“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy.”
It’s years since I’ve read the book in its entirety, but that opening has lodged itself somewhere in my brain – as brightly imprinted as the dye Topaz uses to turn all of the Mortmain family’s clothes various shades of green. I’m talking, of course, of I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith’s magnificent novel published in 1949. Set in a rambling, crumbling, ever-so-ramshackle castle in Suffolk, it follows the fortunes of Cassandra (17) and Rose (21), their father (a once-successful novelist), their stepmother Topaz (an artist’s model with a propensity for wandering around the countryside wearing nothing but her boots), and younger (rather precocious) brother Thomas. They’re broke. There are leaks everywhere. And two rather intriguing American brothers have just moved in nearby…
It was just one among the many books I read in my early teens – a glorious period where I gobbled anything and everything on our shelves. Adult classics, teen chick lit, fantasy, thrillers (I made my way through every single one of the Alex Rider series), new proof copies that my dad brought back from events by the boxful, old tattered books that had belonged to my mum. There was little differentiation between genre or status, an almost delightful lack of snobbery. I just read and read and read.
It’s odd now to return to some of those books. Many feel incredibly cringey or dated. A few are appallingly written. Plenty are perfectly entertaining, but I have no need to reread them. A select few are gem-like. These ones are as wonderful as on first encounter. Perhaps more so – a few more years of aging allowing access to layers or depths that were previously closed off. I Capture the Castle is definitely in that category. I picked it up again recently after watching the film version on a whim. I’d all but forgotten the plot, marvelling afresh at the story (and the clothes, but we’ll get on to that soon…)
I wish I could say I’ve had the chance to reread the entire thing since. Sadly not. I’ve just dipped in and out. Full immersion will happen at some point. But in all the parts I’ve skimmed there’s a perfectly pitched balance of wit, charm and self-consciousness. Cassandra’s voice – for of course the entire story is mediated through her pen as she makes each journal entry – is sometimes naïve, sometimes insightful, never twee, and often wonderfully dry. It’s a story about marriage and money, status, idealized romance (well, idealism full-stop), sibling relationships, growing up, and writing. And housing it all, the castle – complete with a moat. The castle that we can all simultaneously wish we lived in, and recognize as being totally unsuitable for family life.
It’s a dominating presence in the film too – each scene gorgeous, even when it’s raining and everyone is grumpy and there are holes in the ceiling. Candlelight and artfully disheveled 30s costumes help. Every single bias cut and knitted jumper and set of stockings is glorious. Rose (played by Rose Byrne), all big eyes and even bigger red hair, is kitted out in wide-legged trousers, berets, gorgeous little dresses, and one rather amusingly froufrou ball-gown. Cassandra (played by Romola Garai) is magnificently gauche – with a straight bob, loose dresses, baggy cardigans, mary-janes, and a journal often in hand. Topaz (played by Tara Fitzgerald) prefers a complete lack of clothes, but still has a great line in all things floaty and layered. The entire thing is a visual delight.
It’s that delight I wanted to reflect here, complete with my own castle (well, ok, obviously not mine) to play around with. I decided to pay homage to all that green dye with this pistachio coloured cardigan, and a vintage dress that somehow just bridges the gap between nightie and acceptable daywear. Plus, I had the most important accessory – a notebook. However, unlike Cassandra, mine isn’t a detailed account of each day. Instead it’s a scattered mix of lists, ideas, jottings and the odd poem. And I’ve never written anything in it whilst perching in the kitchen sink – more’s the shame…