Sunday, 18 June 2017

Dress Down Sunday: The Blue Castle by LM Montgomery


published 1926, set some years before that



LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES


Blue Castle



Valancy took off and hung up in the closet her nightdress of coarse, unbleached cotton, with high neck and long, tight sleeves. She put on undergarments of a similar nature, a dress of brown gingham, thick, black stockings and rubber-heeled boots. Of late years she had fallen into the habit of doing her hair with the shade of the window by the looking-glass pulled down. The lines on her face did not show so plainly then. But this morning she jerked the shade to the very top and looked at herself in the leprous mirror with a passionate determination to see herself as the world saw her. The result was rather dreadful. Even a beauty would have found that harsh, unsoftened side-light trying. Valancy saw straight black hair, short and thin, always lustreless despite the fact that she gave it one hundred strokes of the brush, neither more nor less, every night of her life and faithfully rubbed Redfern's Hair Vigor into the roots, more lustreless than ever in its morning roughness…


commentary: There’s a new TV adaptation of Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables around at the moment, called ‘Anne with an E. It is very much a version of the book: it has been extended, all kinds of things added, and it has produced very mixed reactions. There are many things to like about the episodes  that I have watched: the casting and the acting are absolutely terrific: Anne, Matthew and Marilla are unimprovable, and the setting is beautiful. I have my doubts about some of the additions, and think the 21st century language is unnecessary (‘What’s your problem?’ as one the of the characters improbably says…) This blogpost by Doretta Lau (recommended by my friend Marina Endicott) sums up some of the problems, although the writer feels more strongly than I do.

But: Anne always does catch you. Another blogfriend, Samantha Ellis, wrote in the Guardian about the original book, and in the subsequent Twitter discussion Jo Ouest was one of several people who recommended this book.

And what a strange and splendid read it is. Half of it is entirely predictable (and none the worse for that of course – we’re talking comfort read here) and half of it is wholly unexpected.

Valancy is a miserable old maid (her own description) living in a small Canadian town: she is bullied or ignored or dismissed by her family, and there seems to be no-one rooting for her. She takes refuge in a fantasy life in the Blue Castle of the title. She is 29, very plain, and knows no-one will ever marry her. Everyone is mean to her, even her lovely cousin who has everything Valancy would like in life. After all this has been thoroughly established, Valancy takes herself off to the doctor, and hears that she has a near-fatal heart condition, and probably a year at best to live.

So this finally pushes her into action: if she only has a year left, she’s going to do something sensible with it. And this is where the real surprise of the book comes: the reader expects that she might move to the city, take an exciting job, or travel. But


SLIGHT SPOILER


--her way out is to go and live in a horrible shack in the woods, to look after a young woman who is dying, along with the girl’s reprobate drunken father, Roaring Abel. She looks after them very well – but even here she doesn’t (as, again, the modern reader would expect) expend much energy in beautifying the shack or doing it up to be a luxury home. Everything is comfortable and clean and tidy, and she cooks for them, and that’s it.

Her family is horrified and tries to get her back, but she is enjoying herself far too much. She meets one of Abel’s friends, a younger man,
Their eyes met--Valancy was suddenly conscious of a delicious weakness. Was one of her heart attacks coming on?--But this was a new symptom.
So you can guess quite a lot of what is coming next in that direction.

She buys some clothes:
When Abel paid Valancy her first month's wages--which he did promptly, in bills reeking with the odour of tobacco and whiskey--Valancy went into Deerwood and spent every cent of it. She got a pretty green crêpe dress with a girdle of crimson beads, at a bargain sale, a pair of silk stockings, to match, and a little crinkled green hat with a crimson rose in it. She even bought a foolish little beribboned and belaced nightgown…


Blue Castle 3


She got a pale green bathing-suit, too--a garment which would have given her clan their deaths if they had ever seen her in it.


And she also goes to a very low-rent dance in a rough neighbourhood and nearly gets into trouble.

One of my Twitter friends compared it to Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, and while no detail of surroundings, settings or character is at all similar, you can see exactly what she means.

