published 1926, set some years before that
LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
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
--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…
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.