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Literature / The Blue Castle

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The Blue Castle, by L. M. Montgomery, is the story of Valancy Stirling, an apparently dull, mousy, insignificant little Old Maid trapped in small-town Northern Ontario, Canada.

As the book opens, Valancy wakes up on her 29th birthday morning consumed with bitterness over what has actually been a wasted, downtrodden life, dominated by her overbearing mother and multitude of equally stiff-necked, relentlessly conventional relatives. Valancy's only escape is through her daydreams as the chatelaine of a beautiful blue castle in Spain, complete with handsome Prince Charming.

When she finds out later on the same day she has a terminal form of heart disease and only a year left at best, she finally snaps at the prospect of dying before she has even had a chance to live. Instead she blossoms into a free-spirited Deadpan Snarker who doesn't hesitate to tell off her family to their faces (as she hasn't told them why—the better to avoid their even more smothering pity—they conclude she's lost her mind) and realises for the first time that she's actually quite pretty.

Her world widens even further when she unexpectedly gets her chance to leave home altogether and have some real, meaningful adventures. In the course of which she makes friends with her fellow town pariahs: Roaring Abel Gay, the notorious town drunk; his sweet, sensitive daughter Cecily, an unmarried mother dying of tuberculosis; and Barney Snaith, a rumored criminal and confirmed hermit living in a backwoods island cottage—and soon to become Valancy's love interest...

One of only two novels intended specifically for an adult audience that Montgomery ever wrote (the other is A Tangled Web (1931)) and consequently sadly underrated.

This book provides examples of:

