“You Don’t Laugh Enough”
Post-holidays, when the days seem particularly gray and cold, I have several favorite books that I like to re-read just for the comfort of it. Amongst Montgomery fans, while many of us love Anne and adore Emily and have mixed reactions and a lot of discussion about Pat and Kilmeny and Marigold, you’ll find a few of us who have a bond that’s like a secret code. “What’s your favorite Montgomery book?” someone will ask. You know you’ve met a (you’ll forgive me this) true kindred spirit when they respond, sometimes a bit shyly, “Actually… it’s The Blue Castle.”
Anne and Emily were chastised by adults around them for being “too romantic,” and, while we loved their unguarded flights of fancy, their gushing sometimes… might… maybe nevertheless even prompt, oh, a wee bit of eye-rolling on readers’ parts. So admitting to loving The Blue Castle is like aligning oneself with the same almost-over-the-top breathless sighs of romanticism.
If I were to describe The Blue Castle’s plot by bullet points, it sounds like everything I’d hate. Sad old maid who wants to get married. Bad boy who turns out to have surprising depths. Wish fulfilment arcs and deux ex machina. She was beautiful all along. Things that wouldn’t possibly work out in real life. And yet it’s a case of “it ain’t whatcha do, it’s the way that you do it,” because Montgomery makes it believable, makes it more than just a romance story.
It’s possible to read The Blue Castle as a fairy tale, complete with haunted houses and dark woods and family secrets and all. Several critics support this reading, and Montgomery herself even suggested it is a Cinderella-like story (although that term has come to be a contemporary description of “OMG MAKEOVER AND SHOPPING AND WEALTH!). This is also Montgomery’s first adult novel, published in 1926, in the middle of Emily books and when she had ostensibly finished the Anne series. As a heroine, Valancy fits in with them; she’s not a poet in the same way Anne and Emily are, but she has similar over-the-top romantic flights of fancy. More important, Valancy’s romantic imagination is a core of her identity… and her survival.
Valancy is one of my favorite protagonists, and watching her character development is an absolute joy. The idea of a “strong heroine” gets a lot of lip service, but in The Blue Castle, we get to see it as it happens. Twenty-nine-year-old Valancy, who her family treats like either an outcast or a child, is diagnosed with a heart condition and given one year or less to live.
“Rebellion flamed up in her soul as the dark hours passed by – not because she had no future but because she had no past.”
She decides to keep her condition secret, but to also to cease living her “drab existence” and to find some happiness for herself. Contemporary readers would recognize the need to (let’s use the lingo) distance herself from her toxic family, her narcissistic mother. And in a significant departure from Victorian and early turn-of-the-century heroines, Valancy has the revelation that the “Angel of the Home” mode of passive, martyr-like womanhood has been the cause of so much of her pain.
“I’ve been trying to please other people all my life and failed,” she said. “After this I shall please myself. I shall never pretend anything again. I’ve breathed an atmosphere of fibs and pretences and evasions all my life. What a luxury it will be to tell the truth! I may not be able to do much that I want to do but I won’t do another thing that I don’t want to do. Mother can pout for weeks—I shan’t worry over it. ‘Despair is a free man—hope is a slave.’”
She becomes a master of snark, but not in a hateful or bitter way. Valancy’s humor is a genuine enjoyment of real laughter, but, even more importantly, it gives her the ability to look at her family and the world around her in a different way, and no longer let it have power over her. “The trouble with you people,” she tells her family, “is that you don’t laugh enough.” And she goes off to seize a chunk of life for herself.
To the scandal and shame of her family, she leaves home to stay with an old school friend, Cissy Gay, who
- has a drunk and sometimes-disorderly (but not cruel) father
- had a love affair and an illegitimate baby, who later dies, and
- is now dying of a wasting lung disease, so
- Valancy is going to work for her and her father as a housekeeper
Freed from her family’s hold, Valancy comes into her own.
As part of dealing with a childhood and young adulthood full of sadness, Valancy has invented an imaginary “Blue Castle” in Spain:
“Valancy had lived spiritually in the Blue Castle ever since she could remember. She had been a very tiny child when she found herself possessed of it. Always, when she shut her eyes, she could see it plainly, with its turrets and banners on the pine-clad mountain height, wrapped in its faint, blue loveliness, against the sunset skies of a fair and unknown land. Everything wonderful and beautiful was in that castle.”
Valancy wants traditional things, like love and marriage, and children, but on her own terms, and happily. Once she leaves her miserable home life, she seeks joy everywhere, not just in helping Cissy… and for her, helping Cissy is not an act of sacrifice, but one of unconventionality and liberation, which exposes her to new ways of thinking about womanhood, family, and romance.
Valancy expresses healthy curiosity and, later, enthusiasm for the physical intimacies of marriage, even, it’s suggested, sex. Valancy and Cissy’s strongest bond is when Cissy tells her the “poor little story” of her love affair that resulted in an illegitimate pregnancy, and Cissy even suggests that women’s ignorance about sex is to blame for her situation.
“Oh, Valancy, I didn’t mean to be bad–I didn’t, indeed. But I loved him so–I love him yet–I’ll always love him. And I–didn’t know–some things. I didn’t understand.”
If Romance is genre celebrates strong women in charge of their own sexuality, if it promotes the power of love, then The Blue Castle is a wonderful example of a Romance. It emphasises doing the things you love and living a full and happy life instead of waiting around to feel “deserving” of happiness…and love.
Especially, Valancy doesn’t change for or because of a man. All of Valancy’s changes begin with her, and, although she’s found the town “bad boy” Barney Snaith fascinating from a distance, she does not really get to know Barney until she is well on her way to being the woman she most wants, living the life she wants. When she marries Barney and moves with him to his island cabin, surrounded by pines, near Lake Muskoka, she sees in the landscape her Blue Castle, the ideal environment where she can continue to be the person she is.
As improbable as it is, fiction-wise, Barney and Valancy’s relationship still feels genuine. They like and respect each other, and it shows. Barney’s got that whole “rebellious” aura, but, even before Valancy falls in love with him, she realizes he isn’t actually bad, because he demonstrates kindness and generosity to others. (Note: this is the way to do “bad boy” without the insane abuse red flags.) And as they spend time together, they have far more in common than they do differences. More than that, their sympathies align.
“If you can sit in silence with a person for half an hour and yet be entirely comfortable, you and that person can be friends. If you cannot, friends you’ll never be and you need not waste time in trying.”
I will admit, not only is Valancy one of my favorite FMCs, but Barney is totally one of my dreamy MMC literary crushes. I don’t enjoy the whole bad boy thing, but the moody, sensitive, literary dude thing gets me more often than not. Yes, this book is one of those that, because I love so much about it, I forgive some of its problems.
Another popular rule of thumb for writers is “don’t describe sunsets.” (Maud herself even sends this up in the Emily books.) But this is yet another thing that the book can get away with. Montgomery is one of the few who should be allowed to describe as many sunsets and sunrises and enchanted forests and great pooling lakes as she wants. She is one of the master nature writers of all time, and her love of nature is Barney and Valancy’s love of nature as well.
The Blue Castle explores ideas of female voice, autonomy, power of imagination, women’s roles, and how traditional choices aren’t uniformly the best for everyone. It suggests the then-radical idea that children don’t owe their parents, daughters don’t owe their mothers everything. And it emphasizes that women have to have fulfilling work of their own, work that makes them happy. This is an unabashed “feel-good read,” but one with surprising depths.