Cassandra Mortmain lives with her bohemian and impoverished family in a crumbling castle in the middle of nowhere. She records her life with her beautiful, bored sister, Rose, her fadingly glamorous stepmother, Topaz, her little brother Thomas, her eccentric novelist father who suffers from a financially crippling writer’s block. However, all their lives are turned upside down when the American heirs to the castle arrive and Cassandra finds herself falling in love for the first time.
I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith is a whimsical and lovely piece of classic young adult fiction. It is also the reason why, whenever I am staying in a house that allows me to, I will sit on the sideboard with my feet in the sink, to feel for a moment like Cassandra Mortmain in Godsend 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, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy.’
Smith uses I Capture the Castle to gently send up the idea of the ‘bohemian’ existence. Cassandra, though she loves her dearly, is always addressing the ‘phony’ way that her unconventional stepmother, Topaz, communicates, putting on a deep voice and reacting in a way that is much more wildly emotional than the situation necessarily warrants. She is always stripping off her clothes and going out into the countryside to ‘commune’ with nature, then coming home and wailing while strumming away on the lute she doesn’t really know how to play. Topaz was drawn to Cassandra’s father because of his novel writing and wanted to be his muse. He hasn’t picked up a pen in years and he pretty much ignores her.
Smith is uniquely brilliant at toeing the line between funny and sad.
She does it most excellently with Mortmain, Cassandra’s father. He wrote this famous, Ulysses-style novel called Jacob Wrestling that was a huge deal in literary circles. Then, one day during an unfortunate argument with Cassandra’s mother (now deceased, though not as a result of this incident), while Mortmain was about to cut into a cake, he lost his temper and started waving the knife about in the direction of his wife. A concerned neighbour saw this happening, hopped the fence and got into a fight with Mortmain over it. Even though it was decided in court he was not attempting murder, he still went to prison for three months. And he hasn’t written a word since. Mortmain’s refusal to write or get any other sort of work has basically plunged the family into poverty. The whole thing is quite darkly amusing.
(Pretty much every artistic character in the book (with the exception of Cassandra, I guess) is quite unbearable. I wonder if this might be Smith saying something about her art-world peers?)
It’s on this backdrop that Smith sets up the traditional marriage plot. And then spends the rest of the novel tearing chunks out of it. I don’t think it is too much of a spoiler to say that this isn’t a book about marriage so much as one about unrequited love. It is about falling for the idea of a person. Rose, Cassandra’s sister, falls for the idea of Simon and his money. She falls for the idea of having all that she perceives herself to lack. She falls in love with a lifestyle, rather than a person.
Cassandra is variously loved for being the child she really ceases to be throughout the course of the novel. Whenever there is a lengthy break between her encounters with the American heirs, Simon and Neil, it seems like the first thing they both wish to do is put her back into her box, rather than engage with the person she has become – the person they have in fact had a hand in creating.
Smith uses all this change and pain to challenge her characters to ask themselves what they really want out of life: wealth or love? Pain or lies? Something new, or something comfortable?
The question of wealth, in particular, comes up a lot. The Mortmain family do live in fairly extreme poverty. They haven’t paid the rent in three years, they’ve sold all the furniture, jewellery and anything else that might put food on the table in the absence of Mortmain’s second masterpiece. Rose would do anything to escape that life. It is unbearable to her. Cassandra on the other hand, is less sure. Once Simon and Neil are in their lives, the family have more of the basic necessities – she’s less likely to go hungry. While she appreciates the basics they have gone without, anything much beyond that, Cassandra is suspicious of.
‘Perhaps the effect wears off in time, or perhaps you don’t notice if you are born into it, but it does seem to me that the climate of richness must always be a little dulling to the senses. Perhaps it takes the edge off joy as well as off sorrow.’
What appears a traditional marriage plot is instead used as a vehicle to explore some of the greatest questions of growing up. I Capture the Castle is a beautiful, heartfelt novel, and a necessary addition to any YA lover’s bookshelf.