I feel a bit old to be reading 'I Capture the Castle' by Dodie Smith for the first time, but I have loved it. Cassandra is just such a wonderfully naive and honest character, and the evocation of the inter-war period and their quiet rural existence is beautiful. The Mortmains live in what the wikipedia page refers to as 'genteel poverty', but it's not just that they can't pay the servants, they really are poor, and too polite to show it, and are doing it in a castle. The family, to be honest, are a little feckless and rely on the hard working Steven growing some veggies in the garden to sustain them as the stock of furniture and silverware to sell begins to run low. But they bear their privations with reasonable fortitude and you have to just smile at their determination to put a brave face on the direst of circumstances. As with all first person narratives we only get one perspective, and since this one person is a teenage girl she is quite wrapped up in her own experience of life, and sometimes quite blatantly admits to not noticing what other people are feeling.
After their landlord, up at Scoatney (the big stately home) dies, his grandson duly arrives to take on the responsibility, and after a shaky start a friendship begins to blossom between members of the two families, even their reclusive father comes out of his shell under the influence of the indomitable Mrs Cotton (though Topaz's nose is put a little out of joint by their friendship). Rose's engagement to Simon brings a measure of financial security, but things begin to get very complicated as Cassandra finds herself developing an attachment to him.
Here at the beginning of the book we get some impression of the depths of their fall from grace:
"Goodness, Topaz is actually putting on eggs to boil! No on told me the hens had yielded to prayer. Oh, excellent hens! I was only expecting bread and margarine for tea, and I don't get as used to margarine as I could wish. I thank heaven there is no cheaper form of bread than bread." (p.16)
Her excessive use of exclamation points may break one of the cardinal rules of writing, but it makes her very real as a teenager (before they had invented the term) who would not be out of place in a much more modern novel. She has set herself to chronicling her family's life, and seems to quite deliberately position herself on the outside of things, stepping back to give Rose the centre stage. Here she is hiding in the barn when Simon and Neil make a return visit. She makes repeated use through the book of the idea of 'capturing' and it was only when I read this that I got the reference in the title. I had imagined 'capture the castle' was some kind of childhood game, but it is about her desire to write and describe their life in the castle:
"I talk too much sometimes. I must be desperately careful never to distract attention from Rose. I keep telling myself it is real, it really had happened - we know two men. And they like us - they must, or they wouldn't have come back so soon.
I don't really want to write any more, I just want to lie here and think. But there is something I want to capture. It has to do with the feeling I had when I watched the Cottons coming down the lane, the queer separate feeling. I like seeing people when they can't see me. I have often looked at our family through lighted windows and they seem quite different, a bit the way rooms seen in looking-glasses do. I can't get the feeling into words - it slipped away when I tried to capture it." (p.78)
I think the strength of the book is in the very authentic voice of Cassandra, a young woman who's concerns lurch from what they might be eating for supper to much larger existential crises. She is fiercely loyal, to the whole family, but particularly her sister Rose, who she considers delicate and unworldly and in need of protection. She has a romantic soul and longs for a fairy tale ending to the story, but as she watches the unfolding events and considers the consequences of her sister's choice she sees it is not as rosy as she imagined:
"There are hundreds of worries and even sorrows that may come along, but - I think what I really mean is that Rose won't be wanting things to happen. 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 round the corner.
I daresay I am being very silly but there it is! I DO NOT ENVY ROSE. When I imagine changing places with her I get the feeling I do on finishing a novel with a brick-wall happy ending - I mean the kind of ending when you never think any more about the characters ..." (p.237)
And over the page:
"Oh, how selfish I am - when Rose is so happy! Of course I wouldn't have things different; even on my own account, I am looking forward to presents - though ... I wonder if there isn't a catch to having plenty of money? Does it eventually take the pleasure out of things? WhenI think of the joy of my green linen dress after I hadn't had a new dress for ages - ! Will Rose be able to feel anything like that after a few years?" (p.238)
It is the other strength of the book that you get to watch Cassandra grow and learn; she starts as very young and naive but then is obliged to confront the realities of adult life, and begins to understand the serious nature of responsibility. There is no brick-wall ending here, important lessons about being true to yourself are writ large and I can see why, despite the love-and-marriage storyline, it is a coming-of-age story that so many recall with great fondness.