I Capture The Castle, set in 1934 and written 12 years later when Dodie Smith was living in America and homesick for England, is studded with unexpected delights.
The framing device is a diary written by 17-year-old Cassandra, who describes the six months in the life of her family during which their fortunes change and she grows up.
The head of the family is one-hit-literary-wonder Mortmain, who has not been able to write another book or earn another penny since the phenomenal success of Jacob Wrestling, his experimental precursor of James Joyce’s work and one of the forerunners of post-war literature.
Their lives change with the arrival of Simon and Neil Cotton, eligible young Americans who have inherited Scoatney Hall, a large house in the neighbourhood. Two poor sisters with an uninvolved father, a mother wants them to marry, the arrival of two rich young men, misunderstandings and complications in love, an elopement — does this ring any bells?
That Austen moment
The novel positively shimmers with a Jane Austen vibe. In case we miss it, Rose points out the similarity to the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, when Netherfield Hall is let and Bingley and Darcy arrive on the scene.
Another reference to the Bennet girls shapes Cassandra’s observation, expressed with an Austen-like rhythm, that ‘girls’ minds so often jump to marriage long before they jump to love’. Cassandra’s anger that Rose would marry a man she doesn’t love for ‘clothes, jewellery and a bathroom’ echoes Elizabeth’s Bennet’s disappointment with her friend Charlotte for making a pragmatic marriage, although Lizzie doesn’t go so far as to call her ‘a lying, grasping, little cheat’.
In a further reminder of Pride and Prejudice, Rose has her Pemberley moment. In Austen’s novel, Elizabeth says, a little disingenuously, that her love for Darcy dates from her first sight of the beautiful grounds at Pemeberley. Rose’s epiphany is more mundane but none the less potent. The bedroom at Scoatney Hall has flowers and books and a chaise-longue piled with fascinating little cushions and a wood fire; the bathroom has a glass table with at least half a dozen bottles of scent and toilet water. Rose likes it so much it hurts. And when such markers of a rich and pleasant life become available to her, that hurts too, and clean peach-coloured towels every day can barely compensate for her emotional loneliness.
Topaz the gem
As is sometimes the case with Austen novels, a character we are invited or expect to feel critical of evokes unexpected sympathy. Step up, Topaz. Topaz has been married twice before, to Carlo, who had something to do with a circus, and then to Everard, a fashion artist.
Topaz is a celebrated artists’ model. She has ethereal good looks, with a complexion of extraordinary pallor and masses of pale hair. There are two paintings of her in the National Gallery, one called ‘Composition’ which Cassandra observes makes her look so pale that it should be called ‘Decomposition’.
Topaz would like to be seen as one of the arty and intellectual circle which lionises her husband, and cultivates a hippyish bohemian persona characterised by painting, playing the lute and nude communing with nature. She peppers her conversation with words like ‘significant’ and aphorisms such as ‘one must sink to the depths in order to rise to the heights’, the kind of ‘Topazism’ which Cassandra says requires much affection to tolerate.
But Topaz does earn our affection and even our respect, maybe more than any other character.
When I first read the book, I was looking forward to seeing Topaz’s pretensions being well and truly skewered, and was initially disappointed not to experience an Austenesque disdain for show and artifice. But what emerges is an appealing personality with recognisable flaws and insecurities. She is fiercely loyal to and protective of Mortmain, and is exceptionally kind to his daughters. She cooks and scrubs and sews and tries to make the best of their hand-to-mouth existence. Her abundance of practical kindness makes up for her bogus intellectualism.
Topaz has so little personal vanity that she obscures her own beauty in order to allow Rose to shine. When the Cotton men arrive, she dresses in dull tweeds so she will fade into the background, and for the dinner party at Scoatney Hall she makes herself look conventional and ordinary. Mortmain’s horrified response to her appearance persuades her to adopt her more familiar, striking Angel of Death appearance in a dress like a clinging grey cloud and a grey scarf draped over her head and shoulders.
The arrival of the Cotton family brings a threat to Topaz in the unexpected form of the sophisticated and formidable Mrs Cotton.
Mortmain is intrigued by her. Mrs Cotton does not present as a femme fatale, with her upright posture, deep blue velvet and pearls, but she is ‘wonderfully good-looking’, beautifully dressed and beautifully spoken. Mortmain is captivated by her personal presence, her intelligence, her literary knowledge and her stimulating conversation. I imagine her to be a little like Emily Gilmore in The Gilmore Girls, only more Proust than ladies’ lunches. No wonder Topaz is worried.
Mortmain chooses a moment when Topaz is dressed in a sack-like hand-woven garment with her unwashed hair pushed into a torn old net to comment favourably on Mrs Cotton’s well-turned-out appearance. Topaz is desperately worried that her husband’s sudden trips to the British Museum are for assignations with Mrs Cotton. She says that people use it for nothing but assignations, and cites her own in the mummy room. Good old BM, eh. And good old Topaz. Props to a character who can cheer herself up by putting on a cream satin-damask gown and a little ruby-red cap, and who at the same time can arrange ‘a supper of consoling sausages’ for those not invited out to dinner.
I Capture the Castle is shaped by literary concepts. Cassandra’s narrative is sharp and sweet, perceptive and precocious. She is sturdy, practical, whimsical. As the vicar put it, she is Jane Eyre with a touch of Becky Sharpe. Cassandra draws attention to her diary being a literary artefact, and the overheard comment that she is ‘knowingly naive’ highlights the metafictional aspect of the novel.
The gradual unfolding of Cassandra’s coming-of-age is paralleled by the book which Mortmain eventually produces, having been locked up in the castle tower by Cassandra and Thomas until he writes something. The new book is a Modernist exploration, in obscure and baffling prose, of the process of learning to read and the eternal search for our origins. A lovely fairy-tale touch — Cassandra tells him he can write anything, even ‘the cat sat on the mat’, and those are the very words which begin his magnum opus.
Acute observations, romance and heartbreak, literary sensibility, hints of darkness and tragedy, comic set-pieces — there is so much to enjoy in I Capture The Castle. And its opening line is up there with the best: ‘I am writing this sitting in the kitchen sink.’ You just have to read on.
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