The two books I'm writing about today are rightly termed "classics". Nowadays they are often considered "young adult" though of course at the time of publication this was not a term used. I know that I read them between the ages of 12 and 14, and still read them today.
Then as life is about to become even harder and she is about to go into service, her grandmother and aunt send for her to live with them. Here for the first time, Sybylla is loved and appreciated, but still she is restricted by the expectations of her gender and social class. The book ends with Sybylla being forced to choose between marriage and writing: it is clear that it will be impossible for her to do both.
Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle was written in 1948, when the author and her husband were living in California, where they had moved during the war due to her husband's status as a conscientious objector. There is no mention of the war in the novel, so it can be assumed that it is set in the 1930s. It is the story of Cassandra Mortmain, to my mind one of the most enchanting protagonists of any novel I have ever read.
Told in the first person, the novel starts "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink", in my opinion still one of the best opening lines of any novel; it is 17 year old Cassandra's diary, which she is keeping to train herself in speed-writing and in describing characters and settings with a view to becoming a writer. She has a lot to write about; Cassandra and her family lives in poverty which is teetering on the verge of genteel, kept there by her once-famous author father, who wrote an experimental novel when Cassandra was a small child. It was a huge success, but he has been blocked ever since, and all the money he earned from Jacob Wrestling is long gone. They live in crumbling Scoatney Castle in Suffolk, and again are prevented by their class from achieving independence: as girls Cassandra and her sister Rose's education has been genteelly rudimentary; they are suited only to marriage. However, without connections and money, who are they to meet?
Then the owner of the castle dies, and their new landlords, the wealthy Simon and Neil Cotton, arrive from America. Rose decides that she will marry Simon, and behaves, in a scene of toe-curling embarrassment, like a latter-day Blanche Ingram from Jane Eyre to attract him. He does, however, fall in love with her, but one evening Simon keeps Cassandra company, and they kiss. Cassandra realises that she is in love with him.
What is Cassandra to do? She knows that Rose doesn't really love Simon, but Rose is more desperate to leave Scoatney than Cassandra. Events unfurl in the three different notebooks in which Cassandra keeps her diary, and again at the end of the novel it is unclear whether Rose will follow her love for Simon or her need to write.
Of course, the expectations that society puts on women who are writers (and women put upon themselves as a result of society) is still evident, over 100 years later. See this blog post by Shelley Harris, and the comments.
Both books are glorious. I recommend them as the stories of young writers growing up to readers of 12 plus. I Capture the Castle in particular should be read by every teenage girl, and if you haven't read it, get a copy and fall in love.
Thanks for this and thank you for the link to the Shelley Harris post. I love Capture the Castle - there's such beauty in it. Lovely review :)ReplyDelete
Thank you! I adore it. It's funny, warm and a great read.Delete
I'm ashamed to say I haven't read I Capture the Castle - but I will now try to do so before the year is out!ReplyDelete
I think you'll love it, Zoe! One for you to keep for your girls until they're old enough, too.Delete