Monday, 26 March 2012

28. "The Blue Castle" by L.M. Montgomery

Page count: 224 pages
Date begun: March 16th, 2012
Date finished: March 17th, 2012

Valancy Stirling is twenty-nine, unmarried, and constantly reminded of said sad state by her overbearing and oppressive family, who belittle her, treat her like a child and unfavourably compare her to her younger, prettier cousin Olive. She's terrified of putting a foot wrong for fear of earning the disapproval of her judgemental mother or some other relative, and her only solace is her daydreams about her Blue Castle, where she's surrounded by beauty, treated like a princess and courted by handsome suitors.

Having snuck away to see a doctor (other than the regular one the Sterlings always see!) because of chest pains, Valancy receives a letter telling her that she has a serious heart complaint, and that she most likely has less than a year left to live. Any sudden shock or great exertion may worsen the condition and shorten her already brief life expectancy. Realising that she has never really lived, merely existed, and miserably at that, Valancy decides to live out the rest of her short life unconstrained by her family's judgement. She starts refusing to do chores that she hates, speaks her mind honestly at family functions and convinces the entire Stirling family that she has lost her mind.

Things go from bad to worse when she leaves her mother's house and takes up residence in the house of a drunken widower, to act as his housekeeper, and tend to his dying daughter, who was one of her childhood friends. Poor Cissy had a child out of wedlock (now dead) and was ostracised by all polite society in the little town where they live. Now her lungs are failing her, and Valancy does her best to cook and clean and take care of her, rekindling their friendship and blithely ignoring the censure of her relatives. While taking care of Cissy and Roaring Abel (Cissy's father), Valancy also makes the acquaintance of Barney Snaith, who most of the town (including the Stirling clan) is convinced is the father of Cissy's dead child, a bank robber, swindler, adulterer and/or even murderer. Valancy shocks them all by going on several dates with him.

When Cissy finally dies, the Stirling clan breathe a sigh of relief and are sure will stop her shocking behaviour and move back home to her mother. Instead, she confesses to Barney Snaith that she's in love with him, and asks him to marry her. She assures him that she doesn't expect him to return her feelings, and since she is terminally ill, he won't have to stay married to her for very long. Having told him about her miserable life before she became Cissy's housekeeper and nurse, Barney agrees that she deserves some happiness in her life, and agrees to the marriage. When he takes her home to the wooden island he owns, and Valancy sees the little cabin surrounded by trees and shadows evening mists, it's so like the Blue Castle of her imagination that she's convinced she's made the right choice and nothing but happiness will fill the rest of her days. But then she finds out that she was wrongly diagnosed, and her chest pains were not at all as serious as expected. She's no longer dying, how can she tell Barney the truth?

To say that I loved L.M Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables books as a girl would be an enormous understatement. I've lost count of the number of times I've read the books (the latter ones where she and Gilbert have a whole host of kids not as many), and I also loved the TV adaptation, and the Road to Avonlea series starring Sarah Polley. So when my friend Lydia asked me whether I'd read The Blue Castle, one of the few adult works Montgomery wrote (and the only one not set on Prince Edward Island, according to Wikipedia), I was delighted with the prospect of a new discovery. Having tracked down an e-book copy, I read the book in every spare moment I had available, and it's a cleverly written, funny and touching little romance that I can see myself rereading again and again. Valancy is a wonderful character, and you wish her every happiness in the world. To see her escape the disapproval of her stifling family and find self realisation and romance is wonderful, and any fan of Montgomery should track down a copy of the book and indulge themselves with this delightful story.

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