When I wrote about The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes, I noted that one of his characters has the same ‘comfort book’ as I do – I Capture the Castle (1948). A friend asked me what a comfort book was, and I explained that it is a book you re-read when you feel in need of cheering up. I have several, and suspect I share some of them, such as Pride and Prejudice and Lord of the Rings, with others. But most people I know haven’t ever heard of this book (though I gather that it was voted eighty-second out of the 100 best-loved novels in the BBC’s ‘The Big Read’ in 2003 – the year the film came out – see below).
The story is set in the 1930s and is in the form of a journal written by seventeen year old Cassandra Mortmain. ‘I write this,’ she beings, ‘sitting in the kitchen sink.’ She lives in a semi-ruined castle with her eccentric family. Her father is a writer suffering from chronic writer’s block, so they have almost no income; they have had progressively to sell off all their ‘good’ furniture and books. Her stepmother Topaz is a former artist’s model who plays the lute and communes with nature. Her older sister Rose is beautiful, ‘hates most things she has and envies most things she hasn’t’, and is desperate to escape their poverty. Her younger brother Thomas is all ‘appetite and homework’. And then there is Stephen, the son of their former maid who simply stayed on when she died. It is these characters Cassandra intends to ‘capture’. Enter the Cottons, two American brothers, the elder of whom has inherited the nearby Scoatney estate. ‘Did you think of anything when Miss Marcy said Scoatney Hall was being re-opened?’ Cassandra asks Rose. ‘I thought of the beginning of Pride and Prejudice – where Mrs Bennet says Netherfield Park is let at last.’ But things don’t turn out quite like an Austen story.
This is a quintessential coming of age novel in which Cassandra learns to think differently about herself and all her family. This is reflected in her attitude to her writing. ’How arrogant I used to be,’ she says. ‘I remember writing in this journal that I would capture father later – I meant to do a brilliant character sketch. Capture father! Why, I don’t know anything about anyone.’ At the end: ‘I don’t intend to go on with this journal; I have grown out of wanting to write about myself.’ And she comes to understand how difficult it is to explain ‘how the image and the reality merge, and how they somehow extend and beatify each other’. And as events play out, Cassandra learns a stern lesson about love and life, and ‘the game of second best we have all been playing.’
Why do I enjoy the book so much? I think it’s mainly because I really like the way Cassandra looks at the world. Smith has captured the enthusiasm and buoyancy of youth, even if Cassandra is, as one character suggests, a bit ‘consciously naive’. She is observant; she notices, for example, how when her father is asked what he is working on, he ‘somehow deflated’: ‘the carriage of his head changed, and his shoulders sagged.’ Her judgements aren’t always correct though. She has a good sense of humour, and can laugh at the family’s misfortunes. She and Topaz are trying to work out how to return the Cotton’s hospitality when they don’t have any dining room furniture. Lacking chairs, Topaz wonders if they could sit on cushions on the floor. “‘We certainly don’t have enough chairs.” “We haven’t enough cushions, either,” Cassandra replies. “All we really have enough of is floor.” We laughed until the candle wax ran down onto our hands. After that we felt better.’ She takes an infectious pleasure in the simple things around her –drinking cocoa, hearing school children singing, looking at the light on the castle walls. Despite periods of misery, she ultimately has a refreshingly optimistic outlook on life.
If I’m honest I also have to admit that there is a degree of nostalgia in my pleasure. Smith wrote the story when she was living in America and feeling homesick for England; this has no doubt produced a romanticised view. But more important, this closed little domain, with its unquestioned attitudes to class and sex, untouched by the realities of the Great Depression, or the rise of Fascism in Europe, is amazingly restful. Cassandra and her problems exist in a more comfortable world.
While relatively few people seem to know this novel, most will have heard of another of Dodie Smith’s books – The Hundred and One Dalmatians (1956). This became even better known after the 1961 Disney film. Disney also bought the rights to I Capture the Castle, but nothing came of this until Smith’s literary executor – none other than Julian Barnes – bought them back, and the story was filmed in 2003. I enjoyed it, but it couldn’t match the magic I find in the novel.
I came across another of Smith’s books – It Ends with Revelations (1967). I thought it was awful. That’s the way it goes.