I Capture the Castle
by Dodie Smith
My sister gave me this book, just five months before she died. It was a special one for her and always will be a special one for me. It is a book I always return to, as the perfect antidote to darkness and realism. It was also a resounding hit with the Group. Read it! It will make you feel part of a world that is uncomplicated, Bohemian and decidedly pre-war. This is a novel about following your heartís desire. This is a world where love wins and depression does not stand a chance when there is the miracle of a hot bath followed by cocoa for supper.
Seventeen year old Cassandra begins this story sitting in the kitchen sink (the draining board is padded with the dogís blanket and a tea cosy). Her older sister Rose is pink and golden in the candle light. Immediately we realise that these lovely sisters and their schoolboy brother Thomas are destined for happiness. Their world is impoverished but noble. The Mortmain finances have drained away completely and they all cheerfully admit that their earning capacity is nil. Their father is a famous author, who after one enormous literary success and a spell in prison, is prevented from his art by a crippling writerís block. Their mother is dead and they are cared for, after a fashion, by loyal servant Stephen and their young, famous, artistís-model step-mother Topaz, who wafts about communing with nature in a state of semi-undress.
Their home is the dilapidated and bewitching Belmotte Castle in Suffolk. It is a place which is painstakingly and lovingly evoked and is completely convincing. Dodie Smith glimpsed such a place in East Anglia in 1934. The castle is the real subject of the book, all the narrative is about, around and in it.
The Mortmains were drawn to it like moths to a flame. Father declared he would have it if it took his last penny, which it did. Gradually the family breathe life into the ruin, dispatching chickens from the kitchen and undoing much of what the Victorians did to it. Their existence seems to taken up with the basics: paying the rent, buying milk, keeping their feet warm, and attempting to have baths in this ancient home, whose character and personality conspires against them. This really is a twentieth century fairytale and like all good ones there are princes and quests.
Their romantic world is turned upside down when (after a lunch of brussell sprouts and boiled rice, hardly tasty but very filling) two young American men and their mother, the Cottons arrive at the castle. They are the heirs to the nearby Scoatney Hall, and have come to take up their position as the new residents. Now their spirits and fortunes rise as they enter the wealthy social world of the Cottons. The brothers Neil and Simon are exciting and eligible and are fascinated by the unconventional Mortmains. Above all, they represent a very different world, one of ease, money and leisure Ė exactly what the sisters had always longed for. However in a series of events which are totally unpredictable, they begin to wonder whether such wealth might actually take the pleasure out of things.
None of us wanted this book to end The nostalgic evocation of time and place is so enjoyable and the characters endearing. We have recommended it to our own daughters and friends alike.