Well, I completely missed the month of February, but that was because I was out of the country for most of it. So I want to start out March on the right foot and share a great book with you! I'm excited to bring attention to this delightful novel by Dodie Smith, called I Capture the Castle. I had never heard of this treasure until I was browsing my favorite bookstore, Manchester by the Book, and the owner insisted that I push it to the top of my reading list. I am so glad I listened to him because I really enjoyed reading this book.
Published in 1948, I Capture the Castle was Smith's first novel. She later became famous for penning the original 101 Dalmatians story, which I'm sure all of you know well. But this particular novel is a treasure in its own right and truly an enjoyable read. It is written as the pages of a young girl's diary, filled with longing, insecurity, excitement, and extremely poignant observation. At times, the narration reminds me of To Kill a Mockingbird and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - two books with young but wise female protagonists. In fact, some of the observations are so astute and insightful that it doesn't seem likely to have come from such a young girl. But that doesn't bother me because the book and the character are so enjoyable.
Cassandra Mortmain is the middle child of a poor family who lives in a dilapidated English castle. Years before the story begins, her father had gained international acclaim for writing a novel called Jacob Wrestling, but he eventually sent his family into poverty by not writing or working after its publication. Thus, writing and literature are very important themes in the story, offering critique and praise for both. Her father's story is basically a mystery; we hardly get any details about the story or her father for that matter. But everyone else seems to have read it, and they all have theories and interpretations in their analysis of it. According to the other characters, his book was written in a modern style, kind of like James Joyce with its layers and complexities. Yet this clashes with the actual novel, I Capture the Castle, which is written in a very traditional style. I wonder what Smith was saying with this. Does she wish she could write like Joyce or is she presenting hers as the preferable writing style?
Moreover, it's interesting to me that we get to hear from the author himself, who hardly seems capable of writing something apparently so ingenious. He never offers an explanation of his text; the best we get is an analysis from his son. Cassandra herself admits that she never understands it. It makes me wonder whether we, as readers, tend to overly praise books, giving them more meaning than the author originally intended. I never hesitate to analyze a book, criticizing or lauding it for dozens of minute influences and details I detect. I've done just that to the 70 or so books I've already discussed in this very blog. What would their authors think of my assessments? I can't help but wonder...
Writing in general is an important theme, as Cassandra writes in her diary as a discipline, hoping to become a better writer and effectively express her feelings. She frequently indicates that she has had to force herself to write about recent events, and I think she is hoping to embody her father's most praised talent. Her sister is a big fan of Jane Austen novels, so much so that she has almost lost sight of reality in her fantasy world. In some ways, the plot of this novel is very similar to those in Austen's stories: two poor sisters who meet two wealthy brothers and pursue them in courtship. Perhaps I'm biased, but I think that the commentary Cassandra offers and the occasional resistance she shows add a unique dimension to the typical storyline. However, I admit that I groaned when I saw a few cliches play out as one could easily predict.
So why did I enjoy reading this so much? I should pause and consider this for a moment. I typically am not drawn into this kind of plot and these characters. I am more emotionally invested in the dark stories, the conflicted and tormented characters or the devastating change of events. But I really did like this, and that may just be a testament to Smith's writing skill. I wanted to hear from her characters and see what would happen, even if they didn't magnetize me as powerfully as some novels have done. Yes, I was intrigued by her father's novel, but I was more intrigued by Cassandra herself. So maybe I should simply stop analyzing her and just encourage the rest of you to read this for yourself. Enjoy.