Writing Friday Reviews is hard work, and sometime I run out of things to review. Besides, they can’t be that interesting for those of you who don’t live in NZ and can’t visit the stores I blog about.
So, I’m going to break things up by doing book reviews/recommendations/musings on Friday. Not the usual book reviews, but reviews of old, historical, and often quite obscure books.
This weeks book isn’t so obscure: it made a list of the 100 most beloved English books, but it is historical, and is well worth reading.
I Capture the Castle is (as I like to say in my brightest schoolmarm voice) “a bittersweet coming of age tale about a young woman discovering the joys and pitfalls of love and life.”
Please don’t hold that against it!
It’s also a beautifully detailed snapshot of English rural life in the 1930’s, and of the peculiar lines that were drawn between the classes in an age when social status was all about your family, and when even the upper class could be destitute.
Most of all, it is a book about fascinating people, so vividly described that you can imagine them rising from the pages of the novel, and become convinced that Dodie Smith must have known the Mortmains, the Cottons, and the other characters who fill the pages and whose loves and aspirations become hopelessly entangles.
You can see Cassandra, the narrator, who is “Jane Eyre with a touch of Becky Sharp”, and looks just like Romney’s ‘Girl with a Mousetrap’, except that instead of feeding the mouse to the hungry cat she would “let the mouse out of the trap and find a nice dead sardine for the cat”.
There is also her sister Rose, the frustrated beauty longing for luxury, old fashioned enough to wear a crinoline to a dinner party, and desperately calculating enough to marry for money (or is she?). Rose is a Romney, quite a bit like Lady Hamilton.
Weaving through the story (occasionally wearing nothing more than wellington boots) are a host of other characters. Their stepmother Topaz is attempting to live up to her strikingly dramatic and unworldly looks, posing well, painting badly, and trying to hide her surprisingly practical nature, a Blake without enough flesh on her bones.
There is also the greasy-haired photographer Leda Fitz-Cotton, a Dali “with snakes coming out of her ears” who pursues Stephen (who longs for Cassandra who loves Simon who adores Rose who really wants…)
And Stephen himself, the simple, noble farm boy in the guise of a Greek god.
Hiding in the gatehouse is father Mortmain, the failed author, grabbing at herring bones and children’s puzzles as odd inspirations.
Most of all there are the American Cottons, Simon and Neil, shaking up the entire village and the lives of the Mortmains forever.
Finally, there is the castle itself “a crumbling ruin in a sea of mud” or the romantically strange and lonely abode of a Bronte heroine, or just home.
Around the castle are set a series of scenes both fantastically preposterous (Cassandra with green hands, the escaped circus bear, Rose wishing on the devilish angel, midnight swims in the moat, and midsummer rites on the mound) and totally ordinary, so that you see both the possibilities of inventiveness, and the poignantly pragmatic details of poverty in the 1930s.