"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink." This is the unforgettable opening line of Dodie Smith's mid-20th-century bildungsroman, I Capture the Castle, which my eighth-grade English teacher lent to me one spring, saying, "I think you'll like this."
I did. It was one of those life-changing teacher-to-student moments—I was never quite the same after. I have returned to it many times and pressed it on others as my English teacher pressed it on me. And I think of it every midsummer without fail, for reasons that will become obvious.
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In brief, it concerns the impoverished though intellectual and eccentric Mortmain family. The patriarch, James Mortmain, wrote an experimental and highly lauded novel called Jacob Wrestling years ago and took out a 40-year lease on a crumbling old manor house—then gave up writing. The family is effectively supported by stepmother Topaz’s occasional gigs as an artist's model and unpaid retainer Stephen's goodwill and general handiness. Youngest child Thomas is still in school, but elder daughter Rose is growing desperate that she will ever have any kind of future, and middle child Cassandra, the book's narrator/diarist, is just hungry.
Into this scene ride two dashing, rich American brothers, the elder of which has just inherited the manor next door ("next door" being a relative term in the genteel English countryside of I Capture the Castle). This launches the family on their plot to marry Rose off to Simon in a frankly bald but nevertheless somehow sympathetic gold-digging effort that will solve their financial woes forever.
That this storyline succeeds in winning readers over is entirely due to narrator Cassandra's voice. An aspiring writer, she records events in her journals with a winning self-consciousness. Whenever she seems just about to tip over into hopelessly adolescent drivel, an amusing earthiness hauls her back from the brink: "I think it worthy of note that I never felt happier in my life….Perhaps it is because I have satisfied my creative urge; or it may be due to the thought of eggs for tea."
An unabashed romantic, her observations of light and scenery and emotion are as overwrought as any 17-year-old might make, and they are often headily sensuous, as in this scene when she is observing her Midsummer Eve rites.
"Once the [bonfire] is blazing the countryside fades into the dusk, so I took one last look round the quiet fields, sorry to let them go. Then I lit the twigs. They caught quickly—I love those early minutes of a fire, the crackles and stampings, the delicate flickers, the first sharp whiff of smoke. The logs were slow to catch so I lay with my head near the ground, and blew. Suddenly the flames raced up the wigwam of branches and I saw the snowy moon trapped in a fiery cage. Then smoke swept over her as the logs caught at last. I scrambled up, and sat back watching them blaze high. All my thoughts seemed drawn into the fire—to be burning with it in the brightly lit circle of stones. The whole world seemed filled with hissing and crackling and roaring."
See why I love it? And why I remember it every midsummer? If you haven't read it, give yourself a present and read it now. Do not try to make do with the 2003 movie, which, though it looks awfully good, crucially botches a good part of the end.
If you have read it and, like me and Cassandra, want to make the moment last a little longer, look for Patrice Kindl’s just-out Keeping the Castle (in which many people have found echoes of Dodie Smith, though Kindl had not read it till after people pointed out similarities); or Michelle Cooper’s Montmaray Journals, which in part pay homage to Smith (the third book is due out this October). They are not replicas—no good book is—but the feel is similar. I like to think Cassandra would love them, too.
Vicky Smith is the children's and teen editor at Kirkus.