Once again, not explicitly chick-lit but for any fans of that genre this book is an absolute treat. It has simmered along for the last few years as a bit of a word of mouth classic. It is a book which readers recommend to the next generation, mothers recommend it to daughters. (I would like to think that fathers recommend it to sons!) It captivates whole families. It is time to recognise this book for what it is – one of the finest novels of the Twentieth Century.
I have only discovered it in recent years. Of course I knew who Dodie Smith was, writer of my much-loved copy of “101 Dalmatians”. I would spend hours looking at the classic pink cover of the Puffin edition, retelling the story from the film to myself over and over and yearning to be old enough to be able to tackle the book. Once I deemed myself able to cope with the “difficult words” found a whole new level of enjoyment from what I got from Disney.
I didn’t know that Smith had a writing life beyond children’s books really until 2003 when the BBC produced a much publicised Big Read Top 100 books. This was a list voted for by the public and there at number 82 was this book that I had never heard of. I had to seek it out and it was a revelation. It thoroughly deserved its Top 100 status. Since then, its reputation has continued to grow steadily. Also in 2003 a film version was released. It was very enjoyable but didn’t push the book into the British Classic status that I thought might be forthcoming from a film release.
The word for this book is “captivating”, especially the first half of the novel which is just a sheer joy. It is the tale of the Mortmain family, down on its uppers, making ends meet living in a castle which they can’t afford to upkeep. Father has been seduced by the romanticism of life in a castle without considering the practicalities and the family are paying the price. It is all seen through the eyes of seventeen year old Cassandra, one of the most delightful characters in fiction. There are some excellent set pieces (Cassandra being caught in the bath by American visitors and a trip to London to collect their dead aunt’s clothes are sections that stay with me). It’s heart-warming, funny and poignant and just so enjoyable.
I will admit that it is perhaps a novel of two halves and the standard, for me, drops in the second half once sister Rose has moved to London and Cassandra is left to her own devices, as there are less characters for the sheer exuberance of youth to bounce off. I cannot imagine that Dodie Smith ever wrote to this standard again, although I recently purchased one of her other books so (in time) I will get round to finding out but if you like any of the authors who write anything from chick-lit to female-oriented literary fiction, to Jane Austen, to male writers who focus on the dynamics between characters such as Armistead Maupin or Patrick Gale then this book should be on your reading list this summer.
I Capture The Castle is published by Virago. It is a book which has had many front covers over the years in many editions. I very much like the cover I’ve chosen at the top of the page (different from the copy I read) but I’ll just sneak in one other version which may be best forgotten…………..