One of my favourite things to do in the world is re-read a book I have loved. There is no other pleasure quite like it – a consoling combination of nostalgia and rediscovery. Yet there are so many new books being published all the time that I cannot keep up. I’ve found myself racing to always read new books – new books by friends, new books by authors whose work I’ve long admired, and new books by new authors.
When I was drawing up the list of 50 Things I Want to Do Before I Die (which I call The 50/50 Project
since I was inspired to do so by the shadow of my 50th birthday falling upon me), I at first thought I should draw up a list of 50 Books I Must Read. You know the sort of things – those huge, heavy, worthy books that you always feel a little ashamed to admit you’ve never read. War & Peace by Tolstoy. Moby Dick by Herman Melville. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust.
But then I changed my mind. I may well read these books one day (though I’ve tried Moby Dick a few times now and can’t see the attraction.) But drawing up a list like that only made me feel depressed.
Reading is one of the greatest pleasures in my life. I don’t want it to be a chore.
So I decided that I’d make sure I re-read an old favourite every month or so instead. And then I’d blog about it. And over time I’d draw up a list of My 50 All-Time Favourite Books.
To begin, I chose I Capture the Castle by the British author Dodie Smith.
This is (almost) the cover of my old childhood edition - I also like this beautiful dreamy cover:
Dodie Smith is best known for having written the children's classic The Hundred and One Dalmatians, which is a great joy but not, I think, as good as I Capture the Castle.
Dodie Smith with her husband Alec Beasley and their dogs
She wrote I Capture the Castle during the Second World War. She and her husband Alec had left England to live in the US as they were conscientious objectors, and had a hard time of it in the UK at a time when so many people had lost their lives in the war. She was homesick and began to write I Capture the Castle as a way to alleviate her longing for the English landscape and way of life. It is filled with haunting images of moors and marshes and forests and, of course, the castle of the title.
The novel tells the story of seventeen-year-old Cassandra and her family, who live in a half-ruined castle in the middle of a field in Suffolk. Her father is a writer who had a big but short-lived success with a book called Jacob Wrestling, a combination of novel, poetry and philosophy. His second wife is a beautiful but hopelessly impractical artist’s model called Topaz who likes to walk naked in the rain and commune with nature. Cassandra’s elder sister Rose is in despair, thinking life is passing her by, while her stolid younger brother Thomas is clever but has little prospects due to the family’s poverty.
Cassandra wants to be a writer too – though not a “difficult” one like her father. She begins writing a diary to hone her skills, and the story follows the romantic and not-so-romantic entanglements of her family as they try to survive their father’s writer’s block and desperate financial straits.
The book begins: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink” and continues in the very natural voice of an English girl living on the edge of a little village in the 1930s.
A few more of my favourite lines:
I Capture the Castle is a coming-of-age story and a love story and a story about the difficulties of being a writer. It is also one of the most beautiful young adult novels I have ever read.
I was very glad to read it again.