Saturday, June 26, 2010
I Capture The Castle
I CAPTURE THE CASTLE
Indulge me this week – it’s my birthday, and I’ve always wanted to read I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith but have never been able to find it in bookshops, not even second hand bookshops… Happily, Virago Modern Classics have realised its worth and re-released it with an enchanting, whimsical cover.
I Capture the Castle was first published in 1949. It’s the story of Cassandra Mortmain, a seventeen year old girl, who through her diary entries describes an eccentric bohemian upbringing, 1930s style. Cassandra’s father is a famous author whose seminal work Jacob Wrestling brought him fame and fortune; the family moved to live in a castle, complete with turrets and swans on the moat. But that was years ago. Now Mortmain suffers from writer’s block, all the money is spent, all the good furniture has been sold; there are so few towels ‘on washday we have to shake ourselves’ and everybody is always hungry.
Cassandra has a romantic soul, she bravely embraces her uncomfortable circumstances, but her older sister, the beautiful Rose is very bitter with life – she does not enjoy ‘being shut up in a crumbling ruin surrounded by a sea of mud’. She is so desperate for money she says, “... for some time now I’ve been considering selling myself. If necessary I shall go on the streets.”
Fortunately for Rose, and in true Pride and Prejudice fashion, the local Big House is inherited by a wealthy, eligible bachelor – Simon from America. Simon and his mother are literary buffs; they are Mortmain’s Number One fans; Simon studied Jacob Wrestling at college. When he calls to visit his hero, Rose swiftly decides she must marry him, in spite of his horrible beard. She employs her most cunning and determined wiles and soon they are engaged. Simon’s mother whisks her away to London to shop for a £1000 trousseau, leaving behind a heartbroken Cassandra who after a stolen kiss to the strains of Sheep May Safely Graze has fallen in first love with Simon.
There’s a wonderful timeless quality to Cassandra’s agonies of unrequited love. She could be any young girl in 21st century Britain pouring out her heart into a diary. She writes: ‘Waking are the worst times – almost before my eyes are open a great weight seems to roll on my heart.’
In an effort to regain her equilibrium Cassandra experiments with religion, good works, strong drink and kissing another before deciding ‘a great luxury is letting myself cry... But it is difficult to arrange times for it as my face takes so long to recover.’
Cassandra also bravely records her less generous thoughts - when Rose admits she does not love Simon, but is nevertheless determined to marry him she spits at her sister: “Oh go and sit in your bathroom and count your peach coloured towels... They’ll cheer you up – you lying grasping little cheat.”
At the start of the Second World War Dodie Smith, a successful playwright, and her soon to be husband Alan, a committed conscientious objector departed England in a pale grey Rolls Royce with Dodie’s Dalmatian Pongo. They settled in Hollywood where Dodie worked as a screenwriter. She made loads of money but hated every minute of it. She wanted to be in war-time London, having the time of her life. Homesick, she wrote and rewrote this nostalgic story of England – and when it was published it sold over a million copies.