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Lost & Found: Diana Fox on Dodie Smith
In today’s Lost & Found, former Tin House staffer Diana Fox finds worthy holiday reading in Dodie Smith’s cult favorite I Capture the Castle. Austen fans, when the spine on your copy of Northanger Abbey finally goes, turn here.
Dodie Smith is not an unknown writer, but few people recognize her name as belonging to the author of The Hundred and One Dalmations, and even fewer have read her novels for adults. I picked up I Capture the Castle after stumbling upon the film adaptation of it made in 2003. I took the book with me on a plane back to New York after attending a memorial service, and was surprised to find a narrative voice strong enough to cut through my grief and transport me to a remote country castle in 1940s England, inhabited by the eccentric Mortmain family.
Mr. Mortmain is a vaguely Joyce-like writer who wrote one successful novel, but has been fallow for years, and who spends most of his time locked away in a tower reading detective stories while his family grows increasingly anxious about their dwindling finances. The story is narrated by his youngest daughter, Cassandra, in the form of journal entries. In the tradition of Jane Austen, Cassandra and her eldest sister, Rose, have decided that their best prospect for escaping poverty is through marriage. The problem is that they live on the outskirts of a tiny town, where the only people they see on a regular basis are the librarian and the vicar. In desperation one night, Rose makes a plea to the devil, and the next day, a pair of American brothers are delivered on their doorstep.
The surface plot revolves around the romantic developments (or lack thereof) between the Mortmain sisters and the Cotton brothers, but the subplot is driven by Cassandra’s anxiety about her father’s inability to write. Smith captures that combination of affection for and resentment toward an artist who can no longer produce, and the poisonous effect that it has on the rest of the family. While financial woes will be solved if the girls get married, the sense is that the real resolution has to come from jolting Mr. Mortmain out of his funk.
Cassandra is an aspiring writer, and is keeping her journals “partly to practice my newly acquired speed-writing and partly to teach myself how to write a novel—I intend to capture all our characters and put in conversations.” It is a memorable cast of esoteric modernists and their offspring. Mr. Mortmain is married to the artist’s model, Topaz, who is in the habit of taking nude midnight strolls through the rain, and sitting wistfully at windowsills while playing the lute. There is the wealthy mother of the Cotton brothers, who introduces herself by asking Mr. Mortmain if he’s taken to drinking, and then follows with: “Oh, I always employ shock tactics with men of genius …. And one has to employ them in public or the men of genius bolt.”
Cassandra herself possesses a beguiling combination of optimism, insight, and vivid observation. The novel is worth reading purely for the pleasure of gaining her perspective on the world:
It was late autumn, very gentle and golden. I loved the quiet-colored fields of stubble and the hazy water meadows. Rose doesn’t like the flat country but I always did—flat country seems to give the sky such a chance. One evening when there was a lovely sunset, we got lost….All of a sudden we saw a high, round water tower in the distance, on a little hill….It was difficult to find because the little roads twisted and woods and villages kept hiding it from us, but every few minutes we caught a glimpse of it and father and Rose and I got very excited.
I’m generally bored by lengthy descriptions of land, but Smith manages to capture the sheer joy of walking on a beautiful afternoon without being sentimental. This is a good book for summertime, for vacation, for reading beside large bodies of water, when you’re in the mood to be reminded of the gentler side of reality. Smith is one of those rare writers who can persuade me that such a side exists:
I finish this entry sitting on the stairs. I think it is worthy of note that I never felt happier in my life—despite sorrow for father, pity for Rose, embarrassment about Stephen’s poetry and no justification for hope as regards our family’s general outlook. Perhaps it is because I have satisfied my creative urge; or it may be due to the thought of eggs for tea.
-Diana Fox is a writer and clinical social worker in Brooklyn.