Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Beloved novels 

A smattering of bloggers, authors, and other literati have contributed their top ten novel lists to Professor Barnhardt's Journal. I, on the other hand, have a hell of a time coming up with such lists, because it changes constantly and I can never make up my mind. But as I've been meaning to talk about old favorites here on the blog, I'll start with one that I recently reread and found, to my delight, that it held up: L.M. Montgomery's THE BLUE CASTLE.

Sure, everyone knows, adores, or is sickened by the Anne of Green Gables books. I love them too, well, the first three at least, because after Anne gets married the series loses a lot of its luster, never mind that ANNE OF WINDY POPLARS and ANNE OF INGLESIDE don't count b/c they were written in Montgomery's final years when it was obvious she was bored of her characters and writing for money. But I digress. Point is that she wrote many other books--and many more short stories. Prolific? Certainly. But like any career, some books hold up better than others. As a young teen, I reveled in the sweet love story that was KILMENY OF THE ORCHARD, but now I find it too patriarchal and saccharin for my tastes. THE STORY GIRL and especially THE GOLDEN ROAD are fine books, really capturing the sense of childhood camaraderie in a small town. EMILY OF NEW MOON is fine, but the sequels get progressively worse that by the end of EMILY'S QUEST, I hate that woman so much I want to slap her silly for being a stupid ass. Same thing with PAT OF SILVER BUSH and its sequel. There are plenty others but I won't talk about them now.

Still, there's something about THE BLUE CASTLE that speaks to me still. A few days ago I didn't feel like reading something new so I pulled out my mother's beat up, well-worn copy of this 1926 novel about an old maid (twenty-nine!) named Valancy Stirling who has been meek, cowed and submissive her entire life, never allowed to veer away from her family's strict rules and regulations, never daring to speak her mind. To say she lives is an overstatement; it's more accurate to say she exists. But one day, she notices her heart's beating rather irregularly, with pains in her chest. In her first act of "rebellion," she goes to see the doctor outside of town, one her family disapproves of and never makes use of. He gives her the bad news by letter some days later: angina pectoris, with certain death in a few months, if not weeks. Shocked that she could die when she never lived, Valancy starts to reclaim herself slowly but surely: reevaluating the importance of her blowhard relatives' opinions; moving out to take care of a dying school friend and cleaning her house; and eventually, embarking on a marriage of convenience.

The structure of THE BLUE CASTLE, granted, is somewhat flawed: why didn't Valancy get a second opinion? Why did she never speak her mind before? But at the same time, such resolutions are true to her character, who has to improve herself in small steps. And it's fairly surprising for its censuring of family and small-town structures in favor of following one's own dreams in one's own way. Valancy finds her happy ending (which is somewhat contrived, but hell, this is a fairy tale) because she takes a chance on herself and is no longer meek. Though I wouldn't call this a feminist book per se, it is about empowerment, and about struggling to be one's own self when it's so hard to be at times.

Evidently this book was more of an influence on some folks more than others; Colleen McCullough's THE LADIES OF MISSALONGHI was the subject of a plagiarism suit by Montgomery's heirs, who claimed that the Australian author borrowed a little too much from THE BLUE CASTLE. The verdict was sealed, so nothing is known of how the case was settled. Oddly enough, MISSALONGHI is still in print, so judge for yourself whether the similarities hold root.

But in a few years, I'll go back and reread the book and see if it still has the same old magic for me. I suspect it will.

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