Dodie Smith: I Capture the Castle
Illustrated by Ruth Steed from sketches by the author
The Reprint Society 1950 (1948)
This is the most perfect novel. I can perfectly understand the esteem it’s held in by those who have fallen in love with its characters, its story and its language. Told as though by the 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, I Capture the Castle catches perfectly the introspection and sensitivity of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood; extraordinary that the author, then in her early fifties, was able to portray such an individual with exquisite insight, deliberately echoing the conscious naivety that Cassandra is accused of with an older woman’s own conscious assumption of naivety.
The background to the novel’s birth is easily sketched in: successful playwright Dodie and her husband Alec Beesley moved to the US during the war because Alec was a conscientious objector, and she wrote the novel partly out of homesickness, setting it in a ruin based on the real-life Wingfield Castle in Suffolk. Wingfield is here transformed into Godsend Castle, hired by the Mortmain family, and is where father James Mortmain struggles unsuccessfully to commence the “difficult” second novel that plagues many writers. The family gradually descend into genteel poverty until the arrival of new landlords from America, when everything changes utterly.
Cassandra is the sibling in the middle between Rose (20) and Thomas (15). She pours her heart out in three notebooks (a Sixpenny Book, a Shilling Book and a Two-Guinea Book) between March and October in, I surmise, 1934 or ’35: the novel’s memorable opening (“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it …”) sets the tone beautifully of a young adult making do with what she finds herself with. As we follow her we hear what others think of her (“the insidious type”, “thoroughly dangerous”, “consciously naïve” and even “Jane Eyre with a touch of Becky Sharp”) but — unless she is an entirely unreliable narrator — the character we discern is much more subtly drawn. She appears by turns to be romantic and pragmatic, impulsive and sensible, perspicacious and unobservant, altruistic and selfish; in other words, an individual whose moral compass is trying to help her chart a difficult passage through turbulent waters. You can’t help but empathise with her as she copes with the quandaries she is faced with.
And what are these quandaries? Variously they’re feeling socially inept or misjudged, being confused about love, coping with conflicts within the family, knowing when to be proactive and when to be passive. Little happens, with sections where a lot occurs. There is no story as such — more a sequence of vignettes — but life continues, circumstances change. At the conclusion we’re cheated of a true resolution but it feels right, a true reflection of reality. In chapter XI Cassandra wonders if happy-ever-after — “just like the fairy tales” — is ever desirable, and concludes that “the settled feeling, with nothing but happiness to look forward to” is not one she envies; in fact you can’t ever accuse I Capture the Castle of having “the kind of ending when you never think any more about the characters” (as Cassandra herself, in an almost metafictional aside, decries in novels with a “brick-wall happy ending”).
I Capture the Castle is a multi-layered tapestry, starting with the title. Again in chapter XI Cassandra talks of how she hoped to “capture” her father, meaning doing a character sketch of him. In fact at one stage she does physically capture him by imprisoning him in Belmotte Tower, the better for him to properly begin his new novel. But as the Mortmain family actually live in a medieval castle, the notion of successfully laying siege to it — literally an ‘obsession’ — is somehow implied in the title. (The name Mortmain, a medieval term meaning perpetual and inalienable ownership, is of course ironic as the family neither own the castle nor have they, as it happens, been paying rent for much of their period of occupation.) There is also the shadowy association with the unique ‘castling’ move in chess, and though the parallel is not exact there is a sense of a grand board game being played in the novel, perhaps with Cassandra as an Alice figure hoping to become a queen in her own right.
The fairytale resonances, despite the narrator’s unease with them, are there nevertheless. Cassandra is one of three siblings with a weak father and a strong stepmother, even if Topaz is in fact significantly more benign than stepmothers traditionally are. There is possibly a wicked queen in the American matron Mrs Cotton, a potential Prince Charming in her son Simon, an outrageous younger brother in Neil Cotton, and a substitute fairy godmother in the librarian Miss Marcy who very kindly “cheats a bit to give us the newest books”, even delivering them to the castle and its eager-reader occupants. There are perilous journeys made too, to nearby Scoatney Hall, to London, to the sea; there are magical rituals, in particular those at midsummer on the shortest night of the year.
It’s extraordinary how little the book has dated. The observations about the dissimilarities between British English and American English vocabularies and usage are as apposite now as they were in 1948. The language and aspirations — mostly educated middle class — have hardly changed in the intervening years. In contrast the pace and personages reminded me mostly of Jane Austen novels from two centuries ago.
Consider these similarities. The division of the novel into three books, each costing more than the preceding one, is reminiscent of Austen’s juvenilia, written during her teens: entitled Volume the First, the Second and the Third, Austen’s early literary attempts proceed from short witty pieces to longer novellas like Love and Freindship [sic] and Catherine, or the Bower, paralleling Cassandra’s progress from scattered musings to substantial episodes. Of course there are individual events that echo parts of Austen’s fiction, notably the elopement of Lydia Bennet and Wickham in Pride and Prejudice. Then there are the similarities between the fictional writer and the historical author: Jane Austen had as lifetime confidante one older sister (with the significant name of Cassandra) along with numerous brothers, while Cassandra Mortmain has Rose as older sister and confidante (at least until things go awry) and one brother, plus family friend Stephen whom she treats as a brother. In real life Jane turned down a proposal of marriage, remaining single until her death, while the fictional Cassandra tries to avoid being, as it were, ensnared, though we have to remember that this is no fairytale with a “brick-wall happy ending”.
But for all that there is no conventional happy-ever-after — in the closing pages Cassandra declares that she has grown out of wanting to write about herself — the door is nevertheless left open for the reader to carry on thinking about the characters. And this is what helps to make it just the most perfect book.
In my 2015 Reading Challenge I Capture the Castle represented the category of a book published in the year I was born