  • Accidental Misnaming: Part of Valancy's rebellion is to refuse her family nickname, "Doss".
  • The Alcoholic: Roaring Abel, who earned his nickname because of his habit of driving around town drunk, roaring bawdy songs and swear words. Sometimes played for laughs, as he has a different "stage" of behavior according to how drunk he is.
  • The Alleged Car: Barney's Grey Slosson, "Lady Jane".
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Valancy is fascinated by Barney's outlaw status.
  • All of the Other Reindeer: Mousy, drab Valancy's entire life up to where the story begins.
  • Alpha Bitch: Valancy's cousin Olive, in both the family and at school when she and Valancy were children. Valancy remembers that the one time she had some beautiful heirloom dress buttons Olive didn't, Olive immediately got the adults to take them from her.
  • Amazingly Embarrassing Parents: Doc Redfern, a loud, tacky patent medicine quack, is clearly this for Barney.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Barney gets in a good one at the end of the novel, as he's trying to convince Valancy to come back to him.
  • Anxiety Dreams: After she learns that she "tricked" Barney into marrying her.
  • Aroused by Their Voice: Barney's voice "might become caressing or wooing with little provocation".
  • Based on a Dream: In-Universe, Dr. Redfern dreamt up the formulae for his inventions.
  • Beautiful All Along: Valancy, like many Montgomery heroines, is unconventional-looking, and only attractive in certain moments to certain people.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Cousin Olive, who only associates with friendless Valancy to make herself look charitable.
  • Black Sheep: To the Stirlings, Valancy would certainly qualify, but Valancy is really more of a White Sheep to everyone else.
  • Broken Bird: Oh, Cecily. First she winds up pregnant by a boy who only saw her as a summer fling, then the baby dies, and by the time of the novel she herself is dying.
  • Canada, Eh?: Barney's father talks like this.
  • Celeb Crush: Valancy on her favorite writer, John Foster. Also known as Barney Snaith.
  • Chivalrous Pervert: Roaring Abel. He comments on Valancy's nice ankles (to the Stirling family, ankles are considered among the unmentionables) and Valancy is pleased by the compliment. More to the point, Valancy never feels frightened of him.
  • The Cobbler's Children Have No Shoes: Roaring Abel is a carpenter, but his own house is falling apart. Dr Redfern is another example: he sells treatments for hair loss and rheumatism, yet he suffers from both. They are implied to work solely on Placebo Effect, though.
  • Cute Kitten: Barney's cats, Good Luck and Banjo.
  • Damsel in Distress: Valancy foolishly goes to a dance where some drunken men harass her. Fortunately, Barney arrives in time.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Valancy blossoms into one after the news from the doctor, much to her family's dismay.
    Aunt Isabel: "Doss, you are horribly thin. You are all corners. Don't you ever try to fatten up?"
    Valancy: "No. But I can tell you where to find a beauty parlor in St. Lawrence where they can reduce the number of your chins."
    • Barney has his moments, too:
    Benjamin: "You - you pup!"
    Barney: "Why be so unoriginal?"
  • Death of a Child: Cissy's baby son dies in the story.
  • Defiled Forever: Subverted. The entire town sees Cecily as this, but Valancy refuses to buy into it, especially since Cecily is a sweet, shy girl who was previously well respected. Later when telling her story, Cecily admits that she didn't even know having sex would lead to pregnancy, and that she refused her boyfriend's dutiful proposal because she could tell he'd fallen out of love with her. She thought trapping him into a loveless marriage would be worse than dealing with the pregnancy by herself. Note that this book was written in the 1920s.
  • Disappeared Dad: Valancy's father died of pneumonia when she was a baby, possibly because of his neurotic wife's rule about not lighting fires before October 21st.
  • Don't Fear The Reaper: Valancy is not afraid to die, just angry that she's never really lived.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: Shortly after Valancy decides to stop deferring to her family, she ditches her outdated pompadour for stylish low puffs. An even more drastic change comes later when Barney bobs her hair.
  • Extreme Doormat: Valancy at first. She decides to stop letting others push her around when she mistakenly diagnosed with angina pectoris.
  • Feminine Women Can Cook: Valancy offers her skills as a housekeeper and cook to Roaring Abel and Cissy; the fact that she's being useful to someone who needs her does a great deal for her self-esteem. Later on, she delights in making the Blue Castle a cozy little home and cooking for Barney.
  • The First Cut Is the Deepest: Barney lost all faith in friendship and love after he learnt that his first love was only interested in his father's money. Of course, he had had to go through a lot before that incident, and it was the last straw.
  • Fourth-Date Marriage: A slightly unusual case. Valancy proposes to Barney after a rather short acquaintance, not only because she's falling for him, but to have a place to live after Cissy's death. Barney, knowing about her heart disease, accepts her out of pity and because she's a good chum, but comes to fall in love with her later on.
  • Friendless Background: Valancy and Barney.
  • Gold Digger: Ethel Traverse, Barney's first love, whom he dumped after finding out she only wanted him for his father's money. This was the real cause of his leaving home to travel and settling in a tiny cottage in Ontario.
  • Good Shepherd: Mr. Towers, the kindly Free Methodist minister who officiates Valancy and Barney's wedding and prays for them later.
  • Grande Dame: Mrs. Frederick Stirling, Aunt Wellington, Aunt Isabel, quite a few in the Stirling family.
  • Happy Place: The Blue Castle of Valancy's dreamland, which she has populated since she was a child with the companions and love she craved.
  • Hypochondriac: Cousin Gladys with her "neuritis".
  • Hypocritical Humor: After the revelation that Barney is the son of a multimillionaire, Uncle Benjamin chides the other Stirlings for being so quick to judge him from baseless rumors when he was right there judging with the rest of them.
  • Impoverished Patrician: Mrs. Frederick Stirling's branch of the family has fallen on hard times, and must live frugally—but the idea of Valancy going "below her station" to be a housekeeper to Roaring Abel is scandalous. Later, we learn that Barney's first fiancee also came from such a family.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Cissy Gay refuses the proposal by her baby's father because she didn't want to trap him in a loveless marriage. Valancy also leaves Barney when she realises that she isn't dying, for the same reason.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Aunt Alberta. Also Roaring Abel, who was a real The Casanova in his youth.
  • Incredibly Lame Pun: Uncle Benjamin just loves these.
  • In Harmony with Nature: Barney, and eventually Valancy. In every Canadian season—yes, even winter—they find cause for delight and meditation out in the woods and wilds.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Olive's letter to her fiancé in the next-to-last chapter complains about all the attention Valancy gets from the family now. She also points out that the Stirlings abruptly switched to fawning on her because she married money, and Valancy knows it.
    And they can't see that Valancy is just laughing at them all in her sleeve.
  • Kids Are Cruel: As experienced by Barney and Valancy.
  • Kindhearted Cat Lover: Valancy. Her unsympathetic mother and Cousin Stickles, however, dislike cats.
