Yesterday it snowed from sun up to sun down, but with temperatures in the 20s instead of the negatives it’s easier to appreciate what the first of three snowstorms has left behind. For starters, we discovered that snow ball fights are more fun when you invoke your inner fruit ninja and chop instead of dodge attacks. Now my feet are cold because at some point my thin fashion socks inched up around my toes, but a warm banana muffin makes it all better.
I am only sorry that I didn’t have Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle to come home to. I guess I could re-read it, but a day doesn’t seem like enough time to breathe between finishing it a first time. Though I enjoy the majority of books I read, every year a few find a permanent place in my heart. Last year, just three decades after its publication, I discovered Winter’s Tale. This year I’m already crowning Dodie Smith’s first novel, published in 1948, as the newest member of my best friends club. I guess I have a thing for older literature.
The Mortmain family live in an English castle. Sounds like a romantic way for 17-year-old Cassandra, aspiring author, to grow up, but the family doesn’t have a cent. They’ve sold all the furniture and leave every meal still hungry. Poverty’s impact is apparent in everything the family does – the sisters take turns sleeping on “the good” bed, they have to stop reading at night when the candle burns out – but despite their struggles this is a bright family of five. Plus there’s Stephen, a strapping live-in helper with a sweet spot for Cassandra.
The step mother is an artists’ model who enjoys evening nude jaunts. The father is a critically acclaimed author suffering from writer’s block. Thomas, the youngest son, is more scholarly than anyone realizes while his oldest sister Rose is a beauty so tired of being poor that one night she scales her home’s expansive walls to call upon what doesn’t quite look like a god but will have to do to answer her prayer for something to happen in her life. And then there’s Cassandra, who’s busy writing it all down in her journal, which doubles as the novel and supports the casual first person narrative.
Cassandra reflecting on a childhood writing poetry:
I used to feel I could leap over the moon when I had made one up.
The story makes a vague reference to being set in the 1930’s, but it has a timeless, accessible quality. Rose learned everything she knows about being a woman from Jane Austen novels, which is to say that her ways with men are amusingly coy and contrary to the pining girl she is at home. They’re all capable and perfectly poised for life to change in a big way. Enter the Cottons, two wealthy American brothers and the family’s new landlords. Here the focus shifts from poverty to possibility as Rose schemes to marry herself off to whoever’s got the money.
Dodie Smith knew what she was doing. The beginning feels like it’s meandering, but it’s not. You have to love the characters to enjoy the story and the only way to do that is to get to know them. To me, many contemporary books feel like they start too late. It’s refreshing to begin a story with what feels like a tour of an old castle and its dreamy, hungry inhabitants. And as Cassandra falls in love for the first time, the story reveals itself for what it is: a hybrid, modern coming-of-age meets love tangled Jane Austen. It never occurred to me to wonder where the plot was going because I trusted the author and adored the protagonist.
Cassandra is a fantastic heroine and you don’t need J.K. Rowling to tell you that, though she agrees, according to a quote on the first cover. The best parts are the reminders of what a young 17 Cassandra is. Of a perfect afternoon with her sister and the Cotton fellows:
Eating bread-and-cheese at an inn felt most beautifully English – though the liquers made it a bit fancy.
I always looked forward to picking this book back up. Since we’re reading Cassandra’s journal, her chapters vary from relaying events and trying to convey her emotions and observations with the creative honesty of a writer in the making. I loved her explanation of why the idea of married life didn’t thrill her, comparing her sister’s possible engagement to the “brick wall” feeling of happy endings in novels:
She will want things to stay just as they are. She will never have the fun of hoping something wonderful and exciting may be just around the corner. … the kind of ending when you never think anymore about the characters.
Though far from tragic, this ending doesn’t free you from the characters.
I love this book so much I read the last few chapters in the tub, as a tribute to Cassandra because she loves her soaks. This was my first time reading in the tub and now I finally get what all the fuss is about. It’s wonderful, especially when you set dinner in the oven before (millet casserole and roasted tahini cauliflower) and it’s done when you get out. Thanks, me.
Read this when you want the world to feel bigger. I can’t wait to share it with my little nieces in a few years. For now maybe we’ll start with one of Dodie Smith’s other classics, 101 Dalmations.
Have you guys read I Capture the Castle? Any recommendations for similar books?