"And in the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years." ~Abraham Lincoln
“That's all the freedom we can hope for - the freedom to choose our prison. [...]”
― L.M. Montgomery, The Blue Castle
"We don't know where we're going, but isn't it fun to go?”
― L.M. Montgomery, The Blue Castle
If you knew you only had a year to live what would you do with the rest of your life? Or six months? Or six weeks? Or even six minutes? It's an interesting question and one that forces you to focus on who and what are really important/essential in your life. It can be both a prison or the most glorious freedom you've ever experienced. The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables) thrusts this 'What would you do...?' question on to the shoulders of Valancy 'Doss' Stirling, a 29 year old spinster who hates everything about her life but lacks the courage to change it. Until she goes to the doctor with chest pains and learns she has about one year left to live, that there's nothing that can be done to cure her or prolong her life beyond that point.
"She was twenty-nine, lonely, undesired, ill-favoured—the only homely girl in a handsome clan, with no past and no future. As far as she could look back, life was drab and colourless, with not one single crimson or purple spot anywhere. As far as she could look forward it seemed certain to be just the same until she was nothing but a solitary, little withered leaf clinging to a wintry bough. The moment when a woman realises that she has nothing to live for—neither love, duty, purpose nor hope—holds for her the bitterness of death." (loc. 99)
Valancy's prison is not the 'death' sentence given to her by the doctor. Indeed, her real prison has been the life she's lived for the past 29 years. Valancy has known only limits living with her widowed mother and Cousin Stickles, treated as though she's a particularly disobedient and unwanted child - told when to get up in the morning, when to retire, when to sweep the parlor floor (every Thursday), when to dust the rubber plant, how and what to eat. She's 29 and yet she has to ask permission to visit the library and can only be alone in her bedroom when she sleeps at night. Yet she has never rebelled, nor even thought it. She's 'cowed and subdued and overridden and snubbed in real life' by her mother and all her family. Mrs. Sterling is a formidable, forbidding manipulative lady who uses tears, guilt, and stern reprimands without compunction and whatever works to keep Valancy caged up in that tight little box. For Valancy, opposition is out of the question.
"Valancy never persisted. She was afraid to. Her mother could not brook opposition. Mrs. Stirling would sulk for days if offended, with the airs of an insulted duchess." (loc. 75)
To other members of the Stirling clan, she is an object of ridicule and derision - found wanting by her lack of looks, intelligence, education, and conversation, forever doomed to play straight man to her Uncle Ben's offensive 'riddles' like this one:
"Why," demanded Uncle Benjamin, leeringly, as he tied up her tea, "are young ladies like bad grammarians?" Valancy, with Uncle Benjamin's will in the background of her mind, said meekly, "I don't know. Why?" "Because," chuckled Uncle Benjamin, "they can't decline matrimony." (loc. 339)
Not one single member of her family sees Valancy as a person. She is a fear-filled nonentity.
"Afraid of her mother's sulky fits—afraid of offending Uncle Benjamin—afraid of becoming a target for Aunt Wellington's contempt—afraid of Aunt Isabel's biting comments—afraid of Uncle James' disapproval—afraid of offending the whole clan's opinions and prejudices—afraid of not keeping up appearances—afraid to say what she really thought of anything—afraid of poverty in her old age. Fear—fear—fear—she could never escape from it." (loc. 216)
Except in her imagination. In her dreams, Valancy isn't afraid or unworthy. In her daydreams, Valancy 'was wont to let herself go rather splendidly.' In her dreams Valancy has a blue castle...
"But her room in the Blue Castle was everything a room should be. (...) Nobody in the Stirling clan, or its ramifications, suspected this, least of all her mother and Cousin Stickles. They never knew that Valancy had two homes—the ugly red brick box of a home, on Elm Street, and the Blue Castle in Spain. Valancy had lived spiritually in the Blue Castle ever since she could remember. She had been a very tiny child when she found herself possessed of it. Always, when she shut her eyes, she could see it plainly, with its turrets and banners on the pine-clad mountain height, wrapped in its faint, blue loveliness, against the sunset skies of a fair and unknown land. Everything wonderful and beautiful was in that castle. Jewels that queens might have worn; robes of moonlight and fire; couches of roses and gold; long flights of shallow marble steps, with great, white urns, and with slender, mist-clad maidens going up and down them; courts, marble-pillared, where shimmering fountains fell and nightingales sang among the myrtles; halls of mirrors that reflected only handsome knights and lovely women—herself the loveliest of all, for whose glance men died. All that supported her through the boredom of her days was the hope of going on a dream spree at night. Most, if not all, of the Stirlings would have died of horror if they had known half the things Valancy did in her Blue Castle."(loc. 82)
Of course, every castle needs a prince, and Valancy has her Prince. Though he's changed physically over the years, his love and devotion to Valancy have never wavered.
"At fifteen, he was tall and dark and pale, but still necessarily handsome. At twenty, he was ascetic, dreamy, spiritual. At twenty-five, he had a clean-cut jaw, slightly grim, and a face strong and rugged rather than handsome. Valancy never grew older than twenty-five in her Blue Castle, but recently—very recently—her hero had had reddish, tawny hair, a twisted smile and a mysterious past." (loc. 92)
If not for her Blue Castle and the occasional book by naturalist John Foster, Valancy would have shriveled up like a neglected potted geranium long ago. Instead after a secret visit to a doctor her family does not approve of, she learns that she has about a year left in her life. The worrisome chest pains are serious, untreatable, and incurable. And yet it is here, at this point, when Valancy learns to fly. She begins at dinner that night refusing a 'spoonful of vinegar' for her headache with one word: 'Piffle!' Cousin Stickles and Mrs. Frederick are shocked. Offers to rub her with Redfern's Liniment are also strongly rejected.
