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52 Books #2: I Capture the Castle

January 18, 2011

I first set out to read Dodie’s Smith’s 1949 novel I Capture the Castle about five years ago. Revisiting it now, I cannot understand why I wasn’t hooked but abandoned it a scant thirty-odd pages in. I must have been in a very bad mood not to be taken from the start by Cassandra Mortmain’s diaries (and that famous first line, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink”), and the trials of the Mortmain family.

Cassandra and elder sister Rose are twentieth-century updates of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice marriage-obsessives, with additional snark: they discuss themselves whether they’re more (Charlotte) Bronte- or Austen-ish, while the local vicar Cassandra converses with accurately compares her to Vanity Fair‘s Becky Sharp. Cassandra, the narrator who tells her family’s story through her diaries (always beware a diarist) is sneaky, disingenuous, conniving and — mostly because of all this, entirely charming. Her writer father, suffering a dismal writers’ block after publishing one feted novel, Jacob’s Ladder, is the source of much disquiet for Cassandra, not least because the family’s lack of income means their vast house, the castle of the title, is running to ruin and there’s not enough food to go round. Her stepmother Topaz, something in whose character reminded me oddly of Tove Jansson’s books until I remembered that I first encountered the word ‘topaz’ in a Moomin story many moons ago, is a former model and a genius comic character, flitting about in her fashionable clothing, both scourge of and invaluable support to the husband she refers to only as ‘Mortmain’. There’s a brother too, Thomas, who is the novel’s weak point, being absent for much of the book and surprisingly anodyne when he does appear.

The status quo of this run-down, candlelit house, most of whose furniture has been sold, and its inhabitants is disrupted when the heirs to the castle, two American brothers, Simon and Neil Cotton, and their very Lady Catherine de Bough-esque mother, arrive and the two Mortmain sisters see the chance to at last work their charms on two handsome and eligible, but in one case disagreeably bearded, young men. In the way of those nineteenth-century books, the path to true love is not a happy one, with Rose beguiled by the brothers’ riches and Cassandra’s precociousness and pretensions getting the better of her. In the meantime there are wondrous set-pieces such as the girls’ visit to London to collect some fur coats left to them by a deceased relative, and the brilliant sequence where the sisters, fearing their father may never write again, trap him in the castle’s dungeon to force him into starting his book — only to find, upon releasing him, he has simply the blank pages they’ve left him with ‘The cat sat on the mat’ over and over again — which in turn proves more significant than they realise. This is a book about understanding, self-awareness and empathy, and this sequence illustrates just how little the (mostly) well-intentioned Mortmains ‘get’ one another.

In her introduction to the Vintage Classics edition, Dodie Smith biographer Valerie Grove says she knows of no reader who wishes I Capture the Castle to end. I have to join the consensus: this is such a charming book, told in such a winning ambivalent voice. I wish I had read it years ago, but at the same time am glad to have discovered it at last.


Other reading in Week #2

Andy McSmith No Such Thing as Society: A History of Britain in the 1980s (Constable)

Paul Harding Tinkers (Windmill)




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