On Thursday’s I’m going to go through my shelves and pick out some favourites that I’ve read in previous years! First up is I Capture the Castle.
What’s it about?
I Capture the Castle is a classic bildungsroman set in rural England. Cassandra and Rose are sisters who live in a crumbling manor-cum-castle with their stepmum Topaz (who’s more like a sister), brother Thomas, father James Mortmain (successful author whose dwindling royalties could be increased if only he would write another book) and Steven (the son of a former servant who has lived with the family since he was young). There are very few opportunities for the girls in the area where they live, and the family are poor, but of a class where the women in particular would not be expected to undertake work. Their lives are shaken up by the arrival of the Cotton family, American heirs to the local title and land. The lives of the girls become entangled with the brothers Simon and Neil, promising to lift them out of poverty, but at what cost to them and those around them?
Who wrote it?
Dodie Smith, possibly better known for writing The 101 Dalmatians. She was born in 1896 and was active throughout the 1900s, writing novels, plays, and autobiographical works.
When did I read it?
I can’t remember the first time I read this! I know that I picked it up because of a book by Jean Ure called Skinny Melon and Me. That book is another epistolary effort pitched at a much younger level – what would probably now be called middle grade. In that book, the main character Cherry writes about her relationship with her best friend, the titular Skinny Melon (real name Melanie) and her coming to accept the presence of her stepfather, the “hilariously” named Roland Butter. One of the ways that Roland tries to bridge the gap between himself and Cherry is by giving her this book to read, though she has quite a different opinion of the ending that I had, even on my first reading! I don’t know how many times I’ve read it since then. It looks like the last time was in March 2015, so I’m definitely due another reread soon!
Why do I love it so much?
- The setting: who hasn’t dreamed of living somewhere romantic like a castle? While it seems like it would be terribly impractical – and is demonstrated to be so throughout the novel – it provides an appropriately dramatic and picturesque backdrop. I love the opening images of the novel, of the three women in the kitchen busying themselves with the business of life as much as they can stand. The setting really does provide a good reflection as well of the erosion of the gentility in England of the first part of the 20th century.
- The characters: Cassandra is one of my favourite literary characters of all time. Yes, she’s somewhat whiny, introspective, and naval-gazy, but whom among us wasn’t at 17? I love the journey she goes on from writing about things she’s never experienced – mainly love – to actually experiencing them for herself. In many ways she’s led a very sheltered life and it’s fascinating to watch her try to navigate a world that she’s not really prepared to face. The novel ends in such an open manner (I promise that’s not a spoiler) that you could really imagine her going on to do anything with her life. There are some fantastic side characters – I love Thomas, the younger brother, who seems to bear the slings and arrows of misfortune much more stolidly that either of his sisters. Then there’s Rose. Rose is such a complicated character, and on certain readthroughs I’ve disliked her strongly, as she seems utterly self-centred and often seems to be awfully sneery. I think as I’ve got older though I appreciate that she’s only acting that way out of self-preservation and a mistaken idea of what she needs to do to survive a world that’s no longer really set up for girls like her. Which brings me to…
- How the book changes as you age: this is definitely a book that reads different depending on how old you are and what your circumstances are when you read it. The obvious example is the various romances that occur – though I don’t want to go too deeply into that and spoil the surprises of the book! But it’s not just that. The first time I read this I didn’t really have the understanding of class that I do now, and especially not in the context of the English gentility. I’m hardly an expert now but I definitely have more of an appreciation of the context of the Mortmain’s slide into poverty. There’s also the father, James Mortmain. The older I am, the more unacceptable I find his behaviour throughout the book! Much like my changing reaction to Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, I find it deeply difficult to excuse his abdication of responsibility towards his children now, in a way I didn’t really think about as a child.
- The format: I LOVE epistolary novels. Diary format, letters, emails, any kind of ephemera, I’m all over it. I’m not sure why I love them so deeply. I think, for whatever reason, they give me an easier window into a particular character or set of characters, and in some ways feel less artificial than first person or an omniscient narrator? Not that I dislike those, but there’s something about epistolary novels that just work for me.