I Capture the Castle - Dodie Smith
We're so delighted that avid reader Katie Fee, who works in School & Library Marketing at Penguin Young Readers Group, agreed to chat with Julie about a favorite book for this post. Many, many thanks to the wonderful Katie!
Julie: I bought Dodie Smith's I CAPTURE THE CASTLE long ago, after a friend raved about it. Initially I found the first few pages off-putting. A family living in an English castle, yet in such dire financial straits that the main character has to write in her journal while sitting in the kitchen sink (or, at least, with her feet in there)? I didn't think I could ever find the story plausible. So I set the book aside for a good long time. But it stayed in one of my "read someday, maybe" stacks, and eventually I picked it up again. Give it thirty pages, I thought. And then I was off. I'm so glad I gave it that second chance. Because as contrived as the set-up seems, the characters and the story do come to magnificent life. In the end, I CAPTURE THE CASTLE is a wonderful book about love in many forms, including the first love of the terrifically engaging protagonist, seventeen-year-old Cassandra (whom J.K. Rowling deems "one of the most charismatic narrators I've ever met"); the unrequited love of endearing Stephen; and the suspect love of Cassandra's sister Rose for wealthy Simon--not to mention the love of Cassandra's family for one another. The novel also has much to say about writing. I've happily read it several times now. Katie, I know that you're a fan too. What do you love about it?
Katie: I personally love the opening scene where Cassandra is writing in her diary with her feet in the sink. Could there be a better way to be introduced to our narrator? This is a world where literary pursuit is taken seriously above all else, even creature comforts like candles to write by and food to eat. Cassandra must write wherever she finds her muse and not a single person in the novel would expect her to do anything less.
As you mentioned, I CAPTURE THE CASTLE has a lot to say about the writing process. One of my favorite lines occurs early on when Cassandra writes, "When I read a book, I put in all the imagination I can, so that it is almost like writing the book as well as reading it--or rather, it is like living it. It makes reading so much more exciting...." In many ways, this feels like the mantra of the novel. The Mortmains are living in a sort of suspended animation as they wait for their father to write a follow up to his highly acclaimed first novel. It takes the introduction of their new American neighbors to break them out of their literary spell.
Julie, what do make of the obvious correlations that the book makes to the works of classic English romances? The author clearly made a conscious choice to include these references and yet in many ways these characters feel much more modern than the tropes they follow. What do you think?
J: I agree that to a certain extent the sisters' romances feel modern, perhaps because of the independence Cassandra and Rose are afforded by their circumstances. Cassandra's father pays virtually no attention to them. Their mother is dead, their stepmother a free spirit. Their castle is isolated, and their only regular connection to town is an indulgent librarian who takes pleasure in bringing Mr. Mortmain books. So they're largely free from the family and/or societal constraints that typically play a large role in classic English romances. Maybe Smith refers to texts like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE to highlight that lack of constraints and its reflection of civic changes during the 1940s, when I CAPTURE THE CASTLE was written? It's just a guess! What do you think? And do you agree with J.K. Rowling's assessment of Cassandra as "'one of the most charismatic narrators I've ever met'"?
K: I do agree that many of the things you mentioned probably impact the feel of the novel. I also think some of the modern tone comes from the language Cassandra uses to describe the other characters -- she's fairly shrewd for a 17 year-old who has led a sheltered life. I love Cassandra as a protagonist. I think Smith perfectly captures the mix of naivety and thinking you know everything that is seventeen. I also think telling the story as a diary brings the reader into Cassandra's head in an interesting way. It's possible to see her not only growing up but also realizing that she's doing so in her own words.
J: I agree that Cassandra is immensely likable. Her voice makes the books as appealing as it is. But with all due respect to J.K. Rowling--seriously, what am I thinking, questioning her?!--I'm not sure I'd describe Cassandra as charismatic. That suggests a certain natural bent for leading others. Wouldn't you call her more of an observer than a leader for the vast majority of the book?
K: If I may defend Ms. Rowling, not that she needs my help in any way, I can understand where she's coming from. I find the entirety of I CAPTURE THE CASTLE to be quite charismatic and, as the book is her diary, Cassandra to be as well. The strength of her writing is what draws the reader into her world. While she is surrounded by people who fancy themselves to be artists, she is the one who spends the most time dedicated to her craft. What do you think the decision to frame this novel as a diary adds to the story?
J: The diary format highlights Cassandra's voice and allows for her reflection on events as she describes them. It's interesting, too, to contrast the young Cassandra's flood of words with her father's drought. And now we should stop our own shower of words and post this so that our very, very last-minute-shopping readers can rush out and buy I CAPTURE THE CASTLE as a gift. Maybe a gift for themselves, since we're awfully late! Sorry about that. Happy Holidays, everybody!