(Reviewed as part of the Classics Club Challenge)
Since its publication in 1949, I Capture the Castle has never been out of print. In 2003 it featured at number 82 in the BBC’s survey: “The Big Read”, which listed the top 100 best-loved novels as voted for by the British public. Does this make it a classic? The Big Read is where I first came across it: my interest piqued because I so loved Dodie Smith’s children’s books (which came later).
The novel is written as the journal of seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain. It describes her eccentric and chaotic family who have fallen on stricken times and are practically destitute. There are five members of the family: Cassandra; her younger brother, Thomas; elder sister, Rose; stepmother, Topaz and father, James – always referred to as Mortmain by his adoring, bohemian second wife. It’s the women who feature most in the book, as seen through Cassandra’s eyes – and the driving plot is how they are going to survive with no income and all valuable possessions already sold. James Mortmain wrote a famous and iconic book many years ago which made his name, but he has written nothing since. Topaz was an artist’s model but left London to marry James and live with him and the children in the romantic but decaying castle they had discovered when his first wife was still living. They had rented the castle on a long-term lease as a place of refuge where Mortmain would surely find inspiration and once again put pen to paper. The castle and setting are very beautiful but Mortmain has not written a word and the building is now practically empty and is crumbling around them.
Cassandra wants to be a writer. (I always planned to have that name as my nom de plume when I was a starry-eyed, aspiring writer.) She describes her family and their situation with serious humour – which made me laugh out loud on several occasions – with plain-speaking honesty and broadly without judgement. She explains to us how important her feelings are to her and how most of her focus is on her feelings. She is seventeen; I can think of many seventeen-year-old girls who think like this. Dodie was 52 when she wrote the book; she has captured all that passion very well. But she added more to Cassandra’s character, who comes across as pragmatic, sanguine and endearingly innocent. Dodie kept a diary herself aged seventeen. I wonder if she used that material as she crafted Cassandra’s character?
Topaz, the stepmother, is not that much older than the sisters and is a wildly romantic free spirit, given to wandering at night in a floaty gossamer nightdress or else naked under her raincoat, in order to “commune with nature”. She is ethereal, fey, but she is also supportive of the children as well as her husband. She needs to be needed, something that Cassandra uses constructively later in the story.
Rose, the elder sister, is more hard-hearted and more resentful of their poverty. She sees her youth passing away without her having the opportunity to enjoy it, cloistered as they are in the depths of the country and with no money to go out or to buy new clothes. Rose considers the only way out of her situation is either to go up to London and sell herself, or to marry a wealthy man – which explains why she chooses to throw herself at the first young men that cross their door: the eldest of whom happens to be very wealthy and their new landlord. Americans, Simon and Neil are half-brothers and are in England because of Simon’s inheritance.
The book revolves around the two families and a cluster of additional characters, who are well-drawn and interesting. (I particularly liked the vicar, and also Miss Marcy, the spinster schoolteacher. Cassandra learns some valuable life lessons from them both.)
There are many very funny little vignettes in the first part of Cassandra’s journal, and also some pathos. For me, this was the strongest section of the book. Parts two and three have at times an air of farce about them and there were certainly moments when the story slowed and dragged and the charm of Cassandra’s narration palled. The book was perhaps a little too long for the story it tells.
It divides into three: determined by Cassandra’s three journals. I loved the first part: The Sixpenny Book. Cassandra herself comments at the start of part three about how she feels on writing in The Two Guinea Book with her new fountain pen – both bought for her by Simon: “But I seem to get on better with a stump of pencil and Stephen’s fat, shilling exercise book…” And I would agree: the quality of the story deteriorates with each new journal. That said, I have no issue with the quality of the writing itself, which is fluid and funny and flows effortlessly.
I knew nothing about Dodie Smith before this book, beyond of course, The One Hundred and One Dalmatians – which I adored as a child. In fact, Dodie rose to fame initially as a playwright in the 1930s. She had taken a job at Heals in London whilst striving for success with her writing. The headlines when she finally broke through announced: “Shopgirl Writes Play”. This came after her real identity was discovered: interesting that initially she wrote under male pseudonyms.
By the time war was declared Dodie was very well-known indeed and her plays were wildly popular. She wrote I Capture the Castle, her first adult novel, whilst living in America. She and her husband, who was a conscientious objector, lived there for fourteen years, moving as war broke out as a consequence of his principles. Dodie was very homesick for England and frustrated at being away from London in the war, where she felt the wartime experiences would have been material for her work.
I Capture the Castle became Dodie’s nostalgic passion. The romantic, decaying castle, and the eccentric family who lived there, were born from a glimpse, in 1934, of a moated, mediaeval castle in Suffolk. Dodie lived and breathed this novel. It took two years to write the first draft and revisions took another two years: she was haunted by a need to have it perfect. Every line was rewritten with the support of her husband, and alongside the book itself she wrote a 100,000-word notebook in which she described the torturous process. Perhaps this suggests a serious overdose of perfectionism, or is indicative of a strong underlying sense of insecurity in her creative abilities. Or maybe the book was a genuine labour of love? Perhaps her need to capture the castle in the book was symbolic of her desire to capture in her head the castle that she saw as England, at present denied to her in real life.
Although I’d never heard of the book, ironically I had seen the film some years ago, also made in 2003, and it had stuck in my mind. I remember Tara Fitzgerald “communing with nature”, but it also starred a young Romola Garai as Cassandra – an actress who has gone on to some impressive roles – and I don’t remember her at all. Bizarrely, the film stayed with me because I couldn’t quite see the point of it. And I feel rather the same about the book. The family is eccentric; the story is rambling but essentially simple. The pace was even: there was little suspense; it wasn’t a book with breathless page-turning quality. It was a story that held little relevance for me.
Having read it, I think I have come to it at the wrong time: my moment for falling in love with this book, as clearly many others have done, has passed. There is a lovely anecdote at the end of the introduction which describes how Romola Garai had been given the book by her aunt when she was in her early teens. This is the age to fall in love with this book. That said, I do find myself very interested in Dodie herself. There is a biography available, but also Dodie published her memoirs in a series of books, now out of print, which I shall enjoy hunting down. I’d like to know more of this woman, described by Antonia Fraser as: “Frank and Funny, unorthodox, liberated and quintessentially English”. I also very much want to watch the film again.
Do I consider I Capture the Castle to be a classic? That it remains in print after almost seventy years is testament to its enduring popularity, so yes, it’s a popular classic in that sense. But not a personal classic for me. Sadly perhaps, for me it has missed its moment.
23-8-16 Edit:Katrina, at Pining for the West posted this link to a current article on I Capture the Castle. It’s an excellent take on the book – I wish I’d read it before reading the book!