Thursday, 16 May 2013

Review: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

For the perceptive among you, I am sure you have noticed a slight discrepancy between my What I'm Reading Wednesday lists, and the latest batch of reviews. Much of this has to do with my exam-induced reduction of 'reading for happiness' hours, making two reviews of new-to-me reads per week super ambitious. However, it was also an explicit goal of mine at the start of this blog, to mix new reviews with those of my all-time favourite reads. It is, after all, through these favourites that my passion for reading has developed. 

Today, I offer you a review of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith - a book that I read and re-read throughout my teenage years. It is, however, a book that transcends age barriers. There is truly something for everyone in this novel - a charismatic and utterly personable narrator; a setting of almost tangible beauty; and an opportunity to follow the triumphs and trials of perhaps the most interesting family portrayed in English literature.

"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog's blanket and the tea-cosy. I can't say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left. And I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring - I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen-house. Though even that isn't a very good poem. I have decided my poetry is so bad that I musn't write any more of it."

So opens I Capture the Castle, introducing the reader to Cassandra Mortmain, the book's 17-year old narrator. Cassandra is an aspiring writer, living with her eccentric and bohemian family in the beautiful but dilapidated Belmotte Castle. The novel follows Cassandra's attempts to realise her passion for writing through the keeping of a diary - a diary that serves as that foundation for I Capture the Castle's narrative. The story relates the Mortmain's attempts to escape the poverty thrust upon them by Cassandra's author father. Having failed to follow the success of his groundbreaking work Jacob's Wrestling with any new novels, he instead isolates himself in the castle's tower, forcing his wife and two teenage daughters to seek out a way to survive. Enter two wealthy American gents. Simon and Neil Cotton move from New England to the nearby Scoatney Hall after inheriting the estate, also making them the Mortmain's new landlords. Cassandra's sister, the beautiful and superficial Rose, sets about snaring a proposal from Simon, provoked largely by her disgust for the poverty that her father has settled upon the family. It is through this pursuit, and the questions that it raises regarding choices and priorities, that Cassandra comes to understand the possibilities and limitations placed upon her by her circumstances. 

I Capture the Castle is a glorious book. A coming-of-age tale, told with the spirit of a fairytale and the ambiance of an English classic, every aspect of this novel is beautifully executed. Much of the magic is inherent in the setting, detailed in a manner that engages every sense:

"How strange and beautiful it looked in the late afternoon light! I can still recapture that first glimpse - see the sheer grey stone walls and towers against the pale yellow sky, the reflected castle stretching towards us on the brimming moat, the floating patches of emerald-green water-weed. No breath of wind ruffled the looking-glass water, no sound of any kind came to us. Our excited voices only made the castle seem more silent."

I am typically hesitant when it comes to books (and, indeed, TV programmes) that perpetuate a certain stereotype. Having spent a good deal of time in the US, I am well aware of the Downton Abbey-esque perception that many people have of the history of the UK and the types of life we Brits lead. While I certainly do no favours in combatting the stereotype (working in a Stately Home does not help matters), I will generally try to minimise the impression that we spend our time acting out scenes reminiscent of a Jane Austen novel (however much I wish that this was in fact the case). In many respects, I Capture the Castle conforms to a particular perception of England and the English. But it does so with an acute attention (and emphasis on) the conflict between the book's setting and the personalities and motivations of its characters. Without the intrigue and majesty of the Belmotte ruins and the imposing authority of Scoatney Hall, the central message of this novel - played out as battle between youthful naivety and harsh realism - would be entirely lost. Instead, Smith uses this novel's setting to remarkable effect.

This remarkability undoubtedly owes itself largely to I Capture the Castle's narrator and central character. Cassandra Mortmain is a truly wonderful character, depicted with a faultless attention to the realistic depiction of a 17-year old's voice and an avoidance of caricature. For those of you who read my post on Jane Eyre (The Ultimate Literary Heroine), you will know how much I appreciate a strong and intelligent female character. Cassandra delivers on many of the characteristics that also mark Jane Eyre out as a heroine to be reckoned with - she is intelligent, resolutely fearless, with a desperate desire for self-understanding. That these traits are delivered through the first-hand narrative of a teenage girl, who is open in her naivety, make the depiction of Cassandra's character a product of enviable literary skill. As I stated above, I Capture the Castle is a book that transcends age barriers - I truly believe that it will find resonance with the young and old alike. And I think that much of this fact owes itself to the novel's main character. Because there are aspects of Cassandra's outlook and journey that will stand relatable to every reader, whether teenage or retired, whether male or female. 

Dodie Smith must be applauded for achieving a feat of this magnitude. Realising such relatability within a setting of truly fantastical detail marks out masterful talent. And it is this talent that inspires a remarkable loyalty in the reader. For this is undoubtedly a book that will continue to survive and one that I fully intend to pass on to coming generations. Beautiful, seeped in emotion, and acutely painful in places, I Capture the Castle is absolutely one for the ages.


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