All in all a tremendous read. I particularly liked the character who was
rich as wedding-cake. 

This IS a comfort read, but that's not all it is: it has an un-marshmallow, pro-woman, steel thread running through it, and is unexpectedly non-judgemental and open about sex. An excellent book.

There is an interesting literary byway here: best-selling Australian author Colleen McCullough (author of The Thorn Birds) wrote a short book called The Ladies of Missalonghi which would seem to bear a striking resemblance to The Blue Castle. ‘Unconscious influence’ was McCullough’s explanation. I read the McCullough book a long time ago, and the only thing I remembered didn’t seem to fit with this. So I re-read it, and my goodness ‘unconscious’ influence sounds unlikely: there are some differences, but a huge amount of the plot is exactly the same, and it would be completely impossible for McCullough to have written Missalonghi if she hadn’t read Blue Castle – that would be totally unbelievable. So weird – especially as McCullough was such a successful and imaginative writer in her own right.

Plenty more LM Montgomery all over the blog. 

The top picture is by Richard Bergh, from Wikimedia Commons.























39 comments:

  1. What an interesting direction for the story to take, Moira. It sounds as though this is a character with much more of a mind of her own than anyone gives her credit for having, and I always like that. I like your description of her, too: rich as wedding cake. That's great!

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    1. I liked it Margot because although there were predictable 'comfort read' elements, Valency was a lot more interesting than that would suggest, and made some very unexpected decisions...

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  2. I didn't object to the new Anne as much as some probably because I was never particularly a fan of the earlier incarnation. I thought some of the additions were interesting as I don't imagine there was a lot of romance in being an orphan at that time when many children were regarded as much as a commodity as anything.
    This was an interesting post. Trying to add up how many years I've known the marvellous Marina because that will be about how long she's been telling me to read Blue Castle. I guess I should get round to it.

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    1. I wsn't a big childhood fan of Anne - though my son was, interestingly. And I didn't get on with some of her later books, which is why this was such a good surprise.
      That's charming about Marina - and you should be listening to her!
      I think about the TV series that they were trying to do something more real... which is always going to annoy die-hard fans. No right or wrong...

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  3. Susanna Tayler18 June 2017 at 19:53

    I read this a couple of years ago and found it a lovely comfort read. I liked that Valancy is very sympathetic and nonjudgmental about Cissy being an unmarried mother (in contrast to the opinions of her awful family).
    Although I do think it's interesting that there's more TB again in this book - I'm assuming that's what Cissy has. And there's also that association with young women dying of TB and having had passionate pasts - even though Cissy is so quiet and sweet. In Anne of the Island Ruby Gillis dies of "galloping consumption" and although there is no suggestion of her being in any way "immoral", she is portrayed as being only interested in beaux and flirtation, and having "earthly" beauty.
    And in Bilgewater by Jane Gardam (which I really love and has a great M&S clothes shopping scene) Terrapin says "TB makes you very wild and very sexy and you go at things ten to the dozen - like Keats."

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    1. Yes, the attitudes to sex generally in the book are quite surprising and impressive - very non-judgemental.
      Good points on TB, very interesting. There's people being 'hectic' with fever in older books, which tends to mean something slightly different from its use today to mean we have too much to fit in to our day.
      Oh, Bilgewater! I loved that book, I must read it again, thanks for the reminder. I remember sheepskin gloves...

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  4. I don't think I have ever have read a book by L M Montgomery. On the other hand, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is on my list of classics to read, although I am not making much progress.

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    1. I didn't read them till later in life - maybe you will come to them yet! And I thin you will enjoy Miss Pettigrew as a light comfort read. Did you see the film? It moves the action to the early years of WW2, homefront etc, but there is none of that in the actual book.

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    2. The movie is rather more romantic than the book, although I loved both. Great casting in the movie. Shirley Henderson does a catty bitch so deliciously. And the sets are gorgeous movie Art Deco. But I liked the book very much, too. They're a nice set.

