Sunday, February 23, 2014

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

"Time takes the ugliness and horror out of death and turns it into beauty."

 -- from I Capture the Castle, p. 102

 I borrowed a copy of this back when I was attending a Post-Jane Austen Book Club (started out as Austen, but then branched off when we ran out of books). I'd thought I would miss the meeting, so I didn't read it; when my plans changed, I showed up for the discussion after all, and afterwards, a friend lent me her edition. So, spoilers be damned, I already knew much of what happened, plot-wise, like the incident with the fur coat, and the locking-in-the-tower incident. Not that there's all that much plot to contend with.

This was a strange read for me, because while much of the prose is beautifully written, and there are descriptive passages I just wanted to roll around in, in the end, I found it kind of a slog. I've been on a kick with books in which love and marriage are major subjects, but in this one, once the romantic element kicked in, I felt like Mr. Beebe in A Room With a View, of whom that novel's heroine said "He will never forgive us -- I mean, he will never be interested in us again."

The novel is written in the form of a journal by teenaged Cassandra, who lives an isolated existed with her family in an ancient, rundown castle: a setting which allows for much romanticism, but punctured by the realities of its cold and dank, as well as the family's poverty.

Their fortunes look up when, in a self-consciously Austen-like turn, the local estate gets a new heir from America, who will be their new landlord. Simon Cotton and his brother, Neil, are more than willing to indulge them with free hams, and take notice of the spirited Cassandra and her beautiful older sister Rose, leading to those romantic shenanigans which somehow made it all less interesting to me.
As with Boswell's Journal, I was continually struck with the dramatically different way of life on display from what we could expect in modern times. For example, the idea of being three years behind on the rent, without anyone caring. But that must have been a pretty specialized situation even at that time, and is probably more a byproduct of the father's reputation as an eccentric genius than its setting in the 1930s (but published in 1949).

Unfortunately, that whole plot thread just irritated me. I lack patience with the idea of the coddled artiste. If the narrator's father can't write another book, maybe he could do something else to contribute in any way to his household, rather than forcing his cold and hungry children to take care of him: not only figuring out sources of income, but then doing all the practical work. Maybe the father could have helped boil the water for the freaking tea, instead of expecting them all to be his servants? When he says "God knows what's to become of you girls" (p. 52), I bristled, thinking: yeah, it's not like you have any responsibility whatsoever for your children.

Some of his shiftlessness rubs off some on Rose as well, who's rightfully angry with her father's behavior, and is willing to throw herself at a man she doesn't love to marry her way out of poverty. But at the same time, she makes sure she "isn't good at things like gardening and housework," (p. 27) leaving as much of the drudgery as possible to her sister, along with one unpaid servant, and Topaz, her long-suffering stepmother.

Topaz, a beautiful and once-famous artists' model, is a complete enabler of her husband, but balances that out as a character with her humorous pretentiousness, and a willingness to darn and scrub. It's always delightful when she's on the novel's stage. One of the funnier moments occurs right off the bat, when Rose declares that "for some time now, I've been considering selling myself. If necessary, I shall go on the streets," and Topaz replies that "you're the last girl to lead a hard-working immoral life." (p. 12, 13)

For almost everyone, though, the main draw of the novel is in Cassandra's narrative voice. She's full of introspection and wryly amusing observations -- for a random example, here she is on the joy of basking in the bathtub, which her father has compared to drinking: "The last stage of a bath, when the water is cooling, and there is nothing to look forward to, can be pretty disillusioning. I expect alcohol works much the same way. This time I spent my basking in thinking about the family and it is a tribute to hot water that I could think about them and still bask." (p. 61)

Author Dodie Smith, a playwright now most famous for having written The Hundred and One Dalmations, depicts the interior life and feelings of a girl just growing out of childish things and into adult life with great insight. Along the way, the reader can, well, bask in vivid pictures of life in the crumbling castle, the nearby village, and the beautiful countryside. Since I enjoyed the style of the book so much, I really wish the main story hadn't left me feeling kind of "meh."

Smith, Dodie. I Capture the Castle. London: Red Fox, 2003.

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