in her discovery of “a world which had nothing in common with the one she had left behind.” I read Jane Urquhart’s biography of Montgomery last spring and I returned to it after I read The Blue Castle, because I remembered her argument about the contrast between Montgomery and Edith Wharton: she writes that “while Wharton would be able to look deeply into the dark heart of North American rural severity as well as into urban privilege in her writing, Lucy Maud Montgomery would never, in her novels, be able to confront head-on the sometimes grim realities of her own existence” (L.M. Montgomery ).
“The absolute freedom of it all was unbelievable,” Valancy thinks of her marriage to Barney. “They could do exactly as they liked” (Chapter 28). It is all a bit unbelievable, in the end, with all the references to “perfect happiness” (Chapters 21, 22, and 27). Valancy is so happy, in fact, that “her happiness terrified her” (Chapter 45).
In Magic Island, Waterston lists several of the books Montgomery read while she was working on The Blue Castle, one of which was Jane Austen’s Emma. It seems to me that there’s an echo of Austen’s language in this last paragraph of The Blue Castle: “She was so happy that her happiness terrified her,” Montgomery says. The last sentence of Emma refers to “the perfect happiness of the union” between the heroine and hero. And Austen’s Persuasion ends with Anne Elliot’s happy marriage and her fears for the future: “the dread of a future war” is “all that could dim her sunshine.” Emma is perfectly happy; Anne is happy and also worried. Valancy, who at the beginning of The Blue Castle learned to conquer her fear, is so happy she’s terrified.
Some of the passages I want to remember:
“Valancy did not persist. Valancy never persisted. She was afraid to.” (Chapter 1)
“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.” (Chapter 5)
“I’ve had nothing but a second-hand existence,” decided Valancy. “All the great emotions of life have passed me by. I’ve never even had a grief. And have I ever really loved anybody?” (Chapter 8)
“After all, Valancy must be both mad and bad.” (The judgement of Olive, the “wonder girl of the whole Stirling clan,” in Chapter 21)
Valancy’s conversation with Uncle Benjamin after she’s announced her marriage (Chapter 27):
“Say ‘damn’ and you’ll feel better,” she suggested.
“I can express my feelings without blasphemy. And I tell you you have covered yourself with eternal disgrace and infamy by marrying that drunkard—”
“You would be more endurable if you got drunk occasionally. Barney is not a drunkard.”
And her exchange with Cousin Sarah, later in that same chapter:
“I’m glad I never had any children,” said Cousin Sarah. “If they don’t break your heart in one way they do it in another.”
“Isn’t it better to have your heart broken than to have it wither up?” queried Valancy. “Before it could be broken it must have felt something splendid. That would be worth the pain.
Barney to Uncle Benjamin (Chapter 28):
“I have made her happy,” he said coolly, “and she was miserable with her friends. So that’s that.”
Uncle Benjamin stared. It had never occurred to him that women had to be, or ought to be, “made happy.”
The passage about November:
“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?”
“No, nor half so happy. I’d be bored by conventions and obligations then.” (Chapter 31)
As Barney comes to know Valancy better, he begins to think she’s too good to be true: “Sometimes I feel you’re too nice to be real—that I’m just dreaming you” (Chapter 34). Still, he eventually acknowledges that she has “made me believe again in the reality of friendship and love” (Chapter 42).
Bethie Baxter: “Valancy Stirling’s Inner Life”
My Book Strings: “Like a Warm Hug: The Blue Castle #ReadingValancy”
Covered in Flour: “#ReadingValancy: The Power of Names in The Blue Castle”
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”