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    3. I decided it was important to see the film as quite separate, not be forever comparing with book: and in that way I enjoyed both a lot. Shirley Henderson is always good...

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    4. Her range is wide -- Moaning Myrtle? And she's completely believable as a tween school girl. And in "Topsy Turvy?" Broke my heart. But I still love her role in that police series set in a small Scottish village with Robert Carlyle -- Hamish MacBeth.

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    5. I did see her in a low-level Brit drama in which a Mum takes exams for her daughter to get her into a fancy school, light-hearted(ish) concept. And I did think ONLY Shirley Henderson could play that role convincingly, no other actress her age could look as though she was a young teenager. I like her in the Bridget Jones books too.

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  5. The scene at a family dinner right after Valancy gets the news about her heart condition is priceless (chapter eleven).

    http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200951h.html

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    1. Indeed it is. She is so... outspoken. Wish fulfilment for those of us who want to tell our families a thing or two.

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  6. Hmm...I might be wrong, but this sounds like a makeover scene, and no-one writes a makeover story better than L. M. Montgomery. I read the entire Anne of the Island series when I was a teenager and adored all of the books. I even cried when Ruby died!! As it happens, I have Blue Castle on my Kindle, so I'll start reading it tonight!!

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    1. Oh do, I'm sure you'll love it. It is a makeover, but quite a low-key one. But all her life prior to this Valency has been told that she can only wear brown for reasons of economy and her colouring - so it is an excellent scene when she breaks out.

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  7. I was all set to go and buy a copy until I read the spoiler - shan't bother now you've ruined it for me!

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    1. Yes, very poor behaviour on my part. Now you will go and have to find a gruesome violent thriller for your comfort read!

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  8. There have long been outright claims of plagiarism against McCullough for The Ladies of Missalonghi - I don't think it ever got as far as a court case but probably only because Montgomery's estate didn't have the capacity for a suit. The only time I ever heard her address the issue directly was in a local radio interview fairly late in her life and there were some very strained silences before very carefully worded answers. I wondered then if she had started out with a kind of parody in mind but somehow that element got lost. She did say something along the lines of the experience made her much more aware of all aspects of the publishing process though I've no idea what that really meant. She was one of my literary heroines though so perhaps I am predisposed to thinking the best of her when it might not be warranted

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    1. Thanks for the extra info Bernadette, it must have been awkward but fascinating to hear her actually talking about it. I was quite shocked when I read it by how close the similarities are - but then it was also an amusing and entertaining book in its own right. If only she had described it as a new take on the book or something like that, or as you say, a parody. When looking her up for this, I found out she also did a Pride and Prejudice re-write - it was apparently unpopular with some, but it's not dubious or wrong. What a shame.
      She always sounded such an interesting and lively woman, and I was full of admiration for her. (Though I have never read The Thorn Birds...) She lived in the UK for a while, and I met someone who had known her and who told me my house was just round the corner from McC's. I was so excited, and so intrigued to meet someone who knew her.

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    2. The Thorn Birds is definitely not McCullough's best work...but I love that she used it and the money it brought her to buy freedom...to live where she wanted and write what she wanted...I love that she tried all sorts of writing too...romance and historical fiction and crime and sci-fi...no being stuck in a box for her. I am a bit jealous that you've lived in such close proximity to a house she lived in...I went to Norfolk Island when she lived there and spent a whole day hanging out near some shops she was said to frequent regularly but didn't catch a glimpse :) I'm not much of a one for celebrities but I would like to have met her.

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    3. Yes exactly, she was admirable. And I know just what you mean - I felt an idiot going off to look at her house (which she had gone from some years before) but I was intrigued...

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  9. Her name is Valancy? Are her sisters called Lambrequin and Portiere?

    I've always liked the idea of Valance as a name, but not really in a serious book....

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    1. I was only saying (in a discussion on Friday's entry) if I was going to have another child I would call it Lissadell. But now I want triplets called Valancy, Lambrequin and Portiere! Valancy made me think of chemistry, I kept mis-spelling it as Valency.
      I keep meaning to write something about authors who give the heroines the names they made up for their dolls when they were six. The names they thought were romantic and lovely and unusual. Patricia Wentworth has some corkers - Lisle and Tanis and Meade.

