I very rarely re-read books, but when Hesperus Press re-issued L. M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle I could barely stop myself. At first I just picked at it, looking for tidbits to amuse myself, but before long I had to curl up and lose myself all over again. This is a pure comfort read for me, a soppy tale based around the most hackneyed cliche of a woman only finding life when she encounters death. It’s full of sass and vigour and beautiful nature writing, and one of literature’s great spinsters, Valancy Stirling.
Like moi, Valancy is an unmarried woman of a certain age, but unlike moi she doesn’t enjoy the spinster comforts of gin-drinking, debauched company, and Magic Mike .gifs. She’s not even allowed to read novels, by the command of her overpowering and constantly disappointed mother Mrs. Frederick. One thing my re-visit to this book picked up on much more was that, for unmarried women in an earlier age – the book is set in the early 20s, in smalltown Canada – the economic ties that bound them to their family did bind them so much to acceptable behaviour.
Without even fiction as a solace, Valancy turns to her rich inner life in a fantasy Blue Castle. But even that can’t help her on the morning of her 29th birthday, when she’s faced with a long loveless future in the ghastly household she endures with Mrs. Frederick and Cousin Stickles, and a social life composed of her stuffy, judgmental, hectoring relatives. She also has these chest pains which are getting worse and worse, but does she have the gumption to go to a doctor behind her mother’s back? One rainy morning, she does – and like romantic comedy heroines through the years, she finds out she has a fatal heart condition, and will be dead in a year.
The news understandably upsets her, but instead of informing her miserable clan, she embarks on a surprising quest to make her last year count for something. Will there be lessons learnt, will her bullying relatives get shown up, is there a chance for love for Valancy, after all? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work it out, but Valancy’s magical year is enchanting to read about.
As well as the wish-fulfillment and the soppiness, I felt a lot of common ground with Stefan Zweig’s The Post Office Girl, a realist take on the Cinderella myth. Both the heroines are spinsters marooned in life by social mores and family situations, who hitch their stars to unlikely wagons.
Unlike Zweig, Montgomery doesn’t go in for blistering social realism. But if you want to press a book to your chest and heave a great sigh of joy when that long-awaited first kiss happens, then she can deftly construct the enchantment needed. Sometimes realism can go hang. The ending is utterly satisfying, and I’m sure I’ll return to it again and again.