I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

I Capture the Castle (1948) came to my attention as a novel recommended for aspiring writers. The Austenesque plot features a quirky, down-on-their-luck British family in the 1930s. A thwarted novelist father languishes at the helm while the oldest daughter pursues a loveless marriage to save the family fortunes. Her intended is the wealthy young heir of a nearby estate.

The heir has recently returned from America with his brother, who is enamored with the American West. Thus the narrative straddles not only the 19th and 20th centuries but the Atlantic Ocean, flanked by British venerability on one side and American innovation on the other.

The middle daughter, Cassandra, is our narrator. I Capture the Castle is ostensibly her diary, wherein she has determined to cultivate literary craftsmanship. Her spirited narration of everyday life evinces a serendipitous (for readers) penchant for romantic comedy. Amidst the charm, though, surface meditations on life and faith–the sort of questions that might be expected of a coming-of-age adolescent.

In one of Cassandra’s conversations with the village vicar, he observes that faith is an art, “the greatest one; an extension of the communion all other arts attempt.”

Cassandra’s response carries a note of progressive modernism. Even the word “God,” she observes makes “a conventional noise.” When the vicar observes that the word is merely shorthand for the meaning of life, Cassandra asks whether religious people find the answer to the “riddle.”

The epiphany that finally ignites the muse of Cassandra’s father harks back to this conversation. His enigmatic magnum opus proves to be a collection of puzzles and riddles. As the young heir explains to Cassandra, her father’s premise is that art is discovery of what God has already created. Puzzles and riddles employ our innate hunger to search out our origins—essentially, to seek for God.

Incidentally, I Capture the Castle, Brideshead Revisited, and The Rosemary Tree appeared in print within eleven years of one another. All three, while not overtly Christian in content, notably employ biblical themes and images. Dodie Smith was a Christian Scientist, Evelyn Waugh a convert to Catholicism, and Elizabeth Goudge a lifelong Anglican.

Also intriguing is the languishing historic estate integral to the narrative of each novel. A common enough phenomenon in the wake of the world wars, Smith, Waugh, and Goudge interweave the threatened edifices with their novels’ overarching themes. The three authors enjoyed a wide readership at the time, and their different but overlapping styles continue to reward readers.

A note for aspiring authors: My aunt, also a published author, suggested that we each read the same copy of I Capture the Castle, in turn, and make notes in the margin that we could then send to the other. Though I’m not often bold enough to write in my books, I often have the urge to annotate them and was motivated by the knowledge that someone else would receive and engage with my observations. I recommend such an exchange. Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen, by Fay Weldon, is another volume (and a short one) that could lend itself to such a practice.

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