Wow, thanks for all your comments yesterday – that was quite impressive, and every single author was recommended to me… well, thanks for that! Someone (anonymous) did say that they suspected I’d only read Brideshead Revisited by Waugh – but, in fact, I have not read that, and I have read The Loved One, Decline and Fall, and Put Out More Flags – so there you go! I must confess, composing this list did make me realise how many authors I have sampled. But that would be a rather more self-congratulatory list to make. Instead I shall challenge you COWARDS who weren’t going to make your own lists – hie to it! (Heehee…!)
I’m having a mini-reader’s-block at the moment, and seem to be mostly re-reading books for the past few weeks. Not sure quite what the cause is, but I daresay the remedy is Jane Austen – but for now I’m content going over some familiar ground.
I’ve been meaning to re-read Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle (1949) for ages and, as I mentioned the other day, my book group has been reading it this month. It catapaulted it up my must-reread list, and I’m delighted that I did – since I was a bit worried that it might not work now that I am much older than Cassandra. I was 17 or 18 when I originally read it – so perhaps not the age at which most people become life-long-lovers of this delightful novel – but it was Cassandra’s age.
For those who don’t know the story, Cassandra lives in a castle with her older sister Rose, younger brother Thomas, father known as Mortmain (their surname), stepmother Topaz, and sort-of-servant Stephen. She famously opens the novel “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink” – for this is where she starts recording her life in a diary, trying to capture the people around her. There is an atmosphere of a fairy-tale permeating the book – not surprisingly, given the family live in a castle. Cassandra thinks back to the first time the family saw it:
All of a sudden we saw a high, round tower in the distance, on a little hill. Father instantly decided that we must explore it, though Mother wasn’t enthusiastic. It was difficult to find because the little roads twisted and woods and villages kept hiding it from us, but every few minutes we caught a glimpse of it and Father and Rose and I got very excited. Mother kept saying that Thomas would be up too late; he was asleep, wobbling about between Rose and me.
At last we came to a neglected signpost with TO BELMOTTE AND THE CASTLE ONLY on it, pointing down a narrow, overgrown lane. Father turned in it at once and we crawled along with the brambles clawing at the car as if trying to hold it back – I remember thinking of the Prince fighting his way through the wood to the Sleeping Beauty. The hedges were so high and the lane turned so often that we could only see a few yards ahead of us; Mother kept saying we ought to go back out before we got stuck and that the castle was probably miles away. Then suddenly we drove out into the open and there it was – but not the lonely tower on a hill we had been searching for; what we saw was quite a large castle, built on level ground. Father gave a shout and the next minute we were out of the car and staring in amazement.
But it’s now a rather tumble-down castle, falling apart, and from which most of the furniture has been sold. Mortmain wrote a critically acclaimed novel called Jacob Wrestling (think Ulysses, in terms of being experimental and avant-garde) but the proceeds have dwindled after fourteen years (including a little spate in jail, for having threatened his – now dead – wife with a cake knife). The family thus live in poverty – but although they bemoan and bewail this, it never feels quite real – it is never meant to. They have to share towels, and can barely afford to eat – but that fairy-tale feeling prevents anything feeling too serious.
Cassandra does her job of ‘capturing the castle’ so well that I’m going to find it tricky to detail the characters quickly… but I’ll do my best. Mortmain is absent-minded and idle; Topaz idolises him and communes with nature a lot; Topaz hankers after finer things in life, and will do much to achieve them; Stephen is subservient and besotted with Cassandra; Thomas more or less loiters in the background.
Of course they are all rather more complex than that, but you have to meet them first-hand to appreciate them, so we’ll move on to Cassandra, the narrator. And what a wonderful narrator she is. Through her eyes, we see all the events of family life – especially the arrival of American brothers Simon and Neil to the large nearby house, the estate of which includes the castle. Their arrival is the catalyst for change at the castle, as Rose determines to marry Simon, whether or not she loves him (and she hopes she does) to help her family escape their destitution. Only after Simon and Rose have got engaged does Cassandra realise she has fallen in love with Simon herself…
In Cassandra, Dodie Smith has created someone quite extraordinary. The basic plot of I Capture the Castle is not the stuff of the finest literary mind – crossed wires; crossed lovers, and so forth. But because they are focalised through Cassandra, they are fascinating. Somehow Smith manages to present a teenage girl in love whose viewpoint is not remotely irritating – instead it is credible, and raises sympathy rather than annoyance in the reader. I was lucky enough not to fall in love until after I was a teenager, so I didn’t experience all the woes of angsty, unrequited teenage love which Cassandra endures – so I cannot really empathise, nor say how realistic Cassandra’s emotions are, but I do know that she is a wholly engaging heroine.
I love her for her slightly skewed view upon life, and the slightly odd, inexperienced things she says. Some examples: ‘I know all about the facts of life. And I don’t think much of them.’ She labels champagne ‘lovely, rather like very good ginger ale without the ginger.’ And perhaps her wisest piece of advice – ‘No bathroom on earth will make up for marrying a bearded man you hate.’
Dodie Smith is very clever, and she incorporates in the novel the criticism which might be directed at Cassandra – she overhears Simon telling Neil that he thinks her ‘consciously naive’. It is the perfect description for part of her personality (she is mostly, however, unconsciously naive) – but by including it like this, Dodie Smith makes the reader leap to Cassandra’s defence, and love her all the more. Spending the whole book in her company, it is important that we do love her – and I do.
I Capture the Castle is, incidentally, the only diary-style novel I’ve read which actually felt like a diary. Cassandra often breaks off entries because something has happened, or starts writing by saying she has something exciting to relate, but will try and contain herself. Much as I love books like Diary of a Provincial Lady and Diary of a Nobody, they both strike me as a little unrealistic – when on earth do they actually write their journals?
But that’s just the icing on the cake. I Capture the Castle is almost perfect in every way – Dodie Smith is not a great prose stylist, perhaps, and it’s interesting to see her write undisparagingly about Mortmain, who is essentially a Modernist author – which Smith obviously isn’t. But I Capture the Castle is cosy, amusing, warm – and yet not dull or predictable or everyone-is-happy-all-the-time. It’s like a fairy-tale brought into the 20th century, and not allowed to be either saccharine or gloomy. Instead, it is just right. Perhaps I should recommend it to Goldilocks…
P.S. the film is brilliant too. Perhaps I’ll write about that properly someday.