"Are you sure you ain't feverish, Doss? You sound like it. You go and get right into bed," said Cousin Stickles, thoroughly alarmed, "and I'll come up and rub your forehead and the back of your neck with Redfern's Liniment."
Valancy had reached the door, but she turned. "I won't be rubbed with Redfern's Liniment!"
"I said I wouldn't be rubbed with Redfern's Liniment," repeated Valancy. "Horrid, sticky stuff! And it has the vilest smell of any liniment I ever saw. It's no good. I want to be left alone, that's all." (loc. 544)
During the long sleepless night, Valancy makes a fascinating discovery. A discovery which does more to loosen her shackles than even being told she has a finite number of days left on earth: she isn't afraid of death. Because she doesn't fear that, why should she fear anything else?
"Why had she been afraid of things? Because of life. Afraid of Uncle Benjamin because of the menace of poverty in old age. But now she would never be old—neglected—tolerated. Afraid of being an old maid all her life. But now she would not be an old maid very long. Afraid of offending her mother and her clan because she had to live with and among them and couldn't live peaceably if she didn't give in to them. But now she hadn't. Valancy felt a curious freedom." (loc. 559)
Valancy has been living, existing really, to please other people her entire life. But no more.
"After this I shall please myself. I shall never pretend anything again. I've breathed an atmosphere of fibs and pretences and evasions all my life. What a luxury it will be to tell the truth! I may not be able to do much that I want to do but I won't do another thing that I don't want to do. Mother can pout for weeks—I shan't worry over it." (loc. 671)
Valancy's new resolution to tell the truth or be damned begins at her Uncle Herbert and Aunt Alberta's silver wedding anniversary dinner. Although in truth it began with her rose bush, or more specifically when she pruned the never-blooming bush to within an inch of its stunted, sterile life. There was no looking back after that. Valancy refused the Purple Pills, announced she would no longer answer to the childish nickname 'Doss', moved her bed, slid down the bannister, and refused to go to the Anglican Church on Sunday. In fact, she stated flatly she would go to the Presbyterian instead. But at the anniversary dinner, Valancy proclaimed her independence loud and clear. She sees her family with different eyes, and refreshingly is not intimidated by them anymore. Uncle James is the one who sets the ball rolling. Up to this point Valancy has been quiet and reflective, though her thoughts have not been benign. He asks everyone to state 'his or her idea of the greatest happiness.' It is into a small pause in the discussion, the result of Mrs. Frederick's rebuking declaration regarding selfishness, worldliness, and sin, that Valancy makes her opinion known:
"The greatest happiness," said Valancy suddenly and distinctly, "is to sneeze when you want to." (loc. 847)
Everyone is stunned into absolute silence. Everyone, that is, except Uncle Ben. Remember Uncle Ben? Of the offensive riddles? Well, he sees this as a fine opportunity to set Valancy up for a good laugh. At her expense, of course.
"Doss," he chuckled, "what is the difference between a young girl and an old maid?"
"One is happy and careless and the other is cappy and hairless," said Valancy. "You have asked that riddle at least fifty times in my recollection, Uncle Ben. Why don't you hunt up some new riddles if riddle you must? It is such a fatal mistake to try to be funny if you don't succeed." (loc. 852)
Once more, Valancy has rendered all of them speechless but calmly continues to eat her salad. Though her mother appears to be praying silently and Uncle Ben is flummoxed for the first time in his life, Aunt Alberta searches for a way to salvage her dinner party, latching onto the story of how a dog bit her just recently. When Uncle James asks where it bit her, and Aunt Alberta answers 'Just a little below the Catholic Church', I laughed out loud and wondered how painful that must have been. Of course Valancy laughs (The only one to do so, by the way. Surprise! Surprise!) and asks: 'Is that a vital part?' And I laughed again. After this, there's no holding Valancy back, and her family will never see her the same way again. The worm has indeed turned.
I love Valancy, and I really love The Blue Castle. I think where it shines most brilliantly is in Valancy's transformation from cowed and fearful to funny and irreverent and full of life as well as its beautifully lyrical descriptions of Mistawis, Valancy's island Blue Castle. I loved Barney Snaith, too, and his raggedy Grey Slosson he calls Lady Jane Grey. I felt the middle part dragged a bit, and unfortunately that's the part where Valancy and Barney are a couple. The problem, I think, for me, was way too much repetition extolling the natural beauty of Mistawis, and a surfeit of so many details (how many fish they caught, excruciating details of how they survived after being stranded one night in the elements) of day after day/month after month of life on the island. This part felt very flat as nothing really happens for a very long time. I did love the almost poetic quality to some of the descriptions, but even for me, a little goes a long way. There is a big misunderstanding toward the end, but it isn't allowed to derail this little gem of a book for very long. I'm trying not to spoil any of The Blue Castle because I really enjoyed it more not knowing anything but the bare bones. There are so many wonderful little surprises throughout The Blue Castle, it's a charming book, and I recommend it very highly.