Dodie Smith, a successful playwright whose works filled West End theatres, is probably most famous for her children’s book The Hundred and One Dalmatians. Her first novel, I Capture the Castle, published in 1948, has arguably the best opening line in fiction: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink”.
The narrator is 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, who lives with her older sister Rose and younger brother Thomas. The father has writers block after making his name with his “very unusual” first book, Jacob Wrestling, which is (we are told) a forerunner of post-war fiction.
When her mother was alive they moved to the isolated castle to help him write. Gradually they have sold their possessions to keep going, and her father has refused to even discuss the possibility of writing for years. Her step-mother is Topaz, an artist’s model with a penchant for running around the countryside naked at night. Her income is invaluable. “…her kindness is perfectly genuine, and so is her cooking”. Then two unattached young American brothers, Simon and Neil Cotton, become their landlords and circumstances begin to change. Simon Cotton says that one chapter of Jacob Wrestling is set out on the page to look like a ladder, made up of apparently disconnected sentences. When he studied the book in college there was a whole theory about how each rung leads to the next.
Cassandra’s inner voice is a delightful mixture of unsentimental criticism for others and self-pity for her own circumstances. I took to the story immediately because she reminded me at times of Adrian Mole, from the books by Sue Townsend. Of her step-mother Topaz she says, “…she still looks extraordinarily young. Perhaps that is because her expression is so blank”. When Dodie Smith finished the draft she spent two years revising it. This thorough approach shows in the pitch-perfect humour, especially when her sister Rose, wearing a fur coat and attempting to leave a train unseen with Cassandra, is mistaken for an escaped bear. Or when Topaz is running around at night wearing just black rubber boots, one of the brothers says “I’ve just seen a spook… I shone my flashlight up at that tower on the hill… it didn’t seem to have any legs”.
Regarding the father’s writer’s block. The family surname is Mortmain, which could be translated from the French as dead hand. He is so deep into his detachment that he cannot see that his family’s circumstances would be great material for a book. But it’s Cassandra who “captures” the circumstances in the castle. She is the one who has a radical idea, involving a ladder along the way, to get him writing again.
The ambiguous yet upbeat ending of the book is entirely keeping with the setting, which is just before World War Two.
The isolated tower in the book is called Belmotte, Motte in this context is French for a small piece of compact earth.
Do yourself a favour and track down a copy of I Capture the Castle.