I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy. I can’t say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left. And I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring. . .
Thus begins I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, a book I’ve had forever on my Classics Club list. (Have you ever read a better opening scene? I haven’t.) Just last month read aloud The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Smith for Carrie’s RtK Bookclub. It seemed natural to read Smith’s two most popular books in quick succession. I’m really glad I did. The books are very different from each other, but both are extremely enjoyable in their own right.
I Capture the Castle is the story of the Mortmain family, written from the perspective of the younger daughter of the family, seventeen year old Cassandra Mortmain. She lives in a tumble-down castle in England with her eccentric (crazy?) author father; her young, loving, exotically beautiful stepmother, Topaz; her very pretty older sister, Rose; her younger brother, Thomas; and her devoted “swain,” Stephen, the son of the family’s late cook. Cassandra sets out to “capture” the castle and its inhabitant in her journal. What follows, then, is an interestingly written and very engaging tale of a family in the grips of poverty due to Father Mortmain’s inability to write anything after his first highly successful book. Rose longs to escape from her life, ideally by marrying someone wealthy. It’s no surprise, then, that things begin to develop in that direction when the Cotton brothers come from America to lay claim to the Mortmains’ castle (where the Mortmains live as tenants) as a part of their inheritance. Cassandra is there to write about it all, both as a keen observer and as an active participant.
I Capture the Castle is the best kind of coming-of-age story, which is one of my favorite types. Both the characterization and Cassandra’s voice are wonderfully done. Although the whole premise of the story–that this very odd, even rather dysfunctional, family lives in an old castle in poverty–is rather a stretch, it seems believable because of Cassandra’s witty, sympathetic, and engaging voice. This story is really a young adult novel, with Cassandra growing up as we, the readers, are privy to her thoughts, dreams, hopes, and ideals. In fact, I would say that this is what a YA novel should be: it doesn’t skirt real, growing up issues in the least, but there’s nothing gratuitous in it. (Conservative readers will want to note that the book contains a fair amount of mild cursing–mostly Father Mortmain is the culprit here–as well as some kissing that threatens to go further than that but doesn’t because the characters show some restraint.) Again, it’s the fact that it’s a bildungsroman that makes it so good to me–we really get that Cassandra is growing up, and through all of her confusion over what’s happening to her and her sisters, we see some real growth. One of my favorite parts of the story–a real a ha! moment, at least for the reader–is when Cassandra realizes that her need for Miss Blossom , a dressmaker’s dummy that sits in her and Rose’s shared bedroom and gives them advice (through Cassandra’s voicing the wisdom she already possesses but doesn’t seem to know it), is past. It is a very touching scene to me, especially as I realized that Miss Blossom was really Cassandra and Rose’s surrogate (albeit imaginary) mother:
And then a different voice spoke in my head, a bitter, sarcastic voice–my own at its very nastiest. It said: “You’ve sunk pretty low, my girl, clasping a dressmaker’s dummy. And aren’t you a bit old for this Miss Blossom nonsense?” Then, for the first time in my life, I began to wonder how I “did” Miss Blossom. Was she like Stephen’s mother, but not so humble–or nearer to a charwoman of Aunt Millicent’s? Or had I taken her from some character in a book? Suddenly I saw her more vividly than ever before, standing behind the bar of an old-fashioned London pub. She looked at me most reproachfully, then put a sealskin jacket over her blue blouse, turned off all the lights, and went out into the night closing the door behind her. The next second, her bust was as hard as a board and smelt of dust and old glue. And I knew she was gone forever. (Chapter 13)
I might have shed a few tears at this point in the story.
I haven’t said anything at all about the romance in the story so as to avoid spoilers, but I did want to say that this story reminds me of an old movie–think something like Roman Holiday or some other such lighthearted romance. It also has an ending that I didn’t see coming, which was refreshing given the predictability of most romances. It turns out that I Capture the Castle was produced as a movie, and while its rating definitely gives me pause, I might look it up some day when I have a spare evening (ha!) and give it a try.
One more thing I found interesting about the story is its approach to religion, specifically Christianity. At one point in the story, Cassandra’s life loses its vim and vigor for her because of a romantic complication, and in the middle of the flatness she considers giving religion/faith/Christianity a try. It turns out that she doesn’t, in the end, but I thought her conversation with the village’s very interesting little vicar was interesting and at least didn’t paint faith in a negative light:
“You ought to try it, one of these days,” he said. “I believe you’d like it.”
I said: “But I have tried it, haven’t I? I’ve been to church. It never seems to take.”
He laughed and said he knew I’d exposed myself to infection occasionally. “But catching things depends so much on one’s state of health. You should look in on the church if you’re ever mentally run down.”
I remembered my thoughts on the way to the village. “Oh, it wouldn’t be fair to rush to church because one was miserable,” I said–taking care to look particularly cheerful.
“It’d be most unfair not to–you’d be doing religion out of its very best chance.”
“You mean ‘Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity’?”
“Exactly. Of course, there are extremities at either end; extreme happiness invites religion almost as much as extreme misery.” (Chapter 13)
Their conversation went on from there and gave me plenty of food for thought.
I thoroughly enjoyed I Capture the Castle and can see why it appears on many readers’ lists of favorites. I suspect it will be one of my top picks of 2014. Highly Recommended. (Little, Brown and Co., 1948)