Once upon a time I had never read a “romance novel” — or so the story went. There’s a way in which that was absolutely true: I had never read anything marketed or labeled explicitly as a “romance novel” (a Harlequin, say). As with all literary labels, though, “romance” isn’t really that precise:all around the territory of the card-carrying Harlequin-style “romance novel” there’s a vast borderland populated by everything from chick-lit to Victorian marriage-plot novels, all of which have at least some key elements in common with romances, even if it’s only a structural similarity. I had certainly read a lot of books from that more nebulous territory before I ventured into the heartland, but (partly because I didn’t know, or think, much about what made something a “romance novel” instead of some other kind of novel, and partly because I hadn’t read any self-identified “romance novels”) I hadn’t recognized any of them as romances.
I just reread Lucy Maud Montgomery’s The Blue Castle, which is why I’ve been thinking about how (and, a bit, why) we make these distinctions. I haven’t read The Blue Castle in over 30 years; though it was a favorite of mine long ago, our family collection of L. M. Montgomery didn’t move east with me, and the only ones I’ve restocked are the first two in the Anne series. I happened across The Blue Castle at the Women for Music book sale last weekend and grabbed it right up. And as I reread it, what I kept thinking is how similar it is to so many of the romances I’ve read in the last couple of years, particularly Mary Balogh’s: I can totally imagine the entire plot transplanted to one of her Regency settings. In fact, aren’t there one or two that are very similar? But asked about my recollections of it, I would never have said it was a romance: though I remembered the falling-in-love plot, it’s the heroine’s journey of self-discovery that has stayed with me all these years. (Of course the two things frequently go together, as they do here and in many of the romances I’ve read.)
The funny thing was that this time, though the whole of The Blue Castle was intensely familiar to me, and I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting all of its familiar scenes (it’s almost eerie, isn’t it, how you can reread something you used to know well and not even know how much you remember about it, but then at each moment find yourself thinking “oh yes, this is what happens”?), it also struck me as familiar in a different way: as exemplary of a particular formula. “Formulaic,” of course, is the derogatory term other people (who me? never! OK, sometimes…) use for genre fiction. Being formulaic is perhaps the defining quality of “genre fiction,” the way that we know it isn’t “literary fiction.” (Getting past the use of “formulaic” as a judgment is actually one of the key things I work on in my mystery fiction class. First of all, another word for “formula” is “convention,” and all literary works rely to some degree on conventions. And second, once there’s a formula, you can mess with it in interesting ways, and that’s its own kind of challenge, especially because readers get very savvy about formulas — which makes them hard to surprise and impress.) The Blue Castle read like a romance this time — which is not a criticism, but just a recognition that my reading has always been more promiscuous than I thought — or that labels are less useful. It also looked like a romance this time: look at that cover! The one I grew up with is below — quite a contrast.
The Blue Castle is a great example of a book written for the tortoise market, which is probably why I loved it when I was around 13 and moping about being undesirable the same way as Valancy does through the first half of the book. (Count me among those who have no nostalgia for their teen years.) Much older and somewhat less self-critical now, I still enjoyed her Cinderella-style transformation into someone joyful and confident in her own beauty and sure of her own values — and yet what I liked best about it is that unlike Cinderella, Valancy is the agent of her own transformation. I also liked the lyrical nature writing in the novel, which is linked in the plot to the books of Valancy’s favorite author and [spoiler redacted!], so that the descriptions, which are usually filtered through Valancy’s emotions, draw all the elements of the novel together. I’ve never been to the Muskoka region of Ontario, but Montgomery made me wistful for it in a dreamy kind of way, as a place I’ve never seen and yet somehow know intimately:
The stars smouldered in the horizon mists through the old oriel. The haunting, persistent croon of the pine-trees filled the air. The little waves began to make soft, sobbing splashes on the rocks below them in the rising winds . . .
October — with a gorgeous pageant of colour around Mistawis into which Valancy plunged her soul. Never had she imagined anything so splendid. A great tinted peace. Blue, wind-winnowed skies. Sunlight sleeping in the glads of that fairyland. Long dreamy purple days paddling idly in their canoe along shores and up the rivers of crimson and gold. A sleep, red hunter’s moon. Enchanted tempests that stripped the leaves from the trees and heaped them along the shores. flying shadows of clouds. What had all the smug. opulent lands out front to compare with this?