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I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Virago Modern Classics, 2003, 346 p plus vii p Introduction by Valerie Grove. First published 1949.

I Capture the Castle cover

This is the journal of Cassandra Mortmain, whose reclusive father – a writer of a succès d’estime called Jacob Wrestling but whose experimentation has been overtaken by others and now suffers from writer’s block – and whose family, sister Rose, step-mother Topaz (a former model given to roaming the local hill at midnight while naked) and brother Thomas along with lodger Stephen live in Godsend Castle in a fair degree of penury. Strictly speaking, since it is written in three sections, The Sixpenny Book, The Shilling Book and the Two-Guinea Book, these are the journals.

Much is made of Cassandra’s speed-writing – which helps to keep her secrets – and the journals do mostly read like the jottings of a girl on the cusp of adulthood (she writes, “‘I know all about the facts of life. And I don’t think much of them,’” and the introduction says one critic described Cassandra as a young girl ‘poised between childhood and adultery’ which to my mind is going a bit far; she seems too in control of herself for that,) but there are occasional subtle signs of true authorial interjection nudging the whole into the form of a structured story. Smith apparently laboured mightily over the details of the book.

The early parts reminded me strongly of the Sunday afternoon TV serial of long ago, giving it a kind of familiarity, we know there is going to be an element of star-crossed love somewhere; but that is to some extent misleading, I Capture the Castle is also undoubtedly its own thing. The title may derive from Cassandra’s early habit of stating she wishes to capture a particular character or other in prose but she (or Smith) soon gives up on the phraseology.

After the laying out of the family’s straitened circumstances, the daily grind of making do, things begin to change when half-brothers Neil and Simon Cotton from the US inherit nearby Scoatney Hall, to whose owners the rent of Godsend Castle is due. They come upon the Mortmains inadvertently and seem to be intrigued.

To be sure, what will then transpire appears to be laid on tram-lines and somewhat predictable, especially Cassandra’s lack of full awareness of the extent of Stephen’s regard for her. But that, I would assume, is precisely the point. Cassandra is supposed to be not yet worldly-wise. Smith, of course, isn’t unaware of it at all and does, to a degree, subvert the expectations.

To Cassandra’s and Rose’s minds Simon’s beard makes him resemble a devil but despite her initial desperate flirtation with him (she has already said she would do anything to escape poverty) he eventually becomes enamoured of Rose, giving the novel’s plot its drive. Both Simon and his mother are familiar with James’s novel and enquire as to his current work, thus sending him scuttling back to his study. Yet much to Topaz’s discomfiture Mrs Collins eventually manages to encourage James out of his writer’s block.

It is Simon, though, who brings Cassandra out of her rawness, playing her music she is unfamiliar with and telling her that, “art could state very little – that its whole business is to evoke responses.”

Evoking responses is something Smith does well here. This book must (have) be(en) irresistibly enchanting to adolescent girls but also has its recommendations to other readers.

Pedant’s corner:- on the cover blurb; dessicated (desiccated.) Otherwise; missing commas before quote marks at the start of a piece of direct speech (numerous instances,) “we were gloriously bloat” (nowadays that would more usually be rendered bloated.)

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