Searching "The Blue Castle" and Finding My Blue Castle

By Anna Brailow on October 5, 2018

There will always be texts that slip between the cracks. I’ve always believed this even if I haven’t always known how to articulate the sentiment. This is why I’ve always loved the used book sales at my local library growing up. The sales would last a few days, usually over a weekend. On the Friday and Saturday, if memory serves, each individual piece of media would be its own price. Sundays were the big events, or rather, the day in which the library sought to clear their space as much as possible to make room for new material. Each person was given a bag that they could fill for $5. I picked out books that I wouldn’t normally have chosen.

On the specific day I’m referring to, I couldn’t have been above middle school. I never liked romance novels that lacked substance and depth. Jane Austen was becoming a favorite, though, and I remember that I’d just gotten through “Sense & Sensibility” for the first time. Other favorites contained romance, but the romances were never the focal points. So, when I was filling up my bag with anything that looked interesting, it was odd that I should notice something in the Romance section. To be fair, it was right next to the [sparse by comparison] Science Fiction/Fantasy section.

I saw the title first: “The Blue Castle.” It was an old well-loved paperback. The cover was, to me, a very traditional romance novel cover, a man and a woman standing in a garden, but above the garden was the name L.M. Montgomery (Lucy Maud Montgomery).

I’d read parts of the “Anne of Green Gables” series by this point. Here is a prime example of a set of books in which romance is contained, but not made the focus. Rather, it is a text that traces the growth of Anne Shirley. Anne is an ambitious, imaginative, and kind young woman with excellent arguments as to the value of both poetry and prose (as opposed to prose over poetry). She’s also known to have a temper, but not without reason. In an iconic scene, a young boy yanks hard on one of Anne’s red braids, and she breaks a slate over his head. The society that surrounds Anne chalks this up to a “boys will be boys,” blaming Anne for her actions, but Montgomery doesn’t excuse the pulling of the pigtails. At least, I don’t think so.

Solely armed with “Anne of Green Gables” as a reference, I wasn’t convinced that ”The Blue Castle” was a romance novel. This is the moment when I put the book that would become my favorite inside my bag. I was so taken by it, though I didn’t entirely understand what its significance would be. I read it a second time in high school, again as an undergraduate, and yet again last semester. Every time I read it, I notice something different. First, Montgomery doesn’t give this novel a traditional marriage plot. The significant marriage within, and this is not a spoiler, takes place in the middle of the novel rather than at the end. There are good uses for traditional marriage plots, Jane Austen’s are the most popular, but Montgomery doesn’t follow that pattern. The marriage is still important, but it isn’t as important as the people participating in it and the circumstances surrounding it.

Until recently, I didn’t fully appreciate how smart this text is as an exploration of attitudes towards both physical and mental illnesses. The main character, Valancy Stirling, is shown to have a difficult time relating to her immediate family. She cannot speak to them about how she feels, she is not allowed to read novels, she is only to wear certain kinds of clothes, and she is only to wear her hair in one style as it is (according to her aunt) the only one that adequately “becomes” her. In order to make her life as comfortable as possible, Valancy puts on a facade to avoid criticism of her person. Physically, Valancy experiences periodic pains around her heart, but if she’s to tell her family, they’ll force her to visit a doctor whose opinion she doesn’t trust. Rather, she’d prefer to see a cardiologist of good repute, someone outside of her family.

“Dr. Trent was a gruff, outspoken, absent-minded old fellow, but he was a recognized authority on heart-disease, even if he were only a general practitioner in out-of-the-world Deerwood. Dr. Trent was over seventy and there had been rumors that he meant to retire soon. None of the Stirling clan had ever gone to him since he had told Cousin Gladys, ten years before, that her neuritis was all imaginary and that she enjoyed it. You couldn’t patronize a doctor who insulted your first-cousin-once-removed like that — not to mention that he was a Presbyterian when all the Stirlings went to the Anglican church. But Valancy, between the devil of disloyalty to clan and the deep sea of fuss and clatter and advice, thought she would take a chance with the devil” (Montgomery).

Dr. Trent’s description does not do adequate justice to his actions. With him, Valancy experiences a moment of human sympathy that she was unable to find in her immediate family. I’ll give some background so that this excerpt makes more sense. Gladys Stirling self-diagnosed neuritis, and she tends to complain of it whenever a task arises that she does not wish to do. She could not and would not accept that this diagnosis was false, so she visited the husband of second cousin Adelaide Stirling (a Dr. Ambrose Marsh) who would agree with her. As such, the Stirling clan will only trust Dr. Marsh’s opinions. All excepting Valancy. Valancy is highly critical of her family’s viewpoints, and it is her visit to Dr. Trent that ultimately gives her the courage to drop this act of being content with her life. He is shown to pay attention to what Valancy says and to take her seriously, to give her the validation that she’d been missing for most of her life. This interaction and the diagnosis that follows is the point that merits the most attention.

Note, the only other doctor that the Stirlings place their trust in is a Dr. Redfern, the head of a company that manufactures Redfern’s all-curing purple pills, Redfern’s liniment, Redfern’s hair tonic, aka “remedies” that work only because and when consumers believe they will work. The Stirlings also joke that being unmarried beyond a certain age aka “spinsterhood” is an illness in itself. So, there’s a lot to unpack with regard to how illness is treated in this work.

In writing ”The Blue Castle,” Montgomery was inspired by settings from early Victorian literature and was writing from her own and her husband’s experiences with illness. Kate Lawson, author of “The Victorian Sickroom in L.M Montgomery’s ‘The Blue Castle’ and ‘Emily’s Quest’,” says that “In 1924-25 , the same years she attempted to complete the Emily trilogy and instead wrote “The Blue Castle,” Montgomery was arguably seeking an imaginative framework in which the mental illness of her husband, Ewan Macdonald, as well as her own recurring bouts of ill health, offered something other than real misery and despair” (237).

On the whole, I would argue that Lawson oversimplifies the objective of this text, but she contextualizes Montgomery’s position in writing “The Blue Castle” very well. This was a novel that needed to be written because Montgomery was surrounded by the language and different experiences of illness in her day to day life. It’s difficult to find a work of fiction that fits so well into conversations surrounding the language of illness, what the language does look like, and what that language should look like.

As for the significance of the title, “The Blue Castle,” I would best define it as a place in which all of one’s aspirations for oneself are stored. These have the capacity to change over time. Valancy Stirling’s Blue Castle was an imagined Blue Castle in which she felt the utmost freedom to examine her identity as she knew it to be.  I have, personally, found pieces of my own Blue Castle scattered around the earth. I hope to find at least one everywhere I go.

Should you wish to read this piece, as I highly recommend you do, it is available online for free through Project Gutenberg. Hard copies are also sold, but can be difficult to find in stores.

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