Title: The Blue Castle
Author: L. M. Montgomery
Narrator: Barbara Barnes
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Publication date: 1926
Print length: 249 pages
Audio length: 8 hours, 3 minutes
Genre: Classic fiction
All her life, Valancy Stirling lived on a quiet little street in an ugly little house and never dared to contradict her domineering mother and her unforgiving aunt. At 29, she’s never been in love, and her only consolation has been the forbidden books of John Foster and her daydreams of the Blue Castle.
Then, one day, she gets a letter and decides that things need to change. For the first time in her life, she does exactly what she wants to and says exactly what she feels. At first, her family thinks she’s gone around the bend, but soon, she discovers a surprising new world, full of love and adventures far beyond her most secret dreams.
The Blue Castle has been on my to-read/to-listen list for several years now. Ever since reading Anne of Green Gables a few years ago (making up for what was clearly a major deficiency in my childhood reading), I’ve been committed to reading more and more by L. M. Montgomery. And while I’ve now read the full Anne series as well as the Emily trilogy, I still hadn’t quite gotten to The Blue Castle… until now.
I associate L. M. Montgomery with writing charming, heartfelt tales about girls whose sense of wonder and imagination enables then to see the world in such a glorious, optimistic light. The Blue Castle, though, is about a grown woman, and I was curious to see how the author presents a story about an adult.
In The Blue Castle, the main character is Valancy Stirling, whose 29th birthday represents a dramatic turning point for her. Valancy lives with her mother and elderly cousin in a stifling, rule-bound, drab house, completely under her mother’s thumb. The family considers Valancy a somewhat pitiable old maid at this point. She’s never been known as a beauty, has paled in comparison with her lovely younger cousin Olivia, and has never been expected to do anything with her life but be obedient, laugh at her uncle’s awful jokes, and be meek all her life.
One her birthday, Valancy decides to secretly see the local doctor about a strange feeling she occasionally gets in her chest. The doctor is forced to rush off due to a family emergency, but days later, she gets a letter from him, regretfully informing her that she has a fatal heart condition and may have months, but certainly no more than a year left to live.
It’s bitter news for Valancy, who mourns not her impending death, but the fact that she has never lived. And so, with nothing left to lose, she decides to throw caution to the wind and finally, better late than never, live a real life.
Her actions and demeanor shock her family, who are convinced that she’s gone “dippy” — and when Valancy crosses what they see as an unforgiveable line, they decide to pretend that she’s dead.
Meanwhile, Valancy finds unexpected joy by embracing a new, adventurous life, seeking out people and places that make her happy, throwing aside society’s rules and soaking in the beauty of the natural world and the pleasure of companionship based on respect and friendship and being open to experience.
I won’t give away too much of the plot. I’d imagine that in 1926, when the book was published, the surprises that come toward the end of the story might truly have been new and unexpected. As a 21st century reader, I absolutely saw most of the twists coming… but that’s okay. The joy is in the journey to get there, not in unraveling the plot points and figuring out just how Valancy’s story might end.
Valancy is a delightful main character, smart and open and loving, and I found her sass and bravery absolutely fabulous, once she makes the decision to remove herself from the rules and drudgery of her former life.
As in other L. M. Montgomery books, the setting is terrific. The Anne and Emily books are all set on Prince Edward Island, but the setting of The Blue Castle is the fictional area of Lake Mistawis, which apparently corresponds to the real Lake Muskoka in Ontario. In particular, Valancy’s home on an island on the lake is my ideal of a perfect little hideaway, simple and warm, surrounding by lakes and forests, and just such a lovely dream location.
The audiobook narration is quite good, capturing the officiousness of Valancy’s various relatives, as well as her own good nature and open attitude. Yes, some of the dialogue and phrases and terms of endearment sound hokey and outdated… but they’re from the 1920s, so of course they seem a little out of place now. Still, it’s a sweet and fast and enjoyable listen, and I’m so glad I finally experienced this lovely story.
And an added positive — I have at least three more of L. M. Montgomery’s books on my shelves! I’m looking forward to reading them all.