Something half-remembered involving a writer locked in a tower, and a conviction that my first encounter – literary or otherwise – with the drink crème de menthe took place within its pages: these, until recently, were my hazy but fond memories of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. But within seconds of opening the novel again, I was reminded of why I had once loved it enough to read it several times a year. Cassandra Mortmain, its 17-year-old narrator, returned to me like an old friend and I realized that her voice – conspiratorial, self-deprecating and self-consciously literary – has been with me ever since I first encountered her. What hooked me about this book as a teenager was not so much the tale as its teller, a girl yearning, like me, to be two things at once – an adult and a writer.
I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith’s first novel, was published in 1948, though its quiet Englishness is of an earlier period, before the Second World War. Sisters Cassandra and Rose Mortmain live in the ruined splendour of an old castle complete with motte and bailey, mullioned windows, a moat and the mysterious Belmotte tower (‘sixty feet tall, black against the last flush of sunset’). Here also live their younger brother Thomas, their father James (a writer who no longer writes), their stepmother Topaz (former artists’ model and naturist), and a boy named Stephen Colly whom the family have semi-adopted but who fills the role of general servant.
As befits a novel about ‘two Brontë-Jane Austen’ type girls, the plot turns around the acquisition of husbands for Cassandra and Rose. James Mortmain, who once made money from a successful novel entitled Jacob Wrestling, is struggling to put pen to paper in order to revive the family fortunes. It is an era of traditional roles as far as middle-class women are concerned, and the Mortmain girls feel that their only way out of poverty is to marry well. When their landlords,
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