Here’s one more post on L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle before my new blog series on Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion begins. It’s rare for me to post two days in a row, but I’ll be back again tomorrow—on Jane Austen’s birthday—with a guest post from Deborah Barnum on the publishing history of Northanger Abbey. Please join us then for the official launch of the series!
Today, I’m delighted to share with you my friend Maggie Arnold’s guest post on false religion and true faith in The Blue Castle. Maggie has written for my blog before, on “Discerning a Vocation in Mansfield Park—But Whose?” and on “Emma Woodhouse as a Spiritual Director,” and she’s writing a guest post on Persuasion for the new series.
The Rev. Dr. Maggie Arnold is the Associate Rector at Grace Episcopal Church in Medford, Massachusetts. Her book Christ’s Chosen Preacher: Mary Magdalene in the Era of Reformation will be published in the Fall of 2018 by Harvard University Press. She lives in Brookline, Mass., with her husband and children.
(I should note—for anyone who hasn’t read The Blue Castle yet—there are spoilers ahead.)
“Fear is the original sin,” says Barney Snaith, defining the theology of The Blue Castle (Chapter 5). Ostensibly a coming of age story and a romance, the book contains a parallel passage between false religion and true faith. As Valancy moves from her unhappy, constrained life with her family in town she also rejects the hypocritical religion of her childhood. As part of finally becoming an adult, she discovers a grown-up faith as well, in which she encounters the sacred in nature and in authentic relationships.
The false religion of the Anglican Church in Deerwood is evident in the gloomy piety of Valancy’s family. Prayer should be long and mournful, as Aunt Wellington thinks, and the religious images Valancy’s mother keeps in their home are mawkish and sentimental. The institutional church is personified by the sternly disapproving rector, Dr. Stalling. At their first meeting, he judges Valancy for a superficial error—wearing a hat in church—and mistakes her for a boy. Her female identity is invisible to Dr. Stalling, whose misogyny is further revealed by his belief in a celibate clergy, and by his condemnation of the town’s “fallen woman,” Cissy Gay.
The theology of the Stirlings and Dr. Stalling is one of appearances and human works. It takes place indoors, in manmade spaces and hidebound social structures in which one’s worth is proved through conformity masking a fierce, Darwinian competition. In this anxious creed, idleness is the cardinal sin; as a child, Valancy must record her wasted moments and pray over them on Sundays. A loss of one’s position in society is scarcely less threatening. When she has left her family Dr. Stalling attempts to bring her back, but he is concerned only with the veneer of respectability, and he warns her to beware of what people are saying about her.
Fear of other people’s opinion is precisely the prison that Valancy has escaped, and she has no intention of going back. She was always more interested in honesty than in the piety of outward appearances. As a child, she prayed as she was instructed, but quietly corrected her petition to God afterwards, to reflect her real feelings and the truth of the situation. After her great shock, when she has learned that she is going to die, she forgets that it is Sunday and reads a forbidden John Foster book, beginning her movement from a religion of rules and self-denial to a faith rooted in joy. Her diagnosis frees her to do a real act of charity, caring for the notorious Cissy Gay. During this time she begins to attend the Free Methodist Church. Its pastor is notably different from Dr. Stalling. He is humble, with very little status in the community, living in “a shabby little house, in an unfashionable street” (Chapter 26). Most importantly, he is sincere: “Old Mr. Towers believed exactly what he preached and somehow it made a tremendous difference” (Chapter 20).
When she marries Barney/John Foster, and begins to explore the wilderness outside of town, Valancy at last finds a direct encounter with the sacred. She has already read, in one of Foster’s books, that journeys into the woods must be “reverent.” To be reverent in The Blue Castle means setting aside greed and ambition (the evils that ruined Barney’s own youth), entering into the natural world not to exploit it, but with an attitude of worshipful adoration. “It is of no use to seek the woods except from sheer love of them.” If we come in that way, they will “give us such treasures … as are not bought or sold in any marketplace.” Then we will hear the “unearthly music” of the “immortal heart of the woods” (Chapter 3). Each sunset is “a few minutes of transfiguration and revelation.” Each season brings new epiphanies. In the fall “the austere woods were beautiful and gracious in a dignified serenity of folded hands and closed eyes.” In the winter “The shadows cast by the pale sunshine were fine and spiritual. ‘Come away,’ said Barney, turning. ‘We must not commit the desecration of trampling through there’” (Chapter 31). In contrast to her previous religion, these gifts are unearned, there is no competition, no calculated exchange, only grace. And unlike her stifling childhood home, their cottage in the forest is porous, linked to the outdoors by an oriel window (from a former church!). “When the sunsets flooded it Valancy’s whole being knelt in prayer as if in some great cathedral” (Chapter 28).
Through the course of the novel, Valancy’s relationships are transformed, from empty and unfulfilling formalities to authentic bonds of love and mutual companionship. Accompanying this personal evolution is a spiritual one. The false religion of Valancy’s youth is likewise replaced with a true faith, marked by honesty and humility, real care for others, and profound experiences of the majesty and mystery of Creation. As Valancy confesses in her happiness, “I understand now what it means to be born again” (Chapter 30).
More blog posts on The Blue Castle:
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”