Book of a Lifetime: I Capture The Castle, by Dodie Smith
Friday 14 March 2008
I'd seen it on the shelf for years before I opened it: a well-thumbed, yellowing paperback that belonged to my sister, a Peacock logo indicating its suitability for so-called "young adults". The author's name was familiar from, of all things, 101 Dalmatians. The title, I thought, conjured up an adventure story about small boys playing war games.
Wrong. Within a paragraph of the famed first line, "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink," I was hooked. I was 14. Years later, after I've reread it time and again, I'm as addicted as ever to its delicate layering of naivety and profoundly sophisticated observation. If it seems slightly dated, perhaps that's because its style serves its substance – poetic, musical and never pretentious.
In the mid-1930s Cassandra Mortmain, aged 17, keeps a diary of her family's impoverished life in a crumbling Suffolk castle. The daughter of a failing author, with an elder sister determined to marry money to rescue the family from its penniless rut, she captures the castle and its eccentric inhabitants with phrases that tie an instant reef-knot round the reader's attention. This isn't just a book; it's a world, and to read it is to live in it. I don't know whether it's left an impact on my own writing; I should be so lucky.
Yet the author of this remarkable work wasn't a young girl experiencing initiation into love and lust, pain and champagne ("like very good ginger ale without the ginger"), but a woman in her forties, living in Hollywood and feeling desperately homesick for England. You can see why Hollywood wanted her: she has delivered perfect structure, with settings and characters so thoroughly created that you seem to breathe their air. And the book isn't really for "young adults" at all. It's brimful with emotional and erotic subtlety, which Smith allows to shine through without hammering it home. The story is about unrequited passion – but even when Cassandra notices that she is part of "a game of second-best" in which everyone is seeking consolation after failing to win true love, she never quite lets her feelings interfere with her sense of irony.
Amid all the lyricism and liveliness, you notice that though this all goes on just before the Second World War, the characters live in blissful unawareness of the future. Smith, writing in the late 1940s, knew what lay in store; we share only her unstated hindsight. Was she deliberately preserving images of a pre-war world that she knew was gone for good?
Whatever the truth, I Capture the Castle has that elusive quality: a heartbeat of its own. The open ending and its last haunting words keep on pulsing when you close the cover – and when you turn back to the beginning to start again.
Jessica Duchen's novel 'Hungarian Dances' is published by Hodder & Stoughton
Watch the new House of Cards series three trailerTV
Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards
Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Home Office says Nigerian asylum-seeker can’t be a lesbian as she’s got children
- 2 What happens to your body when you give up sugar?
- 3 Drugs Live cannabis trial: Hash is less harmful than any other drug, expert claims
- 4 Turkish Airlines flight TK 726 crash-lands on Nepal runway amid dense fog
- 5 Apple and Google users being spied on for a decade because of 'Freak' security flaw
Kurt Cobain's life and death: Montage of Heck film uses unseen footage to tell Nirvana frontman's story
Mal Peet dead at 67: Tributes to children's author who was 'universally adored'
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Drugs Live: Twitter responds to Jon Snow and Jennie Bond smoking cannabis
Jimmy McGovern's new TV series 'Banished': Why Australia's past has such resonance today
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Durham Free School: 'Creationism taught at' free school facing closure
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
Ukraine crisis: Top Chinese diplomat backs Putin and says West should 'abandon zero-sum mentality'