I thought I might have missed the boat with Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. It seems to be a book that readers, especially young women, read in their teens. I’d never heard of it until I saw the movie a few years ago. Cassandra Mortmain, the narrator of the book, is 17 when the story begins. But, from the famous opening line, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” it was hard not to be beguiled by Cassandra’s voice & by her eccentric family.
Her father is a novelist who wrote one famous book, Jacob Wrestling, a Joycean modernist novel, & has written nothing since. Her stepmother, Topaz, is an artist’s model with nudist tendencies. Sister Rose is beautiful, bored & on the lookout for a rich husband. Brother Thomas is a clever schoolboy. Stephen Colly is their lodger, a farm labourer brought up with the family & in love with Cassandra. He regularly writes her poems which are unfortunately easily recognizable as the work of Donne & Herrick. The Mortmains live in a ruined castle. Renting the castle was a whim of their father’s when he was rich & famous after the success of Jacob Wrestling. It’s romantic & as eccentric as the family but when the book begins, they are living in poverty as Cassandra’s father hasn’t written anything for years & spends his days in the tower reading detective stories. They scrape by on meagre meals & patching their clothes after they sell all the furniture & anything else they can do without. Topaz occasionally goes back to modelling & Rose is willing to go to any lengths to help to support her family,
“It may interest you both to know that for some time now, I’ve been considering selling myself. If necessary, I shall go on the streets.” I told her she couldn’t go on the streets in the depths of Suffolk.
The arrival of Simon Cotton, the rich American who has inherited Scoatney Hall, the nearby stately home, changes the lives of the Mortmains. Rose decides to marry Simon as the culmination of her plan to marry a rich man, whether she loves him or not. Her plans seemed doomed to failure after the first visit to the castle of Simon & his brother Neil, when Rose acts like a blatant fortune hunter & the Cottons drop the family very quickly. After a few more meetings, however, Simon is smitten & he proposes to Rose. Their engagement is a turning point in the family’s fortunes as Simon’s money seems to make all things possible. But is Rose really in love or just being as mercenary as she always planned to be? Cassandra looks on with a growing sense of doom as she tries to find out Rose’s true feelings & has to cope with her own emotions as she falls in love for the first time.
The outstanding thing about I Capture the Castle is the way the story is told. The basic plot has been told many times before. Cassandra’s narrative voice is the difference between a pretty standard romantic novel & a funny, fast-paced book that made me laugh out loud at the way Cassandra looks at her world. The Mortmains could have been stereotypes of eccentricity but they’re more than that. I especially liked Topaz, a kind woman who loves her husband but finds his withdrawal from her bewildering. She’s not just a flighty model who wafts around in eccentric clothes (or none at all when she decides to commune with nature). She works hard to keep the family afloat as Cassandra discovers when Topaz & Rose are whisked off to London by the Cottons & Cassandra has to look after her father & brother at home. Topaz is as bewildered as the rest of the family but believes that her husband is a genius & it’s her job to support him until he produces another masterpiece of modern fiction.
Cassandra’s turn of phrase can be hilarious. My favourite example is when James, Topaz, Rose & Cassandra have been invited to Scoatney Hall for dinner,
The Cottons’ car came, with a uniformed chauffeur, and out we sailed. I was harrowed at leaving Stephen and Thomas behind, but Topaz had arranged they should have a supper with consoling sausages.
Those “consoling sausages”, what a wonderful image they conjure up of warmth & comfort.
Rose & Cassandra go to London to collect an inheritance from their father’s rich Aunt Millicent. She had cut him off when he married Topaz but she relented & left the girls all her clothes in her will. They hope to be able to remodel them into something suitable & there’s a very funny scene when they’re alone in Millicent’s empty house & are startled by the solicitor’s clerk coming in. They also inherit some very odd furs, including an enormous bearskin coat that they end up carrying back on the train. When they reach their home station, they’re horrified to see the Cotton brothers getting off the same train. Desperate not to run into them in their unsuitable clothes & carrying huge fur coats, Rose hides in the guard’s van & is mistaken for a bear by Neil when he catches a glimpse of her in the bearskin coat hiding among the milk cans. She is chased across the fields by a stream of people & eventually Neil, Simon & Stephen catch up with her & agree to conceal the truth. Neil carries Rose back to the station to be met by a crowd of locals,
There was a fat woman who wanted the stationmaster to let his dog off its chain, but he was afraid it might bite the Cottons rather than the bear.
‘But it’ll hug them to death,’ moaned the fat woman, ‘they won’t have a chance.’
I opened my mouth to make them understand that there wasn’t any bear – and then I saw something white in the distance… And suddenly Neil Cotton walked into the light, carrying Rose, in her white suit.
‘But the bear, sir-‘ said the guard. ‘Dead, ‘ said Simon Cotton. ‘My brother killed it.’ …
‘Poor thing, poor thing, it didn’t have a chance,’ wailed the fat woman. ‘Killed first and drowned afterwards, and I daresay it was valuable.’
It’s so absurd but just demonstrates the truth of the cliché that people see what they’ve been told or what they expect to see, no matter how unlikely.
I loved all the details of how the Mortmains contrive to live, mending & making do on their virtually non-existent income until the fairytale of Rose’s engagement ends the scrimping. Then, Cassandra discovers that money isn’t a guarantee of happiness & the tome becomes almost tragic as she struggles with her feelings & tries to find out how Rose really feels about Simon. It’s a totally involving story & I’m so glad that Cornflower chose I Capture the Castle for her Book Group. It prompted me to get it down from the tbr shelves &read this 20th century classic.