JAN / FEB 2013: BY RACHEL McMILLAN
The first time I read The Blue Castle I was in high school. I finished it late one night having stayed up to read it in one sitting and immediately flipped to the beginning and read it again.
For the next several weeks I didn’t have a taste for any other book. I wanted to keep slipping into Barney and Valancy’s bright Muskoka world, to experience the many seasons that permeate their love story, to seep in the woods and lake country so aptly executed in L.M. Montgomery’s poetic purple prose. From that moment on, my conceptualization of romance was fully realized. I was on the precipice of university, of adulthood, and so many of my ideas and ideals were changing. At this prominent crossroads, came a book that completely set my world a-kilter.
To many who read this book in our present day, it seems like a Harlequin Romance: all wrapped up in a pretty bow, full of flounce and flowery dialogue, and too good to be true. In Montgomery’s time, it was shocking, different, and wholly real, arguably one of the first female emancipation novels in Canada. The stifled Valancy throws off convention to leave her home and kin to become a companion to Cissy, a young unwed mother at the precipice of death. For Montgomery readers, it’s far more physical in nature than her other books. There is a bawdy dance at Chidley Corners where loose women and drunken men are described in detail. Valancy speaks to Barney’s caresses, Barney, in turn, describes Valancy’s “kissable” collarbone and how she has “such a nice voice for love-making.” Though their marriage is unconventional and borne almost of convenience, you realize soon in that it is consummated, providing the sheltered heroine another life experience that she, as a poor “old maid” scorned by society, never felt would pass her way.
The Blue Castle is a Romantic’s romance. It’s as if its author steals inside the consciousness of bookish, daydreamer girls like myself who feel they are not pretty or confident enough, too intelligent, and too out-of-place, and paints, for them, her ideal. It’s also the only novel Montgomery set outside her beloved Prince Edward Island.
After a family vacation in Ontario, Maud is smitten by a Canadian landscape that starkly contrasts that of her youth. Muskoka is a wilderness paradise, complete with great Lakes dotted with canoes, ridged by towering pines and haunted with the song of the forest creatures which steal far, far into the “upback” region where hero Barney feels most at home. It’s also replete of society, popular culture and convention as Valancy realizes when she moves to Barney’s tucked-away island. If romance is in need of anything, Valancy is certain, freedom must be part of it.
Reading Montgomery’s journals, you’re given an insight into her imaginative conjecture of Valancy and Barney’s world. During a dream one night, she describes a perfect island in Muskoka, far from the stress of home, peppered with her favorite friends and family, full of hope and the lore of the wood-folk and mystery she loved to daydream and write about. Into this canvas, she places Barney Snaith, arguably one of the most dimensional of her heroes, and a woman who suffered from the clutches of society very much in the way that Montgomery did. She provides them with a marriage based largely on friendship. They are, to shamelessly instill her oft-used phrase, “kindred spirits.” Their attachment is almost preternatural. By the end, they can read each other’s thoughts and dream each other’s dreams. They sit in the company of one another in silence without awkwardness. Romance, borne of friendship and backed by an exotically normal and realistic locale, it would seem, is pure fantasy indeed.
I grew up in Muskoka and spent my summers in a cottage near Barney and Valancy’s fictional world. A young dreamer obsessed with stealing into the romances of Victorian authors, I was faced in later years with a romance that seemed remarkably modern. Maud, at this point, cast off the Victorian conceptions and rules she so long held fast to and Valancy, in her mental stead, arrives in the roaring 1920s. With Barney at her side, she speeds through the back roads in an automobile, bobs her hair and begins wearing dresses to elongate the nice lines of her thinly underdeveloped figure. Her family and society are scandalized but it is only when Valancy can shrug off the boundaries and shackles of the society that she is able to find love beyond her wildest dreams.
If Valancy is the champion of the modern woman, the sarcastic and reclusive Barney, a great traveler and talker, is the perfect man. Not unlike the brooding Dean Priest (Emily of New Moon) or learned and passionate Andrew Stuart (Jane of Lantern Hill), Barney is a thinking girl’s dream man. Be-dimpled and rusty-haired, with a nice, trim figure and a yearning for adventure, Barney has everything the Montgomery reader could ever want in a partner and spouse.
For those who love Maud’s work as much as I, you realize the reason she has such power is the interception of her work at a young age when your imaginative realm is just coloring. She champions and reassures girls with broad imaginative strokes, who are wont to go on many dream sprees, that they are not alone. They are claimed. They are legitimate. They are worthy of their perfect mate: one who, if Maud had taken over all of the world and its decisions, would have a mysterious past, a lively disposition, a way with a pen and a few aliases to boot. ■