For 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.
Day 27, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
The head of the Montmain family is a celebrated author who, back in the good times, leased a beautiful and isolated English castle that would inspire his writing. At the castle, James Montmain’s second wife Topaz could paint and commune with nature, his three young children could run wild and free, and he could write a second novel as ambitious and astounding as his first. That was the plan ten years ago, but the reality of the Montmain family as this novel begins is that James has had a decade-long bout of crippling writer’s block; Topaz is secretly selling furniture to buy food; his oldest daughter, beautiful Rose, desperately seeks an eligible man so she can marry and escape; young son Thomas is virtually unschooled; and middle daughter Cassandra, who wants to be a writer too, fills notebook after notebook of an intelligent seventeen-year-old’s worries, angst, and fantasies about her future. The castle is crumbling, literally and figuratively, around this eccentric family in a precarious life of what used to be called genteel poverty.
The novel takes place in the 1930s, over six months that change the fortunes of the Montmains. Cassandra narrates those months as she grows from child to young woman. As the child, she views the castle in its former romantic state, in the same way that she views their loyal friend and neighbor Stephen. As a young woman, she sees the castle as a prison and realizes that Stephen is in love with her, but she does not feel the same. The change of fortune comes through new landlords, the Cottons, a wealthy American family with two handsome and eligible sons. The polite and pragmatic Cotton lads are charmed by the exotic Montmain clan, and it’s not long before they both fall in love with Rose. Rose thinks the elder son, Simon, is the better catch, so she accepts his proposal, only to realize she’s falling in love with the younger son, Neil. Cassandra has fallen in love with Simon herself, but it is Rose who can save the Montmains by marrying well, even if that means marrying without love. Can Cassandra do the same, with her honorable and good Stephen?
Why is I Capture the Castle a good read for women? The author of this novel is Dodie Smith, best known for writing the children’s classic The Hundred and One Dalmatians. Cassandra is sensitive and insightful, but she is also very young, and her world view is limited by the isolation of her upbringing. Despite the struggle to meet the most basic needs of good food and proper clothing, and the tension and turbulence once the Cottons arrive, she remains focused on what she feels is her destiny—to be a writer. She gets no help from James, who has been only pretending to write for all these years, so she must struggle to “capture her castle” on her own. She does it through her painful and poignant experience with first love as she learns the meaning of loyalty and betrayal.