By Dodie Smith
I had only recently heard about this underrated coming-of-age classic by the same writer who wrote The 101 Dalmatians. So captured was I by the irresistible premise that I requested it last Christmas (thanks M&A). In pre-WWII England, a family moves into a castle nestled in the countryside, the patriarch hoping that the isolated setting will inspire him to write a successor to his brilliant debut novel, Jacob Wrestling. Twelve years later, the castle is crumbling and the family has no means of income because the only breadwinner has had writer’s block the entire time. The family has become so desperately poor that they only have stale bread and tea for dinner.
Seventeen year old Cassandra starts a journal as an attempt to “capture” her thoughts and chronicle the daily lives of her rather eccentric family, which consists of her father James Mortmain, stepmother Topaz, older sister Rose, younger brother Thomas and pseudo stepbrother Stephen, the son of a deceased servant who has become a member of the household. Cassandra also serves as the narrator, as we see everything from her perspective as she writes her journal entries. There are many lovely passages, such as Cassandra’s memories of her family discovering the castle for the first time and descriptions of favourite nooks where she likes to write, such as sitting at the sink by the kitchen window or climbing up one of the castle towers to seek more privacy. But there are also detailed accounts about their near destitute lifestyle.
Our room is spacious and remarkably empty. With the exception of the four-poster, which is in very bad condition, all the good furniture has gradually been sold and replaced by minimum requirements bought in junk-shops. Thus we have a wardrobe without a door and a bamboo dressing-table which I take to be a rare piece. I keep my bedside candlestick on a battered tin trunk that cost one shilling; Rose has hers on a chest of drawers painted to imitate marble, but looking more like bacon.
One rainy night, something unexpected happens which will forever change the lives of the Mortmain family. Two American brothers show up at their doorstep, their car stuck in mud. It turns out they are the sons of the landlord who had recently passed away. The older brother Simon is to inherit the land, which includes Scoatney Hall and the castle grounds, and he soon becomes smitten with Rose. Their initial meeting is awkward and plays very much like a Jane Austen novel, with the Mortmains modeled after the Bennet family and the Brothers Cotton that of Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy as the potential suitors. The analogy is not lost on Rose and our narrator:
“Did you think anything when Miss Marcy said Scoatney Hall was being re-opened? I thought of the beginning of Pride and Prejudice – where Mrs. Bennet says ‘Netherfield Park is let at last.’ And then Mr. Bennet goes over to call on the rich new owner.”
“Mr. Bennet didn’t owe him any rent,” I said.
“Father wouldn’t go anyway. How I wish I lived in a Jane Austen novel!”
I said I’d rather be in a Charlotte Brontë.
“Which would be nicest – Jane with a touch of Charlotte, or Charlotte with a touch of Jane?”
This is the kind of discussion I like very much but I wanted to get on with my journal so I just said: “Fifty per cent each way would be perfect,” and started to write determinedly.
Indeed, the novel makes a number of literary references to Austen as well as other classics of that ilk. And it doesn’t take long for all the Mortmain women to use various stratagems to put Rose and Simon together, with Rose convincing herself that she is in love with him, even though she is not.
Rose’s ethics are questionable at first glance, but after seeing the extent of their poverty vis-à-vis Cassandra, you also understand Rose’s motive for wanting to marry a rich American. She feels a certain level responsibility as the eldest to look after the family since the father appears to have relinquished his role as head of the household. Topaz, a former artists’ muse and moonlit nudist, is torn between being a free spirit and a devoted wife but the Mortmain children find her to be a kind and generous stepmother. Interestingly, the main female characters are well drawn out, but the male characters are rather two dimensional. Mr Mortmain is the distant, self-absorbed genius/father/husband, Stephen is the simple but wise country boy with a heart of gold and the brothers Cotton are primarily there to serve as love interests for Cassandra and Rose.
I Capture the Castle was originally published in 1949, but the story is set in 1930’s England. Although it plays like a contemporary update of a Jane Austen novel, it’s more like a very early precursor to a Judy Blume coming of age story. The narrator Cassandra is seventeen years old, but I don’t know if this novel was aimed at young adults when it came out in the 1940’s because some of the themes are quite mature and adult, with a very non-romantic (hence realistic) take on relationships and love. There are suspicions of adultery, a Graduate-like scenario where a shrewd, older woman from London seduces the younger, but not completely naïve Stephen, and then there is Rose eventually bailing on her fiancé to run away with his brother.
Only one out of at least three potential romantic matches work out, and the running theme seems to be that the few who do find love are the lucky ones, while most everyone else ends up loveless, with unrequited love or stuck with ones whom they don’t love.
Despite the sadness and disappointment of our narrator not finding love, this is still a lovely, lovely book. There is a blurb on the cover from JK Rowling stating that this novel has the most charismatic narrator, and she is right about that. Even though Cassandra does not find love, she does learn to love herself and find contentment in solitude.
Once I got used to the idea of being by myself for so long I positively liked it. I always enjoy the different feeling there is in a house when one is alone in it, and the thought of that feeling stretching ahead for two whole days somehow intensified it wonderfully. The castle seemed to be mine in a way it never had been before; the day seemed specially to belong to me; I even had a feeling that I owned myself more than I usually do. I became very conscious of all my movements – if I raised my arm I looked at it wonderingly, thinking, “That is mine!” And I took pleasure in moving, both in the physical effort and in the touch of the air – it was most queer how the air did seem to touch me, even when it was absolutely still. All day long I had a sense of great ease and spaciousness. And my happiness had a strange, remembered quality as though I had lived before. Oh, how can I recapture – that utterly right, homecoming sense of recognition? It seems to me now that the whole day was like an avenue leading to a home I had loved once but forgotten, the memory of which was coming back so dimly, so gradually, as I wandered along, that only when my home at last lay before me did I cry: “Now I know why I have been happy!”
There was a film adaptation from 2003, which was a bit meh. You could say that the movie captured the setting quite well, but the cast didn’t quite capture the spirit of Dodie Smith’s book.