A young woman; a ramshackle English castle; a glamourous step-mother; a forgetful father writing strange encoded books; a quiet and mysterious servant boy; two interloping American brothers; green skin and outdoor baths. This is middle class decline in 1930s Britain, but it’s also a fairytale love story in Dodie Smith’s quintessentially English coming of age story, I Capture the Castle.
“Just to be in love seemed the most blissful luxury I had ever known. The thought came to me that perhaps it is the loving that counts, not the being loved in return — that perhaps true loving can never know anything but happiness. For a moment I felt that I had discovered a great truth.”.
You might have already recognised Dodie Smith as the author of The Hundred and One Dalmatians, which was written in honour of her own nine spotted dogs. She was a British author and screenwriter born in the 1890s who travelled widely and enjoyed a long, prolific career. After moving to America in the 1940s with her husband, who was a conscientious objector, she wrote I Capture the Castle in a spirit of nostalgia and homesickness for the English countryside of her childhood.
I Capture the Castle is a beautifully written, gentle novel crammed with unexpected intelligence, charming turns of phrase, and literary sophistication. The protagonist is seventeen year-old Cassandra Mortmain, who lives with an eclectic, bohemian family in a state of peculiar middle-class poverty, housed in a crumbling castle somewhere in the English countryside. Her family consists of older sister Rose, the self-aware classical beauty who longs for a Regency romance; her younger brother, the studious schoolboy Thomas; her step-mother Topaz, a former artist’s muse who nakedly communes with nature; her absent father, a once-praised author suffering from writer’s block and an unwillingness to leave his tower; and Stephen, the handsome but subdued son of their deceased maid who now lives with them in the castle.
Cassandra is a great reader, and her father a famous but blocked novelist, giving Smith the unneeded excuse to litter the book with references to literary culture. For instance, the protagonist quibbles with her sister Rose over the merits of Austen and Brontë, while the local vicar describes Cassandra as “the insidious type- Jane Eyre with a touch of Becky Sharp.” These references are not only entertaining to the reader, but they also allow Dodie Smith to ground Castle in the literary context of her choosing, which seems to be feminine, historical, romantic, English and softly Gothic. A glorious bonus comes in the form of Cassandra’s pets; a cat and dog, named Heloise and Abelard, who you can find in lots of places, but particularly in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s immensely long novel Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloise.
Mortmain and Topaz are, in contrast to the girls, exceedingly modern. Mortmain is said to have written a novel called Jacob Wrestling, apparently a peculiar novel made up of fiction, philosophy and poetry. It is a reference to the biblical episode of Jacob wrestling with the angel, and being renamed ‘Israel’; this is a contentious translation, with some stating it means ‘He who struggles with God,’ while other sources suggesting it means “to have power, as a prince.’ The reader is permitted very little detail about Jacob Wrestling, but it is interesting to consider what this novel might mean. In the context of Castle, it seems to exist in order to present an opportunity for the characters to discuss the relative benefits of modernism. Castle is, in its epistolary realist style, very much not part of this movement, and yet is far more rewarding in its narrative completeness than the glimpses of modernism that Jacob Wrestling provides.
Cassandra’s father is similarly difficult and incomplete. He is absent for much of the novel, and is felt more for his absence and the financial difficulty it entails. The way that he confines himself to a tower, combined with the death of her mother, means that Cassandra’s life lacks structure, and is quite loose and meandering, but her father’s appearances in Cassandra’s diaries serve to move the plot along more swiftly. His modernism cuts through the lackadaisical day-to-day priorities and presents harder, less romantic issues to deal with.
Despite her father, Cassandra is, of course, a beautiful writer and makes this book a real treat for the readers. All of the characters are literary, creative and charming through the way that she captures them. The detached wildness in their lives allows her writing to seem unaffected, and instead of the father-figure it is the introduction of society and internationalism that tames them. Smith seems to be yearning for a mythical ‘simpler time’ throughout Castle– the novel seems to be set in a constructed nostalgia, representing some sort of imagined, idealised childhood innocence, which ends unwillingly, cut off by the march of time. It becomes increasingly relevant here that Smith wrote Castle after feeling forced out of the UK when the Second World War started, and her husband became a conscientious objector. Around the corner from Cassandra’s village, the war looms large and unfelt by these characters; the sense that this is a snapshot of a time is only magnified by the idea that this story is told in different physical diaries, which one might unearth many years later.
Something in the combination of method and narrative voice makes this a story that is somehow totally original, but also, somehow, encapsulates the plot of every rom-com Hollywood ever had a hand in. Cassandra is a peculiar narrator, prone to abstract turns of phrase and who defies the soft romantic categorisation she otherwise seems to seek out. Dodie Smith is a very clever author to construct her own stock-photo plots, only to make things far more interesting by shattering them with intriguing language and a stark emotional denouement.
This denouement comes at the end of the last diary; there’s a distinct character to each ‘book,’ to the extent that the introduction of the two American brothers Neil and Simon Cotton feels almost intrusive. The leisurely, lyrical pace that Cassandra uses to ‘capture’ the characters around her gets shifted into another speed when the brothers appear and a network of crossed wires cause havoc. There are genuinely unexpected twists as the fairy-tale falls flat, in the face of empty loves, unrequited loves, and loves put on hold in the face of an uncertain future. It’s a deceptively complex tale that you don’t really appreciate until you’ve waded through the rest of the ‘romance’ section. Smith’s book is so carefully phrased, carefully measured, and leisurely paced that it becomes that rarest of delights- a novel that is simultaneously engaging and relaxing. The quality and quantity of description is every young writer’s dream, if indeed every new Hemingway’s nightmare. Smith perfectly captures what it is to be seventeen, isolated, weird and desperately in love. It’s a gorgeous elegy to youth, to British pastoralism, and to the charisma of writers and their words.
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Also- if you were interested in that bag, I found it here from the Literary Gift Co.