Tuesday, November 10, 2009

One Single Solitary Castle

Of Elizabeth’s two crumbling castle stories, I’m ashamed to admit I have finished only one: I Capture the Castle. But it’s so good and I have so much to say about it, that it’s probably a relief to everyone involved that I haven’t quite gotten through A Brief History of Montmaray.

I’m always surprised to realize I didn’t actually read I Capture the Castle growing up, but in my twenties. It just has that intangible feeling of a childhood classic with all of the qualities I associate with books I devoured growing up. For starters, it’s splendidly evocative of a lost time and place – in this case, rural England between the wars. And it’s a literary novel, literary in the sense that the characters love books and reading and throw out allusions to Joyce, Austen, and Thackeray as a matter of course. It’s a novel that makes you think because the characters talk about big ideas and small ideas in a way that gets your mind whirring.

However, what truly makes the book is, of course, its young heroine, Cassandra Mortmain. Described by a vicar of all people as “Jane Eyre with a touch of Becky Sharp” (p.111), Cassandra is much more self-confident and dryly funny than poor long-suffering Jane and much kinder to her fellow human beings than Miss Sharp. Her resilience is fortunate given that her family is sliding past genteel poverty and fast becoming concerned with getting enough to eat. Cassandra is one of life’s observers – her journal entries make up the entirety of I Capture the Castle and the novel is filled with her sometimes biting, sometimes naive, and almost always hilarious take on what’s going on around her.

I Capture the Castle makes one long for a beautifully lazy English summer. While the action in the book takes place over a year, the most vividly rendered scenes occur in the summer – when the hill behind the castle seem as much a part of the book as Topaz, Cassandra’s part-wise, part-daft stepmother.

I say action, though apart from the arrival of the two Cotton brothers, Simon and Neil, nothing momentous happens for most of the book. Oh there are picnics and dinner parties, Cassandra and her sister Rose scrap, and their father does anything to avoid getting started on his long-awaited second novel. But most of the fun of the story comes from Cassandra’s closely-observed record what happens in between the high drama – for example her attempts to take to strong drink to relieve the pain of a broken heart (one cherry brandy later and she’s given it up as too ruinously expensive).

As much as Cassandra might like to think of herself as an impartial spectator of human folly, by the end, she’s completely enmeshed in what’s going on around her and has 1) fallen hopelessly in love with a most unavailable man 2) plotted with her younger brother to force her father to resume writing whether he wants to or not and 3) taken control of her own destiny.

Which brings me to the end. One of my favorite things about I Capture the Castle is the ending. While I am often a stickler (sucker?) for a happy ending, in this case, a neat and tidy ending would have felt forced. Cassandra is eighteen and in love with a man just jilted by her sister. And so bright, ardent, and full of life that it would feel like cheating for her story to end neatly with all the strings tied up.

Cassandra herself references this problem in the middle of the book, when introducing the concept of the “brick-wall happy ending.” She characterizes it as, “…the kind of ending when you never think any more about the characters.” (p.197) No such trouble here. Smith gives us exactly the right ending for a vividly intelligent eighteen year old – one that allows the reader’s imagination to fill in all of the beginnings awaiting Cassandra.


If you liked I Capture the Castle, you should try:

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. A darkly hilarious romp through rural England, as seen through the eyes of one of the most self-possessed heroines of all time, Miss Flora Poste. Looking to gain life experience for her novel (and disinclined to work for a living), Flora goes to live with her distant relatives at Cold Comfort Farm. What she finds there is disorder and despair, D.H. Lawrence-style. As she is constitutionally incapable of abiding untidiness, Flora gets to work, setting her bizarre extended family’s lives in order. Hilarity, I need hardly tell you, ensues.

Don’t miss the excellent movie of Cold Comfort Farm– featuring Ian McKellen, Kate Beckinsale, and Rufus Sewell – it’s one of the rare cases when the movie is as good or better than its source material.

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