Friday, April 22, 2016

Reading Maud: LM Montgomery Heritage Society Book Club - The Blue Castle

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending a new book club hosted by the LM Montgomery Heritage Society in Norval, Ontario. The book club is a new venture by the group to help the community celebrate their most famous resident, LM Montgomery, and bring more attention to her vast legacy of literary works.  From 1926-1935, Montgomery lived at the Manse, a Victorian red-brick charmer that still still stands next to the Norval Presbyterian Church. The LM Montgomery Heritage Society has recently launched a fundraising campaign to buy the Manse with the intention of transforming it into a museum about the author.

Even though I live a fair distance away from Norval (a good 1.5 hours driving), I knew as soon as I heard about the book club that I had to join. Not only is LM Montgomery one of my favourite authors, but the first book to be studied was THE BLUE CASTLE, which is my absolute favourite book written by her. The book is the only book solely set in Ontario and features an area known as Muskoka, Ontario’s cottage country north of Toronto, and actually only a very short drive from where I currently live.

The book is about twenty-nine year old Valancy Stirling, a self-described homey woman  who has never had any marriage prospects in her entire life and as a result is forced to endure a dull, suppressed existance with an overbearing mother and ruthlessly disapproving aunt. In fact, the entire Stirling clan seems determined to cut down Valancy at every turn, comparing her to her cousin Olive, who has beauty and beaus aplenty. Things take an interesting turn though when Valancy’s doctor tells her that she has a severe heart condition and can only expect to live for another year. Facing her own death, Valancy begins her own kind of rebellion, defying her family’s firmly held beliefs and forging her own path into the future that eventually leads her to love and a freedom she never knew before.

What’s great about the book club is that many of the attendees not only know the story of THE BLUE CASTLE, but they also know the story of Lucy Maud Montgomery as well. Many parallels were drawn between the life of Valancy and Maud.  Firstly, Montgomery did not marry Rev. Ewan Macdonald until she was well into womanhood. Instead she remained in Cavendish caring for her grandmother, who had raised her, while keeping her engagement secret. For this, Montgomery most likely endured the same demeaning comments directed at Valancy for being an old maid or "spinster". During this period in history, women were often believed to have little value without a man which forced unmarried women to rely on their families to support them. Valancy was one such woman, afraid to say or do anything to contradict her family whom she depended upon for her livelihood.

It was also observed that the strict rules of the Stirling home were similar to the strict upbringing experienced by Maud. For instance, as a child and young woman, even after earning a tidy sum from the success of her early books, Maud was not permitted to change the décor of her bedroom.  As well, both Maud and Valancy were not permitted to do much outside the regular routine set out by the exacting standards of their caregivers.  In the book, Valancy escapes her daily drudgery by dreaming of her Blue Castle, a fantasy world where she can change and move about anything at will.  In her diaries, Maud confessed to have a fantasy world of her own in which she says she often retreated to when her days with her grandparents were particularly difficult to bare.

I noted during the book club meeting that to me the book had a very feminist message embedded in it, where Maud depicts the constricted life of a Edwardian/post-war woman and then gives her the fortitude to set her own path breaking free of the tethers of society, in this case the exacting standards of the Stirling clan. A book club member pointed out that when THE BLUE CASTLE was first published it was banned by a number of schools as being too risqué. Authorities feared it would encourage rebelliousness. It was also noted that the book was released at the same time Maud moved with her family to Norval from Leaskdale, Ontario, a change that saved her from having to face any disapproval from parishioners of her husband’s congregation. The move allowed Maud a fresh start and a clean slate with which to make an impression.

From my perspective THE BLUE CASTLE is one of the best works written by LM Montgomery. In it she explores many themes including societal expectations and breaking free from the bonds of fear, but it also explores the meaning of real friendship and Christian charity. The romance as well is very sophisticated, reminiscent of Gilbert and Anne, but with a connection to the natural world of Ontario’s Muskoka that makes it shine all on its own.

Next month we are reading JANE OF LANTERN HILL. Join in and check back for a full report on what was discussed at the meeting, until then, happy reading Kindred Spirits!

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