Capturing the Castle

The terrible shame about my job is that it’s too loud in the office for me to get on with my reading.  I’ve tried logging on through Kindle and staring at the screen, as if I am trying to dicypher a particularly grueling spreadsheet, but the buzz and hum of noise around me is making it impossible.  Is it me or is summer going nuclear this year?  Blankets of heat and turquise skies are bleeding through our cars and windows and then lots of prairie bashing rain descends and everyone grabs their umbrellas?  It’s not at all like England, where we like sort-of-warmish breezes followed by a light drizzle.   It’s gone to my head, as this morning I tried to dress like an American Midwesterner, about to spend the morning singing Rogers and Hammerstein songs and working the hay and tending the farm in the baking heat.  This was not a good idea – as it’s hard to rock red gingham in a corporate setting.  My job is less Annie Get Your Gun than Annie Get The Paperclip, so I changed my sartorial outlook.  Despite willing and praying and asking the powers that be politely, it still isn’t Friday.  This is a scandal and I must look into whether something can be done about it.  Meanwhile, the DVD collection beckons. 

  For those of you who read last week’s instalment, I did not return from horse racing with enough funds to build that tax haven in the Cayman Islands, nor am I buzzing off down New Bond Street to buy expensive shoes.  I did succeed in a little winning, then a little losing, then a cup of tea and an ice cream, a glass of lovely champagne with dear friends, and some more winning and losing but emerged with nothing lost and nothing gained.  The mud was exhaustive.  Despite cleaning my shoes, I still managed to go to Ronnie Scotts on Friday night and make the carpets smell like Berkshire horse. 

Yesterday afternoon, the only thing that cured me of post-Ascot, backed-the-wrong-horses torpor was putting on I Capture The Castle, a good adaption – although with botched, changed ending – of Dodie Smith’s book of the same name.  It’s probably one of my favourite books of all time and one of the best literary depictions of a story told through the simple – yet illuminating – structure of one girl’s diary.  A quintessential English tale, it’s part coming-of-age realism and part fairytale.  I read it for the first time when I was 26, which was a terrible idea.   I should have read it when I was 14, but it somehow passed my teenage radar.   I have now read it at least three times. 

Cassandra Mortmain is a seventeen year old with literary aspirations, who lives with her somewhat bohemian family amid their crushing poverty in a dilapidated Suffolk castle. Her a sister, Rose, hopes to marry for money.  Their mother is dead and their father bereft of funds.  So far, so Jane Austen.  But, this is the 1930s, and when Cassandra is described by her local vicar as “Jane Eyre with a hint of Becky Sharp” you know you’re in for something a little more robust.   Cassandra & Rose’s father, James Mortmain, is a saturnine character who succeeds in intimidating his family until they are unable to confront him at all, and who rots in his study with his writer’s block and a ready supply of detective novels from the local library.  Here he stagnates, having produced no written work since one ground-breaking and high academic text eleven years previously.   Cassandra’s stepmother, Topaz, a surrealist painter’s model with a penchant for taking her clothes off and communicating with the elements in the wilds of Suffolk, does her best at raising the two girls – and their younger brother, Thomas – but her well-intentioned ideas about money and marrying the girls off are ineffective, made futile by her lack of common pragmatism and modernism.  She is currently working on a painting called War & Peace, “based on the novel”.  Cassandra is our guide, and her diary draws us into her world with ingenuous ease.  

The arrival of two young American men, the inheritors of a local estate and – by proxy – the Mortmains’ landlords –  into the wilds of Suffolk present the novel’s catalyst, so I shall tell you no more about it in the hope that you read it for yourself.  Suffice it to say, it is one of the most brilliant books ever written as a coming of age story of a seventeen year old girl.   It will hit a note with any female that was ever sixteen,  I absolutely guarantee it.  Cassandra’s is our only narrative voice, and writes in three separate diaries during the course of the novel, each of different monetary value, as the Mortmain’s fortunes shift and change, and as she passes through her rites of passage.  Dodie Smith was in her early fifties when she wrote this, but her ability to write as the first person narrative of a seventeen old is uncanny – never condescending, never with an adult hindsight – and totally believable.  It was written in California where Smith was living with her husband during the Second World War.  Homesick for England, and desperately worried by regular reports of Britain under Nazi fire that came through the news, she constructed a strange 1930’s Suffolk idyll, both real and unreal, with quintessentially English characters, who are bowled over by the glamorous, rich Americans who are suddenly foisted upon their lives.

It is fairly short book and easy to read.  It is, in fact, deceptively simple; Smith’s notes on the plot and characters ran to a book nearly 1,000 pages long – easily three times longer than the actual novel.   It was her obsession, and her preoccupation with it disturbed her sleep patterns and shaped her life.  I am jealous of those of you who have not yet read it and have the pleasure still to come.  From the moment Smith opens her story in the ramshackle castle where the Mortmains have made their home with Cassandra’s famous line, ” I write this sitting in the kitchen sink….”  you are charmed along, hooked into Cassandra’s inner world.  An ideal summer read, people.   I know what you’re thinking though : “This is a departure from the usual theme, is she ill?  Where is the belch and fart of the inner city?  Bluebird’s usually out sucking up traffic fumes on High Holborn and basking in the stench and furore of the centre of town.  Has she lost her plot?”   I know it’s not usual for me – as this novel’s somewhat bucolic setting is as far from London as you can get in southern England.  There are two scenes in London; in a Park Lane apartment and a St John’s Wood photographic studio respectively – but this is not a book of the city.  But the fact that this London Bluebird is using this week’s entry to tell you how marvellous something set in Suffolk is – well, that is a turn up for the books.   It’s bloody marvellous.  Go forth and read.  And then please comment with any thoughts or reflections you may have here. 

Do return to the London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.  

2 responses to “Capturing the Castle

  1. One of my favorite books as well, although I didn’t read it until I was in my 4th ahem decade, so it came too late to be blamed for derailing my formative years. Haven’t seen the movie. It can’t compete with the perfection of the novel, few film adaptations can. Must re-read this soon. Thanks for reminding me what a great book this is.

    • Many thanks for your comment Punkinpuss! Glad you enjoyed the post on this. I think the film is well worth checking out – it has the estimable Romola Garai in the lead role as Cassandra, although the ending is a little cowardly, it is still a good film. I hope you return to the London Bluebird,

      Thank you for reading

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