We all have our idea of perfection, but how many of us achieve it?
Publisher: Seal Books
First Published: 1926
Date Reviewed: 9th May 2012
Please note that this book is very hard to get hold of in print and your best bet, unless you have a relative who owns a copy, is to find the ebook versions, in plain text and HTML at Project Gutenberg Australia.
Valancy Stirling has led a miserable and depressingly dull life, treated like a bad person when she isn’t, mocked by her family for being a reader, for not being pretty, and for being twenty-nine and not married. On her first day of the last year of her twenties, Valancy starts to really accept just how much control she has let her family exercise over her, and how much that control has in fact stopped her from reading as much as she would like, from being pretty and married, and instead always being ill. Learning from a doctor, of her choosing, that she only has a year left to live, Valancy decides to throw caution to the wind and be who she wants to be and say what she wants to say. It will shock her family, but it is likely to shock her the most.
The Blue Castle is a somewhat short, hilarious, and sometimes frustrating book that while not exactly an example of fantastic writing, never fails to delight. It is, it must be said, incredibly predictable, to the point that everything you think will happen, will indeed happen, but for the story it doesn’t matter, and knowing what will happen in advance, coupled with the overall narrative, makes continuing all the more appealing. And while it should be noted that the book is very much set in its era, with all the trappings, the idea is that Valancy gives this up, and whether Montgomery planned for the future or not, Valancy becomes as relevant today as ever.
The plot is good, but it’s the characters that make the book a success. Each is given enough time for you to get to know them and their eccentricities, or lack thereof, and to learn how they would react to the situations Montgomery puts them in. This is perhaps best shown in the differences between the Stirlings – the family as a whole are obsessive about the smallest issues but each have their own quirks. And Montgomery “goes to town” with Roaring Abel, who incidentally doesn’t live in the town, giving him four different stages of drunkenness that really shows off her talent for humour.
“Fear is the original sin,” wrote John Foster. “Almost all the evil in the world has its origin in the fact that someone is afraid of something. It is a cold, slimy serpent coiling about you. It is horrible to live with fear; and it is of all things degrading.
As for Valancy she starts the book being an irritation, not helping herself, being passive, and thinking back over and over of the past instead of making new memories – before changing to become her own person, and a person unconcerned with all the issues she had previously. There are definitely limitations placed on her, but the feeling Montgomery gives her readers is one of a person who would do anything.
“Doss, dear,” said Cousin Georgiana mournfully, “some day you will discover that blood is thicker than water.”
“Of course it is. But who wants water to be thick?” parried Valancy. “We want water to be thin – sparkling – crystal-clear.”
The definition of “normal” is one of the ideas explored in the book. The Stirlings are boring and dull and melodramatic, but in their closeted world they are normal and everyone else is not. And in the way that they are completely imperfect, they truly are normal, for as the saying goes, nobody is perfect. Then there is everyone else in the town, or at least those focused on the most. They are the characters that modern society, and indeed Montgomery, would call normal, yet there are of course also imperfections and secrets surrounding them too. It is from the Stirlings to the rest of the town, Deerwood, that Valancy moves to, changing from the perfect imperfect to the imperfect perfect.
And if Valancy’s fantasy of a blue castle is her version of that special place that we each turn to in our heads for peace, then it is as much a mental and emotional concept as it is realistic. Montgomery ensures that both mental and physical worlds meet to blend together but never lets the mental image get too far in the physical world – the concept remains realistic. Of course the castle also represents freedom, whatever that freedom may be.
The romance balances chasteness with forwardness. Montgomery has fun laughing at society’s unnecessary hang-ups whilst guaranteeing that the story will be accessible and appealing to all. Indeed the concepts of difference and balance are the overriding themes of the story throughout.
The tale brings each character to reflect upon who they are, and later who they might want to become. It shows that even when we decide to do something big, we may later realise that it was the wrong decision.
She was so tired she wished she could borrow a pair of legs from the cat.
The Blue Castle is worth a read for anyone who wishes for a comedic classic without all the expectations, old language, academic criticism, and difficulties that come with reading your average older book. It is hardly the best piece of fiction ever written, but it’s worth its weight in the heap of roses that have bloomed because of it.
Bloomed because of it, you say? You’ll have to find that out for yourself.
May 13, 2012, 6:00 am
I just read this one, too! I didn’t love it. I didn’t think that the Valancy that remembered every grievance against her earlier in the book could become so carefree and happy within the course of about twelve hours. Also, I thought the whole “drama” at the end was overly protracted and unnecessary. BUT, I did like that Valancy stood up for herself in a good way, and didn’t rebel just to be different.
May 13, 2012, 5:05 pm
I agree with you there, the change did seem very sudden, but I wonder if there was a lot Montgomery didn’t tell us, because when Valancy thinks over it again later the force with which she reverses that thought is rather strong for someone who had given it all up so quickly. I wasn’t as keen on the ending drama, but it aided Barney and the Foster issues, so maybe it was just a bad choice of how to get to where Montgomery wanted?