I Capture The Castle (1949) by Dodie Smith


My love affair with this book goes back nearly twenty years and I’ve long since lost sight of precisely what it is that binds me to it. If you were to press me on the subject I’d probably say something vague and noncommittal about how much I love Cassandra’s narration and her witty portraits of her mad family. I might also mumble something about the fact that their dilapidated Suffolk castle provided a romantic fictional escape from my own teenage home on a dismal fenland council estate. In truth, however, I really have no idea why I have loved this book for so long. I just know that I have and that it makes it really hard to write an objective review now that I’ve just reread it. I suspect anything I write will sound either a bit too gushy or (worse?) just a bit stale. Instead, in lieu of my usual review style post, here are some of my favourite quotes from I Capture the Castle… 

The opening scene contains some of my favourite descriptions but I particularly love this exchange between Cassandra, her desperate sister Rose and stepmother Topaz at the height of their genteel poverty:

“…It may interest you both to know that for some time now I’ve been considering selling myself. If necessary, I shall go on the streets.” 

I told her she couldn’t go on the streets in the depths of Suffolk. 

“But if Topaz will kindly lend me the fare to London and give me a few hints-” 

Topaz said she had never been on the streets and rather regretted it, ‘because one must sink to the depths in order to rise to the heights,’ which is the kind of Topazism it requires much affection to tolerate. 

It makes me think of this later comment:

“Topaz was wonderfully patient – but sometimes I wonder if it is not only patience but also a faint resemblance to cows…” 

God bless Topaz.

Two profound truths that I couldn’t agree with more:

“I shouldn’t think even millionaires could eat anything nicer than new bread and real butter and honey for tea.” 

“Rose doesn’t like the flat country but I always did – flat country seems to give the sky such a chance.” 

I’m not lying when I say that I think of this passage almost every time I enter the eerie silence of a really old church:

I could hear rain still pouring from the gutters and a thin branch scraping against one of the windows; but the church seemed completely cut off from the restless day outside  – just as I felt cut off from the church. I thought: I am a restlessness inside a stillness inside a restlessness. 

That might be my favourite one of all I also love the slow evolution from this:

“I know all about the facts of life and I don’t think much of them.” 

To this:

“No bathroom on earth will make up for marrying a bearded man you hate.”

To this:

“Only the margin left to write on now. I love you, I love you, I love you.” 

Forgive the departure from my normal style – this just seemed the easiest way to approach this particular topic but my usual posts will resume very soon. I just read Tove Jannson’s Summer Book and adored it so there’ll be more in a day or two…



Literary summers 

So, this week’s Top Ten Tuesday theme was all about our favourite books not set in the US. I was half tempted to change it to books not set in the UK and go from there…. Except that I’ve covered some similar themes elsewhere on this blog recently, particularly since I started going around the world in 80 books. Rather than repeat myself I just decided to give this one a miss.

But I still have a list to post this week, mainly because this particular idea has been buzzing around my head for a couple of days now. It all started with an online article about the correlation between temperature and violent crime which got me thinking about all the great novels that use heat to heighten the tension and introduce some drama. And that in turn got me thinking more generally about novels set in the summer months, hence this post.

This week has been a bit of a scorcher here in the UK (a very British one with lots of grumbling and not enough sun cream) so it feels quite apt. Here’s a list of some memorable literary summers:

1. The Go Between by L. P. Hartley (1953). Young Leo spends the sizzling summer of 1900 with the family of a wealthy school friend and is pulled into a world he doesn’t really understand. It’s a story of sex, loss of innocence and betrayal and Hartley expertly uses the rising heat to build the tension bit by bit. I’m always telling myself that this novel demands a reread – why haven’t I done it yet?!

2. Birdsong by Sebastien Faulks (1993). The novel opens with an afternoon boat trip in northern France and a young Englishman making eyes at his employer’s pretty young wife across the still water. Years later, he has only the memories of those beautiful afternoons with Isabelle to sustain him through the horrors of the war. (Truth be told, I didn’t love Birdsong but the opening chapters are pretty great).

3. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925). It’s the longest, and the hottest, day of the year so Gatsby and his new friends escape the heat by ordering mint juleps in the shade of a New York hotel. It’s the catalyst for all those tensions that have been simmering away all morning to finally boil over into an explosive row. Daisy’s slightly hysterical tone rises with the heat.

4. One Day by David Nicholls (2009). The reader gets just the briefest of glimpses at Emma and Dexter’s relationship each year on the 15th July but it’s enough to really draw you in. The book group I was in at the time hated this but I was absolutely hooked on Emma and Dexter and I thought the ‘one day’ snapshot worked really well.

5. I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith (1948). Cassandra’s indulgent Midsummer Day ritual is one of my favourites in a novel full of favourites. There’s naked sunbathing, reading, cake, flowers, a bonfire, chanting and it all ends with tea, music, a slow dance in the conservatory and suddenly everything changes forever.

6. On Tangled Paths by Theodor Fontane (1888). I only read this a few months ago but it’s stayed with me. The story of a love affair between a seamstress and a cavalry officer that lasts just one summer, but is deeply felt on both sides…. It’s pretty perfect to be honest and I love it all the more because it’s so quiet and unassuming.

7. Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001). One lie, told by a jealous little girl at the end of an oppressively hot day, sparks a rift that Briony will spend a lifetime trying to atone for. McEwan really takes his time with that languid summer’s afternoon leading up to the lie so you know something is going to happen long before the storm hits. I love this book.

8. Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee (1959). I always think of this as a summery book, partly, I suppose, because there are so many beautifully vivid descriptions of the green landscape surrounding Lee’s childhood home. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to lie down in some long grass and stare at the sky for an hour or two.

9. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1934). It opens with the Divers sunning themselves on the French Riviera, surrounded by their equally as attractive friends, and follows with the jealousies and recriminations that eventually lead to the collapse of their marriage. It’s my favourite of Fitzgerald’s novels and worth following up with Zelda’s Save me the Waltz, just for an alternative version of the story.

10. …………………???

And here I run out of ideas! Is there anything obvious I’ve missed? Any literary heatwaves that stick in your mind?

The New Moon With The Old (1963) – Dodie Smith

TheNewMoonI should probably state quite early on in this review that I am a huge fan of Dodie Smith’s earlier work, I Capture The Castle. It’s a cliché, I know; I’m sure everyone says this when they review her other books. I first read ICTC when I was in my early teens and nearly twenty years later it is still a favourite. I could quote entire passages by heart.

So you can imagine how pleased I was to find an original hard-back copy of The New Moon With The Old in the Oxfam shop for just a few pounds (original price: 21 shillings!). I’ve never read anything else by Dodie Smith and this seemed like a good time to start exploring some of her other works. Unfortunately, however, it is surprisingly difficult to read The New Moon without comparing it to I Capture The Castle. I tried, I really did, to give it a fair chance but I think my review is unfavourably biased.

The book begins with the efficiently spinsterish Jane Minton, who has been hired as a sort of secretary/housekeeper to a rich, dashing banker named Rupert Carrington. In the first chapter Jane arrives at his beautiful Suffolk mansion, Dome House, and meets his four children: Richard, Clare, Drew and Merry, all of whom are aged in their teens or early twenties. Within a few days of Jane’s arrival Rupert is accused of fraud and flees the country, leaving Jane and his children with a little money, mounting debts, a house to maintain and two servants to support. The book then follows each of Rupert’s children, one by one, as they abandon their former lives and try to make their own way in the world.

The plot really rests on a series of lucky, but often bizarre, events which sometimes stretch the imagination a little far. I don’t think it spoils things too much if I say that the Carrington children land on their feet rather quickly, three of them securing implausible but promising positions away from Dome House within just a week or two. I liked Drew’s story best, I think, and Clare’s least. And Merry… well, when has that sequence of events ever happened to anyone? I’m pretty sure never.

So the plot is a bit weak but I did find the characters engaging. I liked the Carrington children from the beginning and I understood Jane’s unspoken longing to be one of them. It’s the 1960s (although it’s easy to forget that) so there’s none of the ‘conscious naivety’ of Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture The Castle, even in fourteen year old Merry:

“She had been falling in love since the age of nine and had recently been in love with three men at once: two famous actors and a waiter at a hotel in Ipswich. And nowadays her imagination went beyond merely kissing men; she considered the implications of going to bed with them, though hampered by being none too sure what the implications were, having found Weary Willy’s biology lecture so dull that she had (a) not listened carefully and (b) discounted much of what she heard. No doubt the rough outline was correct but as to the details – well, Weary Willy’s knowledge was likely to be purely academic.”

The description of Merry’s rather, um, mature performance as Juliet in the school play might be my favourite bit.

Having said that, it is the sexual morals that I find a little troubling in this book. As soon as the two female Carrington children enter the big, wide world they are preyed upon by much older, rich men and no one seems to find this overly worrying. Instead, after a few half hearted objections, everyone seems to agree that it’s all very romantic. I’m pretty sure that if I found myself in Clare Carrington’s position my siblings would think it was sleazy; they’d be appalled even if I was desperately in love. And at least Clare is an adult; the Merry story is all the more unsettling because she’s so young.

Perhaps the problem is that I’m reading this with 21st century eyes. Or perhaps I’m just being a bit of a prude?! I’m sure, in fact, that it’s a combination of both these things. And this isn’t to say that there’s not a certain sort of innocent charm to The New Moon With The Old. I really did enjoy reading it, in spite of how improbable it all was.

Of course it doesn’t stand up well when you compare it to I Capture The Castle (as I am inevitably going to do). But I’m not overly disappointed by this. I had prepared myself to not expect much so I was either going to be pleasantly surprised or proven right; somehow I was both.

On love and hate

“He had not fallen in love with her on sight; he had simply been willing to fall in love. Instead he had hated her. No, hate was too much of a compliment; hate involved one’s emotions. He merely disliked her, coldly and critically. Never again would he be able to feel he had never really disliked anyone. He wondered why this distressed him so much – and found the answer; he was conscious of a loss of innocence far more absolute that if he could have sensually responded to her sensuality. But the distress, he intuitively knew, would not long survive the innocence, for a loss of sensibility follows a loss of innocence, at once a penalty and a compensation”

[Dodie Smith].