Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.
Would you like to know the best opening sentence in the English language? It is not “Call me Ishmael”. Nor is it “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” No, it is the opening sentence of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” It is without flaw: irresistibly odd, rather charming, certainly intriguing. In this, it is a perfect introduction to the book itself, which is also all of these things, and one of my favourite books to read when I’m feeling a little down or fragile.
The plot is so unlike any other book I’ve read that I might as well just quickly summarise it for you: Cassandra Mortmain lives in a crumbling castle (on a forty-year lease) with her older sister, Rose, and younger brother, Thomas; her father, a writer who produced a highly-regarded philosophical novel years ago but has written nothing since; and her stepmother Topaz, a former artist’s model and professional muse. What the Mortmains lack in money, they make up for in cheerfulness and romanticism, but they lack money in a serious way. When their landlord and owner of the local big house dies, his grandsons arrive from America to take over the house and settle his affairs. Topaz, Cassandra and Rose determine that Rose should marry one of the brothers, but the two girls quickly discover that in the real world, things aren’t as easily resolved as they are in novels…
Living arrangements at the castle appear delightfully eccentric. Topaz, who tends towards the melodramatic, likes to play the lute and to commune with nature, generally without any clothes on. But the poverty is real:
How odd it is to remember that “tea” once meant afternoon tea to us—little cakes and thin bread-and-butter in the drawing-room. Now it is as solid a meal as we can scrape together, as it has to last us until breakfast.
Stephen, the son of the Mortmains’ former maid, who lives with them and does various odd jobs, is “devoted” to Cassandra and frequently gives her some of his own food. A family meeting at the beginning of the book demonstrates, somewhat alarmingly, that Rose and Cassandra’s accomplishments are basically useless for earning any money; Thomas is still at school, and Topaz cannot leave Mortmain, so the only member of the household who can earn at all is Stephen.
But the descriptions are absolutely charming, like Cassandra’s musings about baths (which I must give in full, because I love them so much):
I was just getting into the bath when Heloise [the dog] whined at the back door and had to be let in. Of course she wanted to come to the fire, which was a slight bore as she is no asset to a bath—her loving paws are apt to scrape one painfully. However, she seemed sleepy and we settled down amicably. It was wonderfully cosy inside my tall, draught-proof screen; and the rosy glow from the fire turned the green sheets to a fascinating colour. I had the brainwave of sitting on our largest dinner-dish to avoid the dye [they have spent the afternoon dyeing things green]; the gravy runnels were a bit uncomfortable, though.
I believe it is customary to get one’s washing over first in baths and bask afterwards; personally, I bask first. I have discovered that the first few minutes are the best and not to be wasted… Father says hot water can be as stimulating as an alcoholic drink and though I never come by one—unless the medicine-bottle of port that the Vicar gives me for my Midsummer rites counts—I can well believe it.
What’s best about this book, though—especially on re-reading at this age—is how you can see Cassandra growing up. The American brothers, Neil and Simon, are initially put off by Rose’s excessive coquetry, but Topaz soon has her in line and Simon ends up proposing. Cassandra’s own feelings for Simon complicate matters, though, as does the possibility that Rose may not be in love at all, and Stephen’s “devotion” to Cassandra, which she begins to recognise in a far more serious, adult light. It’s a book about first love and naivety and making terrible mistakes; there is real emotion in it, which I had almost forgotten, since I hadn’t re-read it for so long. And yet the stakes are never so high that Smith can’t make us laugh. In one scene, Cassandra storms off to the village and gets drunk on cherry brandy at the Keys inn; it’s both pathetic and very funny. Anyone who has ever been a teenager, or heartbroken, will understand, and will also want to shake her rather hard, then put her to bed.
Aspects of the gender politics are outdated (unsurprisingly, since it was written in 1949). It’s not so much the general willingness to marry Rose off for money that got me; it was the attitude towards Mortmain, Cassandra’s father. He’s viewed as a “genius” by Topaz, despite the fact that he seems to find her irritating and she doesn’t seem very happy. When she asks Cassandra whether she ought to leave him, Cassandra convinces her to stay by guilt-tripping her into imagining what the posthumous biographies will say:
“Just imagine… ‘Mortmain was about to start on the second phase of his career, when the faithlessness of his artist-model wife shattered the fabric of his life. We shall never know what was lost to the world through this worthless young woman…’ “
It works, of course, and Topaz wants it to, because she derives much of her personal worth from being a muse to men. But it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, especially the word “worthless.” And Mortmain is not the pleasantest of men. He’s meant, I think, to come across as brilliant but harmless, yet Cassandra is most convinced that he’s doing some work when he becomes physically violent towards her and throws her into a door; it’s that action that makes her think of “the old Father”, before his fallow period set in. Excusing violence in the name of genius is…well, sorry, but no.
These things stick out to me now because I am more alert to the use of emotive rhetoric to manipulate people, especially women, but also because they are so unusual in this book. Mortmain is not the main focus. Far more of it is about evoking the atmosphere of the castle, and about relationships: how Rose interacts with Neil and Simon, how Cassandra chooses to handle Stephen, how Topaz, despite her bohemian appearance, is the most stable person in the girls’ lives.
When I was little and easily frightened, my mum invented the concept of “the safe book”: something you could read before going to sleep, where there would be no great evil or physical danger or mental cruelty, something that would never give you nightmares. I Capture the Castle has always been my ultimate safe book. In the depths of winter, at the beginning of what is bound to be a difficult year, it feels like a charm against darkness.