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SPOTLIGHT: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

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: 

and finally:

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. 

BOOK REVIEW: Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl

Monday, July 22, 2013

Title: Keeping the Castle

Author: Patrice Kindl

Publisher: Viking Children's Books

Age Group & Genre: YA historical romance

The Blurb:

Seventeen-year-old Althea is the sole support of her entire family, and she must marry well. But there are few wealthy suitors--or suitors of any kind--in their small Yorkshire town of Lesser Hoo. Then, the young and attractive (and very rich) Lord Boring arrives, and Althea sets her plans in motion. There's only one problem; his friend and business manager Mr. Fredericks keeps getting in the way. And, as it turns out, Fredericks has his own set of plans . . . This witty take on the classic Regency--Patrice Kindl's first novel in a decade--is like literary champagne!

“Take one Austenian heroine in desperate financial straits.  Put her in a crumbling castle, give her two evil stepsisters and some very unsuitable suitors.  Make it funny!  Patrice Kindl’s Keeping the Castle is an absolute charmer!”  -- Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club

What I Thought: 
I thoroughly enjoyed this light-hearted and utterly charming Regency romance. It has been described as a cross between Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle, two of my all-time favourite books. It's lighter and sweeter than either of these books, and much less serious in intent. The tone is comic, the characters are exaggerated for humorous effect, and the plot is one of mishaps, misunderstandings and muddles.

The heroine Althea Crawley is only seventeen, beautiful, impoverished, and a little too quick to voice her opinions - sometimes with disastrous attempts. She must marry well if her family is to keep their crumbling old castle  ... but all Althea's plans to charm rich Lord Boring keep going awry.

Complicating her life are selfish step-sisters, a troublesome younger brother, a naughty puppy, miserable weather, a sweetly ineffectual mother, and the odiously interfering Mr Fredericks ...

Although the book is really a funny and romantic romp, there is just enough of an edge to give it gravitas. Althea is an intelligent and independent-minded young woman who really does chafe against the strictures of her society and her voice rings all too true:

I keep forgetting how ridiculously sensitive and illogical men were. He assumed that his fortune would buy a beauty; I assumed that my beauty would procure me a rich husband. It seemed much the same thing to me, but evidently what was permissible in a man was not in a woman. 

Keeping the Castle was written with a teenage audience in mind, and so it is a swift and easy read (I read it in a matter of hours). However, I'd recommend it for adults as much as for teenagers, particulalry if you feel like a little sunshine in your day.  

BOOK LIST: Books set in '20s & '30s

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Michelle Cooper, author of the wonderful 'Montmaray Journals' has compiled a list for me of books set in the same historical period - the 1920s and 1930s. There are some great recommendations here:

It seems to be compulsory for reviews of ‘A Brief History of Montmaray’ to mention Dodie Smith’s classic coming-of-age novel, ‘I Capture the Castle’, and it’s certainly flattering to have my work compared to such a beloved book. Both involve a teenage girl writing in her diary and living in a crumbling castle with her eccentric family – although I don’t recall any princesses, pirates, sea monsters, ghosts, Nazis or gory murders in ‘I Capture the Castle’. 

One reviewer also described ‘A Brief History of Montmaray’ as a modern version of the Brontës mixed with the Famous Five. After I’d finished feeling indignant (about the Enid Blyton bit, not the Brontës), I remembered my book did include Cornish smugglers, seaside caves, secret tunnels, a mad uncle, a tomboy and a loyal dog . . . so all those Famous Five books I read as a child must have had more of an effect on me than I’d realised.

On the other hand, reviews of ‘The FitzOsbornes in Exile’ tend to mention either ‘Downton Abbey’ or the Mitfords. As I haven’t seen ‘Downton Abbey’ and it’s not a book, I won’t discuss it here. 

However, I can’t resist an opportunity to rhapsodize about my favourite Nancy Mitford novels, ‘The Pursuit of Love’ and ‘Love in a Cold Climate’, both set in the 1920s and 1930s, and based on the author’s eccentric, upper-class English family. 

If you enjoy hilarious, irreverent stories about innocent debutantes and their ambitious mothers, French dukes and exiled European royalty, country estates and London Society, you will love these books. 

Nancy Mitford also manages to include some sharp observations of 1930s politics – which isn’t all that surprising, given her family history (her sisters Diana and Unity were devotees of Hitler, while another sister, Jessica, ran away from home as a teenager to join the Communist side in the Spanish Civil War). 

There’s a lot of interesting non-fiction by and about the Mitford sisters. My favourites are ‘Hons and Rebels’, the first volume of Jessica Mitford’s memoirs, and ‘The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters’, edited by Charlotte Mosley.

‘The FitzOsbornes at War’, the final Montmaray book, is mostly about life in England during the Second World War. There are a lot of great novels set in this period, but among my favourites are the Cazalet Chronicles, by Elizabeth Jane Howard. This is a wonderful series that follows the changing fortunes of a wealthy middle-class English family throughout the war and beyond. The four novels – ‘The Light Years’, ‘Marking Time’, ‘Confusion’ and ‘Casting Off’ – are based on the real-life experiences of the now ninety-year-old author, who has just announced that she’s working on a fifth Cazalet book. Some other favourite Britain-at-war novels are ‘Small Island’ by Andrea Levy, about the experiences of Jamaican airmen stationed in Britain, and ‘The Night Watch’ by Sarah Waters, which cleverly links the stories of four Londoners, all of them on the outskirts of respectable society because they’ve fallen in love with the ‘wrong’ people. Readers who liked Toby’s story in ‘The FitzOsbornes at War’ may also enjoy ‘The Charioteer’ by Mary Renault (although ‘enjoy’ probably isn’t the best word to use about a book set mostly in a military hospital). Finally, for those looking for some non-fiction that isn’t excessively long or academic, I recommend ‘Debs at War 1939-1945: How Wartime Changed Their Lives’ by Anne de Courcy, about the privileged young British women who joined the services, drove ambulances, nursed the wounded and worked in factories and on farms during the war.

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