(Not quite the wild woods that Valancy and Barney wander in, but I feel sure they would be at home on this golden path in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.)
It’s a sad fact of the reading life that when one is in love with an author who is no longer living and writing, one will eventually run out of new books from that author. I faced this fact with my beloved L.M. Montgomery years ago, and have been rationing out her books ever since. Oh – they stand up to re-reading, of course, but there’s nothing like the experience of reading one for the first time. So it was with trepidation that I picked up The Blue Castle to read along with Naomi and Sarah. What if I didn’t love Valancy as much as I love my friends Anne Shirley, Emily Starr, Jane Stuart and Sara Stanley? Worse – what if I loved Valancy just as much, or even more, and then I’d have met her and never get to meet her again for the first time?
Well – in the end it was the second (and let’s be honest, inevitable) scenario that came to pass. But I can’t regret meeting Valancy, even if it means that we’re now friends and the fun of the first impression is behind me. After all, I can re-visit her, and I will. LMM’s books, as I said, reward re-reading by yielding something new and different every time you read them. Of course, this time, it was all new for me – and I found that what made the biggest impression on me – other than the nature writing, which was as finely-wrought and evocative as always – was the power that names had in the story.
LMM has a fascination with names and their importance. Take, for instance, our kindred spirit Anne Shirley. Names are tremendously important to Anne. First of all, would you please call her Cordelia? And if you won’t oblige there, at least you can be so good as to spell her name Anne-with-an-E. Anne values names highly, and she spends a lot of time thinking about them – not just her own name, but others’ as well. She dislikes her last name, Shirley, but is proud that her parents had romantic names – Walter and Bertha. She refuses to call Gilbert by name – he’s “Gil- some of the others” when she’s worrying about losing her place at the head of the class – at least, until they become friends and he earns the right to a name. (A right which he lost by calling Anne names – the terrible “Carrots.”) She’s pleased as punch to have a best friend with a romantic name such as Diana – and Diana shows her love for Anne by naming her daughter after her – “Small Anne Cordelia.” Cordelia. Of course. In Anne of Windy Poplars, Anne expresses delight that an acquaintance, Katherine, spells her name with a K instead of “smug C” – and then is dismayed when the next note from said acquaintance, rejecting Anne’s overtures of friendship, is signed “Catherine” – with a C! Anne is fixated on names and their importance, and it seems her creator is too, because this thread runs through The Blue Castle too.
Warning – spoilers ahead! Stop here if you plan to read The Blue Castle and don’t want me to reveal its twists and surprises.
Take, first, the heroine: Valancy Jane Stirling. Valancy’s name matters to her a great deal. She’s fixated on her first name – as LMM tells us right off, Valancy doesn’t much like her middle name, Jane, but she is very fond of her first name. To start with Jane, I thought it was interesting that Valancy doesn’t like it – since she reminded me of no other LMM heroine more than Jane Victoria Stuart. I wondered if LMM meant it to be significant that both heroines have the letters V, J, and S in their names, and that while Valancy rather dislikes “Jane,” Jane Stuart absolutely loathes “Victoria.” I found it particularly fascinating, because I believe that had Jane not discovered PEI and had her summers with “Dad,” she would have grown up to be Valancy – at least, Valancy as we first meet her. I’ll come back to this.
Then, there’s the matter of a first name. Valancy has a nice ring, and our heroine does like it – but her family insists on calling her by the nickname of her babyhood, “Doss.” Not only does “Doss” have nothing to do with “Valancy” (as far as I can tell) but – ugh. I don’t blame Valancy for favoring her given name over the one hissing syllable her family allows her. And she has my hearty sympathies, because I, too, am saddled with a hated nickname. I have relatives – and a few people from high school, although I’m not in touch with many – who will never, ever, ever give over calling me “Jackie.” I’ve pretty much accepted this, but still – there’s nothing that sets my teeth on edge quite like being called “Jackie.” It is not my name, and more than that – it is not me. Hearing it spoken aloud shoves me right back into middle school. So I don’t blame Valancy for the cold grip of irritation she feels every time one of her family members calls her by the hated “Doss.”
Finally, the last name – Stirling. Has there been a more evocative surname in all of LMM’s bibliography? Stirling – the perfect name for a family of upstanding, status-obsessed, well-to-do and thoroughly disagreeable relatives. To me, Valancy’s maiden name is very suggestive of her family’s place in their insular community, and – even more – of the self-congratulatory view they hold of their family.
