When I was 11 and 12 I became hugely obsessed with L.M. Montgomery and all of her books. It started with the Anne of Green Gables stories, of course, and soon moved on to other things. Luckily around this time Montgomery's complete catalog of novels and short stories was being republished. I made my way through all of her books, every one, except for Magic for Marigold
. I even read the first two volumes of Montgomery's journals, which had a big impact on me. For a woman who wrote such charming stories, she had a very depressing life. There is one point in her journals, after Anne of Green Gables
has been published (her first novel) and it's become a hit, that she writes how glad she is that her unhappiness didn't seep into the book - she wasn't sure until the public responded to it, that it really was as pleasant as she wanted it to be.
I think most of her books were her diversion from the disappointments in her own life. You can read a book about Anne Shirley or the Story Girl and just sink into another world where bad things happen sometimes, but mostly everything turns out all right. However, there's a slight edge of nostalgia in all of them for something lost.
My favorite book of hers is The Blue Castle
. I can still remember the first time I read it during one weekend when I was 11 or 12. I woke up at 6 AM on a Sunday morning to finish it. Ever since then, it is my go-to book whenever I'm feeling down. I've reread the book so many times, I've practically memorized it.
Its plot is contrived, but it works. In 1920s Ontario, Canada, Valancy Stirling is a desperately unhappy person. She lives with her narcissistic, controlling mother and a weird old Cousin. They are genteelly poor and their poverty, along with their insistence on "ladylike" behavior, combine to force Valancy to live a life of deprivation and misery. Valancy is shy, dowdy, and desperately lonely. She has no one to confide in, and since she's so meek, everyone treats her badly. She's part of a huge extended family and at every family gathering she is teased about being an old maid. The book begins on Valancy's 29th birthday when she at last really gives up hope about ever finding anyone. On this day she also decides to go, secretly, to see a doctor about some recent heart trouble. Two days later she receives her diagnosis in the mail - she has less than a year to live. This news galvanizes Valancy - she decides to start doing and saying what she really wants, and slowly her life becomes wonderful. She first leaves home to become a housekeeper and nurse for a disgraced woman (who had an illegitimate child) now dieing of tuberculosis. And then she falls in love with the town outsider, Barney Snaith, a perfectly nice man who's only crime is that he chooses to keep away from society.
The book takes place at the interesting moment in the early 1920s when the old Victorian ways were crumbling and much more freedom was being taken by women. Valancy's upbringing was decidedly Victorian - her family views the world as a series of things you should and shouldn't do. When she begins to do as she pleases they are horrified by everything - from her spending the night in a broken down car with Barney Snaith to her wearing a dress with no petticoat.
And there's no distinguishing from large and small missteps. There's a great line in the book when Valancy bobs her hair, "This was before the day of bobs and was regarded as a wild, unheard-of proceeding - unless you had typhoid. When [Valancy's Mother] heard of it she almost decided to erase Valancy's name from the family bible." Valancy never does anything truly outlandish or truly wild, but like a lot of woman around this time, she no longer puts propriety above all things. And it's quite clear in the book that propriety, and being a meek proper woman, never got a woman anywhere. Early on in the novel, she spots Barney (before she gets to know him), fixing his clunker car and she envies him from afar, "Neither he nor his car had to be respectable and live up to traditions...Men had the best of it, no doubt about that. This outlaw was happy, whatever he was or wasn't. She, Valancy Stirling, respectable, well-behaved to the last degree, was unhappy and had always been unhappy. So there you were."
I'm not sure if L.M. Montgomery was a feminist - but The Blue Castle
is definitely her most feminist work. When Valancy receives her year-to-live diagnosis she spends the night thinking through her miserable memories and regrets, and in the morning she begins her new, non-conformist life by taking a bowl of potpourri (so pointlessly feminine) and hurtling it out the window where it smashes against a poster advertising how a woman can get a "schoolgirl complexion". She then says, "I'm sick of the fragrance of dead things."
The fantasy of doing exactly what you want, and then as a consequence, getting exactly what you want is an irresistible one. It's a wish fulfillment book arguing for freedom. Also, L.M. Montgomery sets the story in Ontario's Muskoka region - filled with lakes and pine trees - and she makes the place seem absolutely beautiful and idyllic. There's an ever-present contrast between the stuffy, indoors world that proper women are confined to and the real world of nature that women could be free in if they find it. The Blue Castle
has a slightly silly ending, but it is a romantic fairy tale and if everything turns out a bit too perfectly, it's exactly what should happen.