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    2. Tanis is Russian or Greek, I think - my dad's former partner's mother was called Tanis, but I can't recall exactly what her origins were. I imagine "Lisle" is not far removed from Liesl...

      I've noticed that a lot of these dolly names seem to have variations on Rose/Rosa. Of course, Ramona (in the Beverly Clearly books) called her doll Chevrolet after her aunt's car.

      I was very taken as a kid with the made-up name Viroculeine - I can't even begin to work out where it came from, there must be elements of Jacqueline and Violet, but I now think it looks more like virulence or some kind of patent medicine.

      If you like made-up names, Victoria Holt came up with some corkers (but usually with very good reasoning behind them, like Annalice was actually called Ann-Alice and the two names got merged, just as I was thinking "Oh, that's NOT a period name....)

      Barbara Cartland really did produce some utterly extraordinary heroine names though - Syringa, Shamara, Orlina, Colanda, Chlamydia....

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    3. Not Chlamydia! Surely you are being imaginative...
      So we need one of those 'stripper name rules' - your romantic novel heroine name is the name of your childhood doll, with the last foofy household décor item you bought. Germina Swags. Kelly Pillowsham. (pillowsham is a great name!)
      And now I'm taken with Linen as a girl's first name, it has a nice cool feel...

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    4. We always did the stripper name using your first pet's name and the name of the street you grew up on. I was Carla Vinton. Sounds a lot more like a librarian than a stripper!

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    5. I am indeed jesting. Although some of those names, ye gods.

      Re stripper names, someone on a mailing list I was on came up with Chummy Commore. Hard to beat that....

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    6. The Montezuma chocolate catalogue has such bizarre names for its products that I'm sure people could get stripper names from them: for example they have something called Dainty Dollops...

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  10. This is the only LMM book I've read, and I quite liked it.

    Ever since discovering (through genealogical research) that I have distant cousins on PEI, I've been thinking about going for a trip. I should probably read the Anne books first, though, eh?

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    1. Oh my goodness, you should be flying there at once and taking the books with you! What a trip that would be.
      You must be the only person who has read this but not Anne!

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    2. Ha! I know. For some reason I tend to read the more obscure books by the better known authors. Weird.

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    3. Well, you have to read it sooner or later...

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  11. Moira, I skipped the spoiler because this really sounds like a very nice story and I'd like to read it. Meanwhile, I have got "Anne of Green Gables" sitting on our shelf and waiting to be read.

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    1. You should read both of them Prashant! Anyone with a heart (which I know includes you) will like both of them.

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  12. Ah, The Blue Castle. One of my favourite books, and one I read again at least once a year, preferably on the dock at my cottage, not far as the crow flies from Mistawis.

    Wonderful story, complete comfort read, and knowing how the book proceeds doesn't really impede the enjoyment, because it's the journey.

    I think what drove Valancy's life change the most was her decision to stop caring what other people thought. The freedom was exhilarating, and from that, all other changes followed. LMM used her journals to express thoughts and opinions she didn't dare utter as a minister's wife, and I believe giving Valancy that freedom must have been a treat.

    LMM didn't make up the name Valancy. Isabella Valancy Crawford (1846-1887) was a Canadian poet. She was little known during her lifetime, but came more to the fore in the early 20th century, and in 1923 a biography was published, along with her poetry. So it's quite possible she's the source of the name.

    Thanks for this post.

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    1. Thanks for the name info, and I love the image of you reading it sitting on the dock.
      It IS exhilarating seeing Valancy break free, and in not always expected ways. Terrific fun, but with a nice point to make.

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  13. Over here to find a "stripper's name," one uses the name of one's first pet and the street one lived on.

    Mine would be "Blackie Grove." (A beautiful black Cocker Spaniel)

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    1. It is here too, but I always wonder about all those Americans who live in 48th St, or 2nd Avnenue...

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