Sunday, January 26, 2014
Book Review: I Capture the Castle
Author: Dodie Smith
During six turbulent months in 1934, 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain keeps a journal, filling three notebooks with sharply funny yet poignant entries about her home, a ruined Suffolk castle, and her eccentric and penniless family. By the time the last diary shuts, there have been great changes in the Mortmain household, not the least of which is that Cassandra is deeply, hopelessly, in love.
I think if I would have read this book as a child, I would have spent hours upon hours daydreaming about being Cassandra Mortmain. I would have written in my journals with my feet in the sink, and re-enacted my own Midsummer rites. Most of all, I would have daydreamed about living in a crumbling castle with the the eccentric Mortmains. Even though I did not read it years ago, I was still caught up in the idea of it all.
It is a book that is whimsical yet set against poverty. Cassandra begins the novel as a girl, with her head in the clouds and feet in the sink, enjoying the eccentricities of her family and their condition. There is a sense of family togetherness, that despite not having enough to eat, the good times out the bad things. Cassandra is able to look past all of these, and goes about her days reading and writing with her dog Heloise faithfully beside her, plotting and planning the family's return to financial security. Will Rose marry well? Will Topaz get another commission in London to sit for an artist's painting? Cassandra herself plans on raising her family from their impoverished state by writing. They all cross their fingers and tiptoe around Mr. Mortmain, hoping that one of these days while he is locked in his office, he will be struck by inspiration, and write another novel. Although you know that this family does not have much, it never seems depressing or dire. They have a warm togetherness, that spirit of making it through and making do as a family.
This all starts to change when two rich American's bump into town, after inheriting the nearby Scoatney Hall, and become the new landlords of the Mortmain castle. Simon, the older brother, has more money, and therefore Rose sets her cap for him, regardless of the fact of whether she actually could love him. Eventually, through a series of different events and escapades, Simon does fall in love with Rose, and asks her to marry him. This is all wine and roses, until the night that Simon visits the castle, and Cassandra is the only one about. She is about to begin her Midsummer rituals, and Simon joins her. They spend a wonderful night talking and drinking a little wine, and consequently Simon kisses her, a friendly little kiss. Cassandra falls instantly madly in love with Simon, and although she can't tell anyone her feelings, she is a little obsessed with him. When this happened, I felt like Cassandra was going to have a little crush and move on. But that is not what happened.
A little sidebar here: And then there is Stephen, the loyal family servant who is like a member of the family. Poor Stephen, who in my opinion is treated shabbily the whole book. Stephen is described as extremely handsome (and must be because Henry Cavill plays him in the movie), and he is in love with Cassandra. Any extra that he earns, he uses to buy food for the Mortmains or to buy little things he thinks Cassandra needs. He wants to take care of her, and has a huge generous heart. The most heartbreaking part of the book: Stephen, who works hard for his money, buys Cassandra a small radio for her birthday; later that day she gets a fancy gramophone radio thing from Simon. It wounds Stephen, who says he had the privilege of earning it for her. I did not like where Stephen ended up in the story, it just seemed like he deserved better ending.
Back to the Mortmains: Once Simon and Rose are engaged, the entire family and their dynamics change. Money splits this close knit family, taking them from their castle, where they may not have money but they were together, and scatters the family here and there, all doing their own thing. Topaz and Rose move off to London with the Cottons, and Mortmain spends half his time there as well, speaking with Mrs. Cotton, Simon's mother. Stephen is off working as a model and hopeful actor in London, and Cassandra and Thomas are in residence at the castle, sometimes with their dad. Everything has changed Cassandra; she is no longer lost in daydreams, but sees things as the realities they are. She has taken off the rose colored glasses she viewed the world through, and works on righting the wrongs that she sees, but not without making a few missteps herself.
I enjoyed this book a lot. When I first started reading it in October, I just couldn't get into it, I was in the mood for something scary. But I couldn't let the Mortmain's go, I had to know what happened to this family. January was the perfect time to read it, all snuggly in my slippers, the slight draft in my house matching the chill of the castle. This book is romantic, a coming of age story, and perfectly cozy for the winter.