Dodie Smith is best remembered for One Hundred and One Dalmatians, the deathless children’s book with the dreadful villainess. Second in the public consciousness probably comes her 1949 book I Capture The Castle, which at first sight appears to be an early example of a Young Adult novel. The narrator, Cassandra Mortmain, is a girl of around seventeen or eighteen who is faced with the tribulations of adolescence, first love and emotional awakening against the backdrop of an ancient castle, an impecunious father and a self-absorbed sister. It is about all of these things, as well as the beauty of Suffolk, the collision of the old world of England, literature and painting with the new world of America, photography and cinema, and the cruelty of love. It is an extraordinarily rich book, and also extremely clever, because Smith is performing a modernist magic trick upon the reader without them even noticing.
I Capture The Castle is as much a book about writing as it is about love and youth. The title, which at first sight promises some kind of historical derring do, says as much – Cassandra does not aim to literally capture the castle in the manner of an Arthurian knight, but in an artistic sense. She wants to hold and preserve in words an essence of her characters and locations; Godsend castle, the crumbling house that her father romantically leased before the royalties from his modernist masterwork Jacob Wrestling ran out, metonymically stands for her whole world. She barely knows of life outside Suffolk but for the odd trip to London, by which she is awed and confused. The novel is presented as her journal, the three parts of the book named after the three different notebooks, of ascending price, in which she scrawls her story in her own special speed-written code. The notebooks, were they real objects, would in themselves tell some of the story. The first, worth only sixpence, covers the month of March, when the family is starving in genteel poverty; the second, worth a shilling, is given to Cassandra by Stephen, the handsome family retainer, and is a sign that the family’s fortunes are changing as Rose, Cassandra’s sister, secures a proposal of marriage from Simon Cotton, the elder of two glamorous American brothers who have inherited the estate of which Godsend is a part ; the third, worth a spanking two guineas, is a present from Simon in which Cassandra documents the wonderful but short-lived transformation of her sister into a society fiancée. It seems a kind of lesson about the amorality of riches that the heart-breaking collapse of Cassandra’s writing as she comprehends her sister’s duplicity – Rose leaves Simon, whom Cassandra hopelessly loves, for his brother Neil– should be realised on the pages of this most grand notebook. The final line of the book, ostensibly written in the margins of the original notebook as Cassandra runs out of space and Simon runs away from England, is a simple and desperate ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’. The very act of falling back on that hackneyed but necessary and, in this case, humiliating phrase is tragic in itself. Words cannot ‘capture’ Cassandra’s loss, but they are, as in Eliot’s Waste Land, the ‘fragments I have shored against my ruins’, the only way of giving meaning to her emotions.
The novel is far less overwrought than this sounds, and it is a tribute to Smith’s talent as a comic writer that the modernist undertones of her book are worked in so lightly. This is partly to do with the characterisation. Cassandra is a most charming narrator, funny, self-deprecating, aware of her own ignorance and maladroitness. Her enormous fondness for her sister enables the reader to see Rose as more than the pretty but dull girl whose only chance of a fortune is to marry one; indeed, Rose is seen to be acting for the good of the entire family in contracting herself to a man she does not entirely love. There are also sequences of high farce – Rose in a fur coat being mistaken for an escaped bear, Cassandra being caught by the brothers in the bath – that rattle along in a quite Wodehousian manner. Such is the high entertainment factor of the book that, especially in the early chapters, which in many ways should be the most miserable as the Mortmain family is facing financial ruin, the darker undertones are almost entirely submerged. Yet this is all part of Smith’s modernist fictional plan.
I Capture The Castle is, like Jacob Wrestling, a work of linguistic game-playing and literary self-awareness. The main difference between Smith’s book and the canon of High Modernism is that she doesn’t want the reader to notice how clever it is. For Smith, the literary construct exists to express the tragedy of an ordinary life, rather than to symbolise it. There is a crucial passage in Chapter XI, when it seems that Rose’s prosperous future is assured, in which Cassandra writes: “I DO NOT ENVY ROSE. When I imagine changing places with her I get the feeling I do on finishing a novel with a brick-wall happy ending – I mean the kind of ending when you never think any more about the characters…” The ending of the novel is anything but happy, with barely enough sugar to be even bitter-sweet; Cassandra’s last words are a howl of agony, Rose’s relationship with Neil is tainted by infidelity, and Mortmain may have started writing again but had to be locked up in a tower by his children to do so. In writing that passage, Cassandra was forming a self-fulfilling prophesy. The naming of her character makes perfect sense. The Cassandra of Greek myth was a prophet whose scraps of utterance became true. More importantly, though, she writes herself as a character about whom the reader does think again, and again.
Just as skilfully as an acknowledged modernist master such as Virginia Woolf, Smith filters the world through the consciousness of one character who feels gloriously alive but whose inner life is constructed entirely by the act of her own writing. This is extraordinarily heady stuff and would require a lie down in a darkened room of one’s own, were it not all so beautifully entertaining.