The End of a Very English Idyll.
Despite rationing my reading in order to eek out the experience for as long as possible, I have had to pack my bags, wave my goodbyes, and vacate the once majestic but now crumbling ruin, the home of Cassandra Mortmain and her family in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle (1949). Nowadays, Smith is most well known for her children’s classic The Hundred and One Dalmations (1956), which was animated by Walt Disney in 1961, and then remade in 1996 with Glenn Close playing the ruthless villain
Theresa May Cruella DeVille, scaring children and adults alike with her heartless evil plans.
Smith became famous after the success of her first play Autumn Crocus (1931), and remained popular writing a new play every year. It was Dear Octopus written in 1938, however, which received the most long-lasting acclaim. The following year, Dodie left England for America, with her fiancé, Alec. Their stay had to be extended due to the outbreak of war as Alec was a conscientious objector. Smith missed England terribly, and it was her miserable exile which compelled her to create not only a keenly observed ‘coming of age’ story, but a wonderful homage to the English countryside and character that is so vividly distilled in I Capture the Castle.
I fell in love with the quirky character of Cassandra Mortmain from the very first few lines.
I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy.
Through her diary entries, we are introduced to the rest of her family. Firstly, her older sister Rose –
Although I am rather used to her I know she is a beauty. She is nearly twenty-one and very bitter with life. I am seventeen, look younger, feel older.
Her mother died when she was nine, but her father, a celebrated but currently blocked writer, remarried three years ago.
We were surprised. She is a famous artist’s model who claims to have been christened Topaz…. She has a very deep voice – that is, she puts one on; it is part of an arty pose, which includes painting and lute-playing.
Lute-playing aside, I grew as fond of Topaz’ s bohemian eccentricities as the rest of the family had. Cassandra’s brother Thomas also lives at home but spends much of his time at school, and Stephen – the orphaned son of the family’s old maid – also lives with them, working to earn his keep. He is clearly devoted to Cassandra. The family also have a dog, Heloise and a cat, Ab (Abelard). Mortmain’s writer’s block has taken its toll on family’s finances, and having long ago sold any possessions and furniture of value, they live in penury.
While Cassandra’s vivid imagination seems to keep her spirit buoyant despite the brutal hardship, Rose is in utter despair at the family’s pitiful circumstances and sees no way out. So, when wealthy Americans, Mrs Cotton and her sons Simon and Neil – the heirs to the castle – move into the neighbouring mansion, Rose is determined to take advantage of the connection. It does seem that in their hour of desperate need, the family’s fortunes will change. Rose becomes engaged to Simon, Mrs Cotton’s interest in Mortmain’s writing seems to be inspiring him to write, and a photographer friend of theirs hires Stephen as a paid model and foresees a future for him in films. Things don’t quite go according to plan, however, and Cassandra is not the only one to face the pain of heartache. The novel ends on a positive note, however, and despite the set-backs, remains deeply heart-warming throughout.
I think what makes I Capture the Castle such a remarkable novel is that the fine detailing makes you feel like you are actually stepping into Cassandra’s world. I have walked along the castle walls, paced the draughty, empty rooms and climbed the mound to Belmotte tower. To read it, is to inhabit the story. Also, Cassandra is wonderfully funny. I laughed out loud and quoted passages aloud so many times, I became a serious irritation to the rest of my family. Smith manages to capture the minutiae of the everyday, presenting a single moment like a sparkling jewel, and in doing so, painting an entire picture.
When Hel gives Neil’s ear a good lick, she writes,
Heloise can never see a human ear at tongue-level without being a mother to it.
On hearing the static noise emitted by the new wireless, Mortmain says
“Sounds like the lost souls of seagulls, doesn’t it?”
There is so much crackling dry wit. When Rose had taken herself off for a long walk , Cassandra observes,
This desire for solitude often overcomes her at house-cleaning times.
When Simon plays Cassandra some Debussy and she loves it, he suggests she might come to love Bach.
I told him I hadn’t at school. The one Bach piece I learnt made me feel I was being repeatedly hit on the head with a teaspoon.
And I love this description of the local village girl who would be Stephen’s sweetheart.
Ivy had on a pale grey suit, tight white gloves, and the brightest blue hat I ever saw, which accentuated the red in her cheeks. She is a good-looking girl. Enormous feet, though.
I’ve loved every moment spent in Dodie Smith’s English idyll and I’m so sorry it has finally reached an end. It has cheered and consoled me at what has otherwise been a *very difficult time.
(*In case you’ve failed to keep abreast of the current machinations of the English Premier League, West Ham United’s start to the 2016/17 season has been dismal).