This classic novel might be 70 years old, but its soul-soothing powers haven’t faded
Cassandra Mortmain, heroine of Dodie Smith’s novel I Capture The Castle, is an unfussy, practical girl with a solution for everything.
She lives in genteel poverty in a crumbling castle with her destitute author father and hippie stepmother, a woman much taken to stomping about naked in the rain called Topaz. (“Even if this is true there is no law to make a woman stick to a name like that,” Cassandra notes.)
There’s also her beautiful but useless sister Rose, clever little brother Thomas and a lodger called Stephen who looks like “all the Greek gods rolled into one” and keeps slipping Cassandra notes containing scrawls of his poetry. Though he adores her Cassandra isn’t sure that she loves him back.
So there are plenty of problems that require solving. Like, for example, what the Mortmains will eat for Christmas now that their landlord has died and no longer sends them their annual feast. (“We have sadly missed the ham,” Cassandra writes wryly in her diary, which forms the narrative thread of the book.)
Or the fact that none of the Mortmains have had new clothes for years, and Cassandra’s nightgown has completely worn through at the back while her dressing gown has fallen to pieces. Cassandra’s solution? Tear strips of flannel to wrap the hot brick she slips into bed with her at night, and dye everything that isn’t completely threadbare green.
Or there’s this, Cassandra’s answer to a particularly bad day and one of the most famous lines from the book: “Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.”
The Mortmains’ ingenious coping mechanisms for their (largely) performative poverty, such as using a barn door as a trestle table during a spontaneous tea party, have been charming readers for 70 years ever since the book was first published in 1948.
Though written in a post-war society the novel is set in the thirties in a pre-war England. Its gentle, warmly told story of a teenage girl who desperately longs to be a writer and who falls in and out of love with the handsome Americans in the castle next door was a balm designed to soothe post-war readers, and has been curing bad moods, like a hot bath or a noble deed, for generations of mostly female readers ever since.
I first read I Capture the Castle at 16, which is a pretty perfect age to first read the book. Not only because I was about as old as Cassandra is in the story (17), but because at 16 you still believe so keenly that everything you read is the most important thing you will ever read in your life. It should come as no surprise that it’s my favourite book, even now.
I am sure that I transferred all my hopes and dreams onto Cassandra. I started a blog because Cassandra had a diary, and I wanted to practice my writing. (“There’s no college for that except life,” as Cassandra said.) I learnt how to wallow in misery, just a little bit, from reading that book. I learnt how not to sacrifice myself and my needs for the easiest or simplest thing. I learnt how to crawl inside all of the fizziness and idiocy and heaviness of my feelings and feel, if not exactly comfortable, then at the very least OK there.
As a soothing, hot bath of a novel, I Capture the Castle reminds you that there’s a solution to everything. There’s “no cheaper form of bread than bread”, as Cassandra notes, which means there’ll always be hot buttered toast for tea. If you need a dress for a party but haven’t any money to buy one you can always fashion something out of some old curtains.
Even the big dilemmas, like falling wildly in love with your sister’s fiancé, a man who doesn’t deserve you in the slightest, can be solved. Not easily, and maybe it will require more than just a few noble deeds and hot baths.
But for every problem there’s a solution. Reading I Capture the Castle is a good place to start.
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