So this week I came down with a bad head cold that turned into a nasty sinus infection on Thursday morning. I spent most of Friday in bed, then went to the doctor in the afternoon and got a prescription for some antibiotics. Then I took some pills and got back in bed.
While I was in bed, I read The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery. L.M. and I go way back. I read the Anne of Green Gables books as an 11-year-old (still have them, Easter
presents from my parents, 30 years later) and fell in love. With Anne herself. With Marilla and Matthew. With Gilbert and Diana and Jane Andrews and Charlie Sloane and the rest of Avonlea. But most of all, with Montgomery’s storytelling, with her ability to catch the funny and tragic and embarrassing moments of life, to show what life was like in rural Canada in the late 1800s and early 1900s, to evoke the character and landscape of Prince Edward Island and the beauties of nature.
My husband and I spent our honeymoon in Nova Scotia and P.E.I., and I saw why Montgomery was so enthralled. The Island is small and out-of-the-way, with red cliffs rising out of the ocean and acres and acres of woods and farmland. We visited the Green Gables Heritage Place in Cavendish and in that day’s photos, I’m starry-eyed and wearing a stupid grin, like I can’t even believe I’m there. Even now, almost 17 years later, I regularly re-visit Anne and Green Gables and find both something familiar and comforting, and something totally new.
This obsession with the Anne books was probably the reason I never felt the need to explore Montgomery’s other works. But finally a year or two ago, after reading a thread on one of my favorite blogs, I realized that (a) there were other Montgomery books and (b) they were most likely really good. So I ordered the Emily of New Moon books and several volumes of short stories from Amazon. The Emily books were enjoyable, but frustrating (more on them later). And then earlier this January I got The Blue Castle.
It’s really more of a novella – my copy only has 122 pages, although it’s an odd, larger-size edition with pages that probably fit 1 1/2 to 2 pages of a regular-sized novel. It concerns Valancy Stirling, a 29-year-old “old maid” in a very clannish family living somewhere north of Toronto. They live in a small town called “Deerwood” very close to “Port Lawrence” and “Lake Mistawis,” which I assume is a pseudonym for Port Sydney, just south of Lake Muskoka (north of Toronto).
Poor Valancy is treated as a recalcitrant child by her mother and live-in cousin, and as an object of derision by the rest of her relatives. Montgomery perfectly captures the characters in this family, all proud of how upstanding and respectable and Christian they are, and all quick to look down on others and condemn them. In other words, all narrow-minded hypocrites. In one scene, Valancy asks her mother to stop calling her by her hated childhood nickname, “Doss.” (I don’t blame her. Ugh.)
“Mother,” she said timidly, “would you mind calling me Valancy after this? Doss seems so–so–I don’t like it.”
Mrs. Frederick looked at her daughter in astonishment. She wore glasses with enormously strong lenses that gave her eyes a peculiarly disagreeable appearance.
“What is the matter with Doss?”
“It–seems so childish,” faltered Valancy.
“Oh!” Mrs Frederick had been a Wansberra and the Wansberra smile was not an asset. “I see. Well, it should suit you then. You are childish enough in all conscience, my dear child.”
“I am twenty-nine,” said the dear child desperately.
“I wouldn’t proclaim that from the house-tops if I were you, dear,” said Mrs. Frederick. “Twenty-nine! I had been married nine years when I was twenty-nine.”
I know, right? And this doesn’t come close to the worst of Valancy’s treatment by her odious relatives, including her beautiful but shallow first cousin, Olive, who is everyone’s favorite. Where Valancy is small and dark and “sallow” with dark eyes, Olive is curvy and tall and blonde with large (vacuous) blue eyes. She is only a year younger than Valancy, but engaged to a respectable (if dull) young man in town. Olive has always received preferential treatment from the family, and Valancy despises her. But then, she despises (and fears) all of her relatives. Her only pleasure in life is in her imagination, spinning a life in a Blue Castle, serene and far way.
One day, Valancy sneaks out to the doctor to find out why she is having severe chest pains. He examines her, but then must rush off to see his son, who’s had an accident in Montreal. A few days later, she gets a letter from this doctor, telling her she has a dangerous heart condition and only has a year to live. Jolted by this news, she realizes how afraid she’s been all her life. And she decides then and there, to live a life without fear and without concern for what others (especially her family) think of her. The results are amazing.
I don’t want to tell anymore, because you should go read the book. Suffice to say that Valancy starts living, and realizes that life is full of joys and sorrows, and beauty and loss. She begins to appreciate the beauty of her surroundings, especially Lake Mistawis and the surrounding woods. And she really does find her Blue Castle.