In the fourth of our ‘Coming of Age’ series, Annette Ong reviews Dodie Smith’s 1948 novel ‘I Capture the Castle’.
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board… I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring…”
I share this odd childhood habit with the novel’s heroine Cassandra Mortmain. As a kid, I too used to climb onto the kitchen sink and sit there, just to get a fresh perspective. Another similarity is the love of writing and the endless imagination that goes with it. However, it stops there. Sadly, I do not live, nor have I ever lived, in a crumbling English castle.
Perhaps best known for the internationally renowned The Hundred and One Dalmatians, I Capture the Castle is a novel from English author Dodie Smith. Written while Dodie was living in California and attempting to forge a career as a playwright, the novel acted as a remedy for her homesickness and longing for England. For this reason, it is the most autobiographical of her novels, and has gone on to inspire readers and writers alike (J K Rowling has listed the book as one of the most influential from her childhood).
Based around the lives of the poverty-stricken Mortmain family, the story is predominantly set in a dilapidated castle in the middle of nowhere. Protagonist Cassandra lives with her sister Rose, her brother Thomas, an old family friend, Stephen, her stepmother Topaz (an artist’s model) and her father, the eccentric writer, James.
In the past, the family survived on their father’s royalties from his one bestselling novel, but the money is dwindling. Unable to afford the rent, and with no income between them, the Mortmains are forced to sell off their furniture and various belongings.
In combination, they function as a quirky Bohemian family: Cassandra writes all day, Topaz runs naked communing with Nature, James sits in the gatehouse stricken with writer’s block and reading detective novels, while Rose mends dresses and Thomas attends the local school.
We meet the Mortmain family as they are introduced to the current heirs to the castle, brothers Simon and Neil Cotton. The arrival of the Cotton family in town begins an exciting new chapter in the Mortmains’ lives. Indeed, things are looking up – but what’s a good story without the obligatory heartache and despair?
Structurally, the novel is set out as three volumes of Cassandra’s private journals. Each event unfolds through the filter of her individual point of view. Due to this first-person account, the story seems very intimate and personal. The reader also witnesses Cassandra “age” in the novel: her thoughts turn from wry observations of her outside world to a profound examination of her inner world. Intelligent, witty, determined and mature, she has a compelling depth of character. Although she is “coming-of-age”, she is wise beyond her seventeen years.
The novel’s themes are equally expansive, and extend far beyond the Austen-esque need for Cassandra and Rose to “marry well” to secure financial stability for their family. Surprisingly, it switches focus to include the predicament of lost creativity (told through James’s struggle to combat a severe case of writer’s block), and also highlights the length an artist is willing to travel to find inspiration – sometimes teetering on the edge of madness. This depth, in addition to the novel’s dry wit, honesty and charm – told through the delightful narrative of Cassandra – is a pleasure to read at any age.