Duck Duck Book


51 – i capture the castle
02.4.2008, 12:02 am
Filed under: fiction

I capture the castle / by Dodie Smith.
New York : St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
[MCL call number: FICTION SMITH; eight copies, one hold;
also in audiobook format at MCL call number CD FICTION SMITH; two copies, no holds]

There is a particular type of novel, the story of genteel poverty, which may be familiar to contemporary readers, but which is not often written now. Generally the actual plot is about something besides poverty — romance, a kind of literary situation comedy, the trials of adolescence, or another medium-weight topic. But a major feature of this particular kind of book is the poverty of the main characters. They are really destitute. They have little or no income, their earning potential is incredibly slight, and although they just manage to have someplace to live, they are having trouble feeding and clothing themselves. Our heroes are people who weren’t always poor, and they’re vaguely guilty about not being able to figure out how to stop being poor. For reasons of family background, education, or profession (which of course boil down to class, more or less), they are expected to be financially comfortable, and their friends and acquaintances are embarrassed to see them in poverty.

Perversely, another feature of this kind of novel is that the intense contrast between the main characters’ potential for wealth and comfort, and their actual dismal poverty makes them seem more unfortunate than people who are socially expected to be poor. They have fallen very far, and everyone (people in the novel, and readers) is supposed to find them sympathetically pitiable for this.

As I said, novels of genteel poverty are not currently in vogue. There are a few nineteenth century American stories with genteel poverty elements — Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott is a familiar one — but the more recent examples I have encountered are all British, and I Capture the Castle, written and set in the 1940s, is one of these.

Cassandra Mortmain is the middle child in her family, and she is a writer. She begins the diary which forms the text of the novel with a sort of mission statement:

“I am writing this journal partly to practice my newly acquired speed-writing and partly to teach myself how to write a novel — I intend to capture all our characters and put in conversations. It ought to be good for my style to dash along without much thought, as up to now my stories have all been very stiff and self-conscious.” (page 4)

Cassandra and her very odd family are holed up in an antique house built onto a medieval castle, and since they have no money they do not entertain or travel. They are friendly with the local vicar, who is not very heavy-handed on the question of religion, and with the village librarian, who delivers books to her patrons by bicycle.

The family’s quiet, impoverished life is interrupted by the arrival of new neighbors — a pair of American brothers who have inherited the local manor house and attached fortune from their grandfather. The brothers have inherited the role of the Mortmain family’s landlords, and almost immediately Cassandra’s older sister Rose sets out to get the older brother (the one with the money) to marry her. This Jane Austen-style romance plot is surprisingly compatible with the 20th century setting, even as it exposes the family’s sometimes shameful conspiracy to aid Rose’s fortune hunting. In the meantime, Cassandra’s father is researching his second novel — he wrote one 15 or so years earlier, which was very successful and very post-modern. He won’t explain his work to anyone, but his research seems to consist entirely of doing crossword puzzles and reading mystery novels, which confuses and worries his loved ones, who fear he may be going mad.

It is not so difficult to imagine some of the direction of the plot, with this short introduction in hand. There is romance, and romantic trickery. There are several painful scenes of poverty intruding on the family’s ability to eat well, to dress appropriately for social occasions, and generally to rise to their station. There is quite a bit of friendly bohemianism, stimulating intellectual conversation, and distressing adherence to society dictums. It is not so much the plot, though, that drives this novel. The people in the story are compelling, and not just for their oddness — what makes the novel worth reading is that Cassandra remains true to her initial project to practice for writing a novel — her descriptions of events, conversations, and her own observations and feelings are rich and complicated. She gets at the detail without missing the bigger picture and without having to actually recount every single thing that takes place. Cassandra’s narrative exposes the network of events as they occur, to be sure; but the real joy is getting to know the people, their habits, their interests, their desires, their feelings for each other, their limits, and their strengths.

* * *

If you need another slightly romancy early 20th century novel about an intelligent young woman finding a way to master her own destiny, set in the framework of a very similar genteel poverty, you might try Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons.

* * *

Dodie Smith is perhaps most famous for her novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians, which is worth reading even if you think you know the whole story from the movie.

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