  • Lack of Empathy: All the Stirlings, with the possible exception of Cousin Georgiana.
  • Lady Looks Like a Dude: Valancy as a child is mistaken for a boy by Dr. Stalling who is furious that she is wearing a hat in church.
  • Like You Were Dying
  • Lonely Rich Kid: Barney, also a frequent target of bullying.
  • Love Epiphany: Barney has one when Valancy's life is threatened.
    • Valancy has hers when she and Barney run out of gas and are stranded in the woods (though it's obvious to the reader well before that).
  • The Makeover: Valancy, whose mother has been dressing her in thick layers of brown, gray and black, spends her first housekeeping wages from Roaring Abel on a short-sleeved, drop-waisted, collarless green dress and a lacy nightgown.
  • Makeup Is Evil: Everyone knows Valancy is dull so thoroughly that a rumor that she wore rouge is not enough to sink her reputation, which it would have done for any other girl.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Her mother sulks after a quarrel, which means she does not discover the letter that said Valency was dying. Valancy regards it as providential.
  • Men Are Better Than Women: When Valancy as a child is bullied by an older male cousin who later denied hurting her, the Stirling clan take his side because the family rule is that boys are trusted more than girls. Also, Valancy's mother was very disappointed that Valancy wasn't a boy.
  • Missing Mom: Barney's mother died when he was a baby, just like Valancy's father. Cissy's mother died young as well.
  • Mistaken for Dying: Valancy's doctor, panicked by the news of his son's car accident, mixes up Valancy's letter with one to a dying old woman. She accepts the diagnosis because consulting another doctor would require telling her family (because she can't drive and Dr. Trent is the only one in walking distance) which would result in so much fuss and bother that Valancy's plans for a happy last year would be entirely spoiled.
  • Misunderstood Loner with a Heart of Gold: Barney, and this suits him just fine.
  • My Own Private "I Do": Barney and Valancy.
  • Neat Freak: Valancy, in spite of herself, due to her upbringing. Her mother takes it to an extreme.
  • Not with Them for the Money: Valancy in regards to Barney. Her family, not so much.
  • Oblivious to Love: Barney is oblivious to his true feelings towards Valancy, up to a point.
  • Once Done, Never Forgotten: The Stirlings never let Valancy forget that she stole some raspberry jam when she was eight and lost one of her aunt's silver teaspoons.
  • Ordered Apology: Valancy is forced to apologize to Olive when she had done nothing wrong.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: Family disapproval led to Olive giving up her second romance. (Not, whatever those outside the family say, the way the Bad Boy was losing interest in her.)
  • Placebo Effect: Dr Redfern's medicines work using this effect, according to Barney.
  • Precision F-Strike: In the last chapter, Barney follows Valancy to her mother's house and pleads with her to come back to him, telling her all about his childhood and Ethel Traverse. When Valancy refuses, thinking he's only pretending to care, he exclaims "Damn!", jumping to the conclusion that she's embarrassed by his tacky Nouveau Riche father. This, of all things, finally convinces Valancy he loves her - knowing her husband only loses his temper when he cares deeply about something. They make up and live happily ever after.
  • Pungeon Master: Uncle Benjamin, who often uses this trait to tease Valancy about her lack of a love life. Backfires spectacularly when he tries to use the same tactics to squash her new, free-speaking self:
    Benjamin: "What is the difference between a young girl and an old maid?"
    Valancy: "One is happy and careless, the other is cappy and hairless. You have asked that riddle at least 50 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 when you don't succeed."
  • Pygmalion Snapback: Oddly enough, after finding out that she isn't dying after all, Valancy's newfound confidence almost completely evaporates. She leaves Barney, goes back to her mother, and takes a lot of convincing to realize that he wants her back. It makes sense when you realize how downtrodden she's been all her life, and that her confidence was really due to a belief that her actions wouldn't have any serious consequences. The point is for her to learn that they do, and to be confident anyway.
  • Railroad Tracks of Doom: Valancy's shoe is caught in the tracks, leading to a dramatic rescue by Barney... and an epiphany for both of them re: her supposedly fatally weak heart.
  • The Reveal: Quite a lot of them are piled up on top of each other in a space of a few chapters: Valancy isn't really dying; the doctor sent her the wrong letter. Barney is the son of a millionaire Dr Redfern (whose products have been mentioned several times before). Barney's backstory is also partially revealed. Oh, and he's also John Foster, the author of nature books Valancy adores. In an earlier chapter, Cissy Gay reveals the details of her tragedy.
  • Scenery Porn: What else would you expect from L.M. Montgomery? Except this time it's set in Muskoka, Ontario, instead of Prince Edward Island.
  • Secret Test of Character: All of Barney's seemingly random questions about money ("Would you be happier if you had a million dollars?") turn out to be his way of assuring himself that Valancy is not another Ethel Traverse and does, in fact, love him for himself.
  • Silent Treatment: Valancy's mother's preferred method of punishment.
  • Sinister Minister: Dr. Stalling, but only in Valancy's eyes. Roaring Abel (and the reader) sees him as simply pompous, narrow-minded and rather stupid.
  • Suddenly Suitable Suitor: For the Stirlings, Barney instantly switches from a loathed outlaw reprobate to the perfect suitor for Valancy when they discover his real last name.
  • Thicker Than Water: Cousin Stickles admonishes Valancy with this.
    Valancy: "But who wants water to be thick? We want it to be thin - sparkling - crystal-clear."
  • Through His Stomach: Barney is much taken with her cooking.
  • True Love is Exceptional: Olive's romances have been variable.
  • The Unfavorite: Valancy, which is made all the more remarkable by the fact that she's an only child. Mrs. Stirling has always been disappointed in Valancy for being female (she wanted a boy) and—in her straitlaced eyes at least—unattractive.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Valancy bursts out laughing when one of her aunts says a dog bit her "below the Catholic Church."
  • Victorian Novel Disease: Played tragically straight with Cecily.
  • Why Couldn't You Be Different?: Valancy's mother constantly bemoans her shortcomings, without the least bit of insight into how much she's responsible for most of them.
  • Your Days Are Numbered:
    • Interestingly played with Valancy, who actually finds the prospect much easier to bear than a long, dull life of spinsterdom and social pressure with her family. When the doctor reveals his mistake, as is traditional for this trope, Valancy is not happy to live out her life with Barney as one might expect. She's heartbroken, believing that Barney will accuse her of tricking him into marriage. It doesn't even occur to her that Barney might have grown to love her and want to keep her - not until the aforementioned Precision F-Strike, at least.
    • Cissy is another example. She, too, is content to die - she feels she has nothing left to live for.
  • You Need to Get Laid: The Stirlings, not knowing about the heart disease, blame this trope for Valancy's rebellion: "Old maids are apt to fly off on a tangent like that. If she had been married when she should have been, none of this would have happened."