“I only want to write, and there’s no college for that except life.”

17 Aug

So sayeth Cassandra Mortmain, the seventeen year-old narrator of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. The time is the mid-1930s and the place is a rapidly crumbling castle keep in the English countryside. The cast is comprised of Cassandra’s father: a writer suffering from a decade of writer’s block, her step-mother Topaz: a former artist’s muse given to communing with nature in the nude, her elder sister Rose: who wants to live in a Jane Austen novel and not in a drafty castle, younger brother Thomas: scholarly, decent enough, and cook’s boy/dogsbody Stephen: awkwardly in love with Cassandra, feelings not reciprocated. Add in two young, rich, eligible American bachelors who come into possession of the keep grounds, and you’ve got the makings of a story.

In Cassandra, we find a true friend – someone I rather wish I’d known. Her literary passions drive her to record everything she witnesses in a series of notebooks that provide the text of the novel, and record she does. With candor, wit, and a remarkable clear-sight, Cassandra details everything: adventures, hopes, mistakes, drinking too much sherry with the parson. Her ability to be frank with herself, even when it hurts, is admirable, and I think it is what allows her to see those around her with such  clarity.

This personal truth-telling is Cass’s most important message to her readers. Sure she is crafty enough to help keep her family from the poorhouse, as well as smart, strong, and funny besides. But she is honest with herself at all costs, and that keeps her head above water. Through the ups and downs of a first love, the taste of betrayal, the utter powerlessness of poverty, Cassandra lets her reader unreservedly into her head. And since, at all times, she leads with her head (rather than heart or… other parts) you can really follow her motivation. As Christopher Isherwood said, it is a book you can “live in.” Cassandra sets the model that it’s okay if you mess up and make the wrong choice. You’re not expected to be perfect! You can only admit you were wrong and try to avoid making the same mistake again.

Back in print at last, this treasure is intended for high-school age readers. It provides a much more current vision of a Jane Austen novel – Cassandra has a life beyond her romantic aspirations, a passion that is all her own. Writing sustains her through all her triumphs and trials, writing about her life as she lives it.

One of the newer covers

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