I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates.The more knowledge the better seems like a solid rule of thumb, even though I have watched enough science fiction films to accept that humanity’s unchecked pursuit of learning will end with robots taking over the world.-Sarah Vowell

Thursday, February 18, 2016

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Dodie Smith is probably best known for writing the book One Hundred and One Dalmatians.  This book, set in the 1930s, however, will not be found in the children's section of the library, although her love of animals is there in small ways that remind you that this is the same author.  The book is told through the eyes of Cassandra Mortmain, 16, who starts off the family's tale in her six-penny book journal.  She wants to be a writer like her father, who wrote one famous book, Jacob Wrestling, and hasn't written anything since.  She can remember her mother's voice, but not her face. After she died, her father married an artist's model named Topaz (Topaz also plays the lute, paints oddly, and likes to romp outside in the nude). She has an older sister, Rose, and a younger brother Thomas, who still goes to school on a scholarship. A young man named Stephen who was the now deceased maid's son, has stayed on to work, even though they do not pay him. Topaz sometimes goes to London to work as a model to get money to help them out and the father still gets some royalties on his book, but they get smaller every year.  This is a group that is from a certain class of people, whom also happen to have no actual skills to bring in money. Stephen ends up deciding to go to work during the day at a farm to earn money for them to keep going, which considering he is technically the "servant", though no one treats him that way really, is rather ludicrous.

It was not always that way.  One day father was in a heated argument with Cassandra's mother and just happened to be holding a cake knife at the time. The neighbor saw this and "came to the rescue". Father knocked the man down. The whole thing was silly, of course, and when it went to court he was of course found innocent of trying to kill his wife. But he made an enemy of the judge, who sent him to prison for three months for assaulting the neighbor.  When he got out of prison they decided to move out to the country of England, but every nice house they saw he hated because there were always neighbors.  When they got lost, they stumbled upon a crumbling old castle called Belmotte Castle, which comes with towers and a moat. Horrid things have been done to it in recent generations (especially by the Victorians), but father and the children have fallen in love with it. Mr. Cotton of Scoatney Hall, who owns it, lets them lease it for forty years and do anything they wish to it.  Father undoes some of the garish mess, but when it came time to install the things of comfort, such as central heat and electricity, he has spent so much money on antique furniture for the place there was no more money left to be spent on the castle.  So, they use candles, cook over the fireplace, and the beautiful bathroom they fell in love with has a huge bathtub that only fills up to about an inch of warm water, so they use an old tub in the kitchen and heat water to pour into it.

They have a terrier named Heloise and a cat named Abelard (of course) and two swans in the moat. Miss Marcy, the local teacher, comes by to bring books from the library and check in on them, especially father, of whom she is a fan.  The Vicar is also a friend to the family.  Both Cassandra's mother and Topaz treat her father as this genius who must not be disturbed as he spends his days in the gatehouse reading and doing who-knows-what, except writing.  But he does notice that Stephen, a rather handsome and incredibly nice guy, has fallen for Cassandra, and warns her that she must be brisk with him and stop it now, before he gets really hurt.

One night, Rose has just had it with being poor and not seeing much of a future. The group (Cassandra, Thomas and Stephen) get into a discussion of Faust and selling your soul to the devil, which Rose is quite ready to do, when Cassandra suggests wishing on the gargoyle in the kitchen, which rather looks like the devil.  So the boys hoist Rose up precariously, they chant some words aloud, then Rose yells to be put down.  Rose won't tell anyone what she said up there.

Cassandra gets ready to take a bath with some chocolate Stephen has bought for her (no she has not managed to be brisk with him).  While relaxing, two men, with American accents, come in the back door of the kitchen.  The kitchen is rather huge and she is hidden behind a screen, so they don't see her.  Her brother Thomas hears them and it seems their car got stuck in the mud when they came to take a look at the castle, which they thought was unoccupied. Thomas goes and gets Stephen and some horses to help get their car out of the mud.  Then one of them returns to the kitchen and Cassandra announces herself in order to keep from being discovered.  This is when she and Rose meet Simon Cotton (who sports a devilish black beard), and then his brother Neil.

Old Mr. Cotton, the man they leased the castle from, and never paid rent to (he didn't seem to care) had died to previous year and Simon, the oldest, had inherited Scoatney Hall and their castle.  This is Rose's chance at a good marriage and helping the family out of the predicament it is in.  Simon, it turns out, is a huge fan of their father's.  That first night goes off like gangbusters.  Its rather magical.  When they come back for a second visit, Rose, who has had no experience with boys, except through her old fashioned books and refuses to take advise from Topaz, makes a total mess of the whole thing and Cassandra overhears what they had to say about her family as they are leaving, which isn't very nice.  It is obvious they will not be coming around again.