Of course, Valancy doesn’t keep the name “Stirling.” She trades it in (for another S name – is that an LMM thing? Shirley, Starr, Stuart, Stanley, and Stirling – that can’t be unintentional). After receiving a letter from her doctor bluntly informing her that she has incurable heart disease and no more than a year to live, 29-year-old Valancy decides to make herself happy. She starts by slipping out from under her domineering mother’s thumb, shocking her family by saying precisely what she thinks instead of biting her tongue and playing the role they’ve all assigned her – of cowed, colorless “Doss.” Then she ventures further – leaving her mother’s home to take a job as nurse and companion to a disgraced peer, Cissy Gay, who is dying of tuberculosis. I didn’t think it was a coincidence that Valancy, seeking happiness and life in what she believes to be her last year, flies from the home of the (upstanding) Stirlings to the Gay household. Her flight shocks her family, and they embark on an unsuccessful campaign to lure her back home to salvage her reputation, which she has apparently damaged by her association with the Gays. Valancy, for her part, figures – whatever, she’s dying. She likes Cissy and her father, she feels more comfortable in their home, and she couldn’t care less about her reputation. So she stays on until Cissy dies, and then she shocks her family even more, by marrying local scoundrel Barney Snaith and moving out to his ramshackle cabin on an island “up back” in Muskoka. (Shades, again, of an adult Jane Stuart – defying snobbish relatives for a chance at happiness, keeping house, and feeling needed – first by caring for Cissy Gay, and then embracing her own little space, warming it and tidying it and bustling about in it. Jane would do these things – Jane does do these things, when she and Dad set up house on Lantern Hill. Had Jane grown up without Dad, without PEI, I believe she would have become what Valancy was at the beginning of the novel – colorless, cowering before her indomitable elders. Jane, like Valancy, yearns to be needed, and Jane, like Valancy, finds fulfillment in feeding and caring for those around her. Jane, like Valancy, longs for a home to call her own, and Jane, like Valancy, finds herself a gifted housekeeper when she gets that home. The difference between them is that Jane is 12 and Valancy 29, and Jane finds hearth and happiness with her father; Valancy with her husband.)
Snaith – what a name. The Stirlings and the rest of the local society can’t abide him, and they’re all convinced he’s done something terrible and shameful – a misapprehension he encourages – and they gleefully speculate about Snaith’s dark deeds over dining tables and coffee. One can’t entirely blame them, because with a name like Snaith… After all, the “sn” sound can’t be trusted. Think of the other words that it heralds. Sneer. Snicker. Snide. Snark. Sneak.
Snaith does seem to do many of those things. He certainly has a way of sneering and snickering – more than once are his “mocking” smiles and laughter described. Valancy, for her part, doesn’t care about anything he’s done. She loves him, she’s dying, she wants to be happy. And Snaith does make her happy – giving her a home on a private island in the Ontario wilderness, leading her on tramps through the woods, canoe trips in velvety twilight, red-cheeked ice-skating races – a life of adventure and joy. As Valancy Snaith, our heroine is filling up on a lifetime of fun while she can.
Of course, Snaith has secrets. (How could he not, with a name like that?) He has his “Bluebeard’s Chamber” – a lean-to he forbids Valancy to enter. Valancy doesn’t care what Snaith has in the lean-to, and she’s not particularly interested in what he does there. (Much speculation has ensued on why Valancy isn’t more curious, and why she seems so unconcerned that her husband has secrets; I believe she’s simply not interested. She was open – both with Barney and with herself – about her expectations of marriage. She didn’t think it was going to last long, and all she wanted was a little earthly happiness and companionship before her time was up. Barney holds up his end of the bargain – gives her that and more – and she is content.) To Snaith’s secrets – they, too, have to do with names. And more to the point, with his other names – because he has two.
Barney Snaith is John Foster – a nature writer Valancy admires. When cowed by her mother, Valancy was not permitted to read novels, and her one joy in life was the (non-fiction, but one step away from poetry) nature books written by her favorite author, John Foster. Barney flatly refuses to discuss Foster with Valancy, and he sneeringly dismisses Foster’s writing as “piffle” when Valancy does browbeat him into listening to her quote a passage. Allow me to pat myself on the back for a minute? I guessed immediately that Barney was John Foster, and that what he was doing in his “Bluebeard’s Chamber” was processing photos and writing the luminous nature books that Valancy devours.
Barney is also Bernard Snaith Redfern – only son of a multi-millionaire who made his vast fortune in inventing and selling tonics and pills (which Valancy’s stiff relatives swear by). As a boy, Barney is mocked for his father’s business, yet is also sought-after for his wealth – and the pain of being simultaneously bullied and pursued stays with him his entire life – until Valancy comes along, ignorant of his vast wealth and its embarrassing origins, and pleased to paddle around in a canoe and cook potatoes over a campfire. As Bernie Redfern, he had no chance of love. As Barney Snaith, he has a companion and lifemate who has fallen in love with him for who he is, not for what he can buy. One can only imagine the happiness.
I won’t get deeper into plot, other than to assure you of what you already knew – this is LMM, after all – it all comes right in the end. Valancy doesn’t die (it was all a mistake! woohoo!) and her family is more than happy to accept her as “Mrs. Bernard Redfern” after cutting her out of their lives when she was “Valancy Snaith.” Such is the power of a name.
Have you read The Blue Castle? Did you love it?