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As the ‘Castle’ Crumbles: British Girl Narrates Family Travails As She Evolves into a Woman

July 1, 2008

By Charity Vogel, The Buffalo News, N.Y.

Jul. 1–You may not know much about Dodie Smith, but you do know one of her books — thanks to Walt Disney. In 1961, when he released the movie “101 Dalmatians,” Disney was working from a story that Smith had told in her 1956 novel, “The One Hundred and One Dalmatians, or The Great Dog Robbery.”

Despite the success of that movie — you know, Pongo and Perdita, Cruella de Vil, all those spotty puppies — many Americans haven’t ever experienced a book or play by Smith, a British playwright and novelist, firsthand.

So this is your big chance.

In July, the Buffalo News Book Club will read “I Capture the Castle,” a delightful but oft-neglected novel by Smith that is well-loved by those readers — particularly in England, but in the United States, too — who have discovered it in the years since it was published in 1948.

The novel is the story of an odd British family, the Mortmains, who live in a crumbling old castle in the English countryside.

The father, James Mortmain, is a famous but reclusive writer who made his name with one dazzling book then disappeared from public view; the stepmother, Topaz, is an artistic free-spirit who likes to wander, sans clothing, around the property at night. Rose, the older daughter, is beautiful but frustrated with her rural life.

And then there is the singular character who is the real focus (and narrator) of “I Capture the Castle,” Cassandra Mortmain — at 17 the younger of the family’s two daughters, smart and insightful, a budding writer who is excited about growing up but also worried about many things, from her sister’s unhappiness to her family’s finances to her father’s seeming inability to write.

“Cassandra needs to figure out how she can be a writer,” said Dr. Lauren Pringle De La Vars, an associate professor of English at St. Bonaventure University who has taught “I Capture the Castle” to her students. “And she needs to figure out, for her father, how he can continue to be a writer.”

It’s a daunting task — but, in Cassandra’s words, a riveting tale.

“She’s able to write this absolutely self-revealing narrative, day-by-day, hour-by-hour account of her life, during that one year — and yet she misses so much,” said De La Vars, who presented a paper on the Smith novel at a 2006 academic conference. “Part of the fun for the reader is, we can see what her blind spots are. That’s part of Cassandra’s appeal. It’s not that we’re smarter than she is, or any better at relationships than she is, it’s just that because of our position, we can see with more clarity.”

The novel begins with Cassandra perched in the outmoded kitchen of Belmotte Castle, beginning the diary she will keep for a year. The time period is the 1930s; much about the greater world is changing, and many things in Cassandra’s life are shifting, too. She is becoming a mature woman.

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink,” Cassandra narrates, and that distinctive voice spins the rest of the story and makes us care deeply about what happens to all of the characters that surround her.

Author J. K. Rowling, along with many other English writers, especially women, has said that she treasures this novel and Cassandra Mortmain’s unique voice. Rowling, who wrote the “Harry Potter” series of books, called Cassandra “one of the most charismatic narrators I’ve ever met.”

On one level, “I Capture the Castle” is a story about young love — first love — and how it translates later on, or does not, into the adult kind.

Another main plot of the novel concerns the complicated, close relationship between the two Mortmain sisters: traditional, somewhat materialistic Rose and open-minded, questioning Cassandra.

That sisterhood remains one of the novel’s most compelling themes, and De La Vars said the differences between the two sisters are the reason why.

“Rose has different options than Cassandra, for getting out of the stagnant castle. She’s been told her face is her fortune. But Rose only has old-fashioned methods at her disposal. Being told your face is your fortune is a lot more helpful in 1830 than it is in 1930,” said De La Vars. “Cassandra does not adopt any of the old stereotypes about male-female relationships. Cassandra sees men as human beings — not as prey for her to catch.”

“They are two sisters both trying to make meaning out of their lives. They have different resources — and different approaches.”

“I Capture the Castle” has always been one of those nifty novels that spreads, not in massive waves of best-sellerdom, but rather by word-of-mouth and through chance discovery, in dog-eared copies and passages read aloud between friends. Women read it and insist that their best friends read it too; wives convince their husbands to read it, and the husbands love it; groups of teenage girls pass it around; sisters bond over it.

“I’ve read it probably 20 times since I was a student at Mount St. Mary Academy, back in the ’70s,” said De La Vars, the associate professor. “I love this book.”

She calls it her “second favorite” novel in the world, right after “Jane Eyre.”

Maybe, after July, it’ll be on your favorite list too.

As always with the Book Club, we like to hear your feedback on our selection. E-mail us at: bookclub@buffnews.com , or write to The Buffalo News Book Club, P. O. Box 100, Buffalo, N. Y. 14240.

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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