A Trip Down Memory Lane Even Better Than The First Time…..
I first read Dodie Smith’s impeccable `I Capture The Castle’ way back in nineteen hundred and frozen to death when I was some few years younger than her precocious, intelligent, wise beyond years and yet innocent narrator, Cassandra – she is 17. No doubt I was equally precocious, at least. Cassandra, daughter of a highly eccentric, impecunious writer-with-a-block, fancies an authorial career for herself (as indeed to some extent I did in my early teens)
Cassandra Mortmain, her beautiful older sister Rose, her even more beautiful stepmother, Topaz, artist’s model and artist herself, ferociously intelligent younger brother Thomas, and unwaged Greek God handsome-but-with-a-slightly-dim-expression general help Stephen, her aforementioned writer Father, and her dearly loved dog and cat, live practically below the breadline, in a stunning, decaying castle. Everyone had seen better times, financially, and everyone is aware that a tea of bread and margarine might come to seem luxurious any time soon:
Rose is ironing……it will be a pity if she scorches her only nightgown. (I have two, but one is minus its behind.)
Dodie Smith set her book, published in 1948, before the war, in the probably early 30s. She had begun writing it in 1945, and had worked and re-worked it revising it for two years. The book shows evidence of the painstaking work only in its perfection. It is beautifully crafted, and has that gorgeous felicity of seeming to have sprung in effortless ease, trippingly, from the authorial pen. There is no sense of the blood, sweat, toil and tears of its gestation.
Cassandra, wanting to exercise and develop her writerly skills, keeps journals (you have a sense Dodie herself may well have had a similar history) She is a witty, almost but not quite winsomely so, young girl, full of feeling, the ability to be cynical, but warm-hearted and affectionate. And, like many young girls, she has some dreams about her own future, which involve both romance and vocation. This is the story of both, starting from a place where the family’s finances preclude them ever meeting suitable young men, despite the fact that the more worldly Rose realises that marriage to a moneyed man is probably the family’s best option, and that she is the only one placed to achieve this. Both Rose and Cassandra realise they have certain parallels to an earlier pair of sisters – Jane and Lizzie Bennet, especially when a well-heeled couple of Americans take up residence in a nearby grand house
Another sparkling literary nod may have been to Stella Gibbons – Topaz, with her tendency to commune with nature (running out into the fields in her nightgown with probably nothing on underneath, and creating symbolic art works) could be some kind of relation to Elfine in Cold Comfort Farm. Stephen, whose Greek God looks will make him something of a hit with a Bohemian set, is a little like a reluctant, noble, introverted Seth.
Cassandra’s joyous combination of intense feeling, curiosity, intelligence and most particularly her already well-developed powers of observation and mastery of writerly skills make her an absolutely enchanting first person narrator. This is a book to relish, word by word, from start to end.
Some have expressed frustration with the ambiguous ending. Personally, I find that it, too is sheer perfection. That is certainly what I feel as a more sophisticated reader than the 13 or 14 year old I was when I read it last. And I suspect (as I was precocious) I may well already have approved the ambiguity.
This is not a `book for young adults’ (though it certainly can be read with great enjoyment by them) It is a book for anyone who might like to see the world through the eyes of a particularly enchanting young woman, and for anyone who appreciates light touch wit, irony and enjoys literary referencing.
How can you not want to embark on a journey whose first sentence begins
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 have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring-I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen-house. Though even that isn’t a very good poem. I have decided that my poetry is so bad that I mustn’t write any more of it
I can begin to see how Smith influenced several other writers, too
Recommended. Perhaps best saved for a day when the world seems sad and bleak, and your get up and go has indeed got up and gone. A feel-good book, but one which won’t leave you longing to eat chilli peppers and horseradish to get rid of the cloying taste of saccharine
It was made into a film in 2003………..unfortunately, the trailer (on You Tube) rather made me gag and reach for the chilli and horseradish. Romola Garai as Cassandra, Bill Nighy as her father and Sinead Cusack as the forceful American mother of ‘ Darcy and Bingley’ were all, I’m sure, wonderful value – but it was the saccharine of the trailer which rightly or wrongly made me feel that a chocolate box cover approach may have been taken. The opening out of the story so that other people’s point of view happens, rather than everything seen and recorded through Cassandra’s filter, means I shall likely give this one a miss, and let Dodie’s sharp and tender pen be the onlie begetter