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Friday, July 16, 2010

You sound like a revival meeting, Valancy said

So by now, dear readers, you have probably gleaned that I am obsessive about a great many books and authors. One that I have not yet discussed is the incandescently awesome L.M. Montgomery. O Lucy Maud and I have had a long and faithful love (to gank a notable quote from another awesome YA author, Madeleine L'Engle), and I am sure that reading her books at an early age had some effect on my suddenly-no-longer-latent desire to move to Canada (as I have always been fascinated with the country, particularly Prince Edward Island, of course). Anne Shirley is one of my life models and I was always a teensy bit sad that her name wasn't Diana (why couldn't the nice but sort of boring best friend have been named Anne?? OH RIGHT THAT WOULD HAVE DEFEATED THE ENTIRE PURPOSE OF THE FIRST NOVEL RITE).

However, the topic of this post is not any of the Anne books, nor the Road to Avonlea offshoots (which, is it just me or do some of those novelizations actually plagiarize L.M. here and there??), or the Emily books nor the Pat books...my she was prolific! No no. Our subject today is the superawesomedelicious Blue Castle and its fabulous heroine Valancy, and, most specifically, Montgomery as a protofeminist.

Now, don't get all pithy and point out that Gilbert and Anne are Conservatives (does anyone even know what that meant in fin-de-siecle Atlantic Canada? I don't), or that the bulk of Montgomery's plots revolve around someone getting hitched. I CARE NOT, I SAY. (And also that is a topic for another post, because her MO regarding marriage plots is interesting)

The Blue Castle is an interesting text for a variety of reasons. For one thing, it is the only one (I think) that takes place somewhere other than Atlantic Canada--it's set in Ontario. For another, Valancy is an older heroine, not quite the youthful spritely girl we're used to seeing (she's all of almost-30 when the book opens). Third, Valancy's reasons for getting hitched are...interesting. I mean, who gets the news that they have a terminal heart condition and responds by marrying the town dastard? On second thought, most people probably would respond similarly--NOW. But THEN, the idea of a "good girl" from a "good family" (and o, how good the Stirlings are!) up and ditching her mother, keeping house for a drunk, caring for a consumptive loose woman, not going to church, and PROPOSING TO THE TOWN DASTARD (I mean really, he didn't even ask her! SHE asked HIM! no wai), was nigh on unheard of, in the prim West. Presumably readers were a bit shocked when the book was released, at first because Valancy dared and then because she was happy with the results of her daring. I have no qualms about putting Valancy forward as an early feminist heroine.

L.M.'s intentions with the book, of course, are up for discussion. In this case we may have to get into the murky area of allowing a writer's personal life to seep into their writing. However, it is probably not too much of a stretch to speculate that Montgomery's unhappy marriage affected her writing of the book--Valancy and Barney have an ideal year in their Blue Castle, free as the wild things around them, with no need to regard the feelings of society or church. Valancy experiences sexual passion (in so many words) for the first time, and pampering, and pretty clothes. It is quite idyllic. And yet the ending, when Valancy finds that she is NOT going to die of heart failure, changes the tone of the story notably. Suddenly her perfect year of love and free living with Barney is ruined--her future with him uncertain at best, and at worst, the subtext seems to be that she doesn't want a future with Barney. The frustration Montgomery felt in her marriage and, theoretically, in the general existence of women at that time and in that place, comes through clearly throughout The Blue Castle, with its subtle indictment of religious patriarchy and "family" values.

Valancy is an early feminist heroine and Montgomery as her creator an early feminist writer. The catalyst for Valancy's change is a radical and perhaps improbable one; yet its effect on her is profound, moving, and realistic. Her actions to shift her life in the direction she wants are inspiring, derived from a place of will and passion. And though the trappings of Valancy's life are today dated and old-fashioned, the story of her life remains fresh and recognizable to any woman who has broken a path for herself.

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