Now, Cassandra has started a journal bought for her by Stephen for a shilling.  With the arrival of their mother, the Cottons are now inviting people over for lunch and tea from all over the village, but they have yet to invite them, which is causing Rose some trouble and Topaz and Cassandra have decided not to tell her why.  Then their great Aunt Millicent dies, leaving them her clothes, which seems a boon, especially for Cassandra as she does not own an adult dress and has outgrown nearly everything she owns. They used to visit her every Christmas in London until father married Topaz. Its expected to support the arts. Its quite another thing to marry an artist's model, so she cut him out of her will and refused to have anything to do with them.  The girls have quite the adventure in London getting the odd clothes and the very old furs that were stored, because Millicent was against wearing furs, but these had been passed down and were almost unidentifiable.  On the train ride home the girls wear two of the furs to keep warm, which ends up causing a comedy of errors when they get to the station and they are trying to avoid being seen by the Cotton brothers. The result of this bizarre night was a change of heart by the Cotton brothers concerning Rose and the family is invited to dinner.

The dinner is a success and raises some other problems in the process. Rose captures Simon's eye, while the divorced Mrs. Cotton, a fan of father's, makes it her mission to get him writing again and grabs hold of him for the evening in a way that Topaz has never been able to do. Mr. Fox-Cotton, a distant relative, is smitten with Topaz and won't leave her alone, while his wife, a photographer (and a bit of a Mrs. Robinson) has her eye on Stephen to take his picture, who is caught with Thomas watching at the window.  Cassandra likes Neil, who is amusing, but like Rose says, he does seem down on people from England, and he plans to buy a ranch in America as soon as he can get the money together.

Things move full steam ahead to get Simon to propose to Rose.  Cassandra worries that Rose does not love Simon and is only marrying him for the money, but Rose never lies, and she tells Cassandra at one point that she really does love him.  Rose believes that Neil is keeping her and Simon apart. He thinks she's a gold-digger and she thinks he wants to steal Simon away to America.  Cassandra finds herself in a bit of a quandary over the situation with Stephen, and whether or not she actually has any feelings for him; if there is anything between her and Neil; and Simon whom she is afraid she has fallen hopelessly in love with and does not know what to do.

Topaz is worried that her husband is having an affair with Mrs. Cotton, because he is going over to Scoatney Hall often and making trips to London, where she is visiting. He has also started locking up the gatehouse and acting much odder than usual, leading Cassandra to believe he might be either working on a new novel or some other creative work, or going mad. Her and Thomas become more and more concerned that it is the latter, and following what little they know of Freudian therapy, they do something totally crazy to their father to try to help him.  At this point in the book, crazy, can be rather relative.  The question is, will it work?

This book is a bit of a "coming of age" book about Cassandra, but it's really so much more than that.  This is a rather dysfunctional family that cares about each other deeply, if for no other reason than that they have no one else.  The backdrop of the gorgeous old crumbling castle is perfect for this story of a childhood ending, and a young woman coming into being who slowly "puts away childish things" (which sadly includes her Midsummer Solstice Ritual).  She also stands up to her sister Rose to make sure she is doing the right thing and becomes the first person to not treat her father like the genius he has always been treated as in order to save a man, she has realized she barely knows.  Cassandra is a really wonderful character and such a true delight to spend time with that it is almost a shame it ends then, because you want the adventure to continue.  She is wise beyond her years in many ways and learns so much more in this book.  Too many people make the mistake of treating her like a child, when she knows quite a lot more about things than they think she does.  She is also smart enough, in the end, to know the right thing to do and that probably makes her the best of the lot (with the exception of Stephen, of course, who is just too nice for words).

Note: I read this book for my book club and one of them noted that the name Mortmain translates from the french into "dead hand". Make of that what you will.

Note: There is a BBC movie that came out in 2003 with Bill Nighy, Romolo Garai, Rose Bynre Tara Fitzgerald, Henry Cavill, and Henry Thomas.  The castle is supposed to be amazing. 

Link to Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/I-Capture-Castle-Dodie-Smith/dp/031231616X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1461782242&sr=8-1&keywords=i+capture+the+castle   

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