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An Old Friend

Confession: I saw the movie before I read the book. Between high school and college I worked for six months in a small bookstore called Wordsworth’s which was the first bookstore George ever had. One night towards the end of my stint there, my manager Liesl invited the predominantly female staff to her house to watch I Capture the Castle, a marvelously melancholic film, saturated with color and inter-war shabbiness and Dario Marinelli’s beautiful score (he also did Pride & Prejudice and Atonement).

The next day I bought the book and devoured it.

I Capture the Castle is structured as journal entries in a series of diaries by seventeen year old Cassandra Mortmain, beginning with the iconic “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink…” Cassandra and her impoverished bohemian family live in a run-down castle in Suffolk. Her father was the author of a single book, a mixture of fiction, philosophy and poetry called “Jacob Wrestling” (something like Finnegan’s Wake or Ulysses, I imagine), and after a brief spell in prison following an incident with a cake-knife has retreated into writer’s block. Cassandra’s young eccentric step-mother Topaz was an artist’s model and sunbathes in the nude. Her older sister Rose is a discontented beauty (“poor Rose hates most things she has and envies most things she hasn’t”), and her younger brother Thomas is a schoolboy.

Cassandra writes of their extreme poverty and frugality (“Contemplation seems to be about the only luxury that costs nothing”), the edgy interactions between family members as they dance around Mortmain’s fragile abilities and frequent moods, and the godlike gardener Stephen (“fair and noble-looking but a bit daft”) who nurses deep feelings and plagiarizes poems for Cassandra. All is ordinary and dreary.

Until –

two American brothers, the Cottons, neighbors who own the castle, run across the Mortmains. Like an Austen novel, Rose must marry one of them and better the family circumstances. Simon is the elder, the heir, pale and bearded (which the girls hate), and has taken to England well. Neil, the younger one, raised in the American west, is rougher and laughing (“who thinks England is a joke…”).

When Simon and Rose are engaged, it seems to be the end of the Mortmains’ worries. And yet things fracture and fall out of place, and Cassandra falls in love unexpectedly. More than Cassandra’s romantic awakening, this is about a young woman determinedly finding her own voice, being disappointed but refusing to settle for the fulfillment of someone else’s lower expectations.

Kristin and I read it aloud in St. Louis so many years ago; I gave it to many fellow booksellers at Third Place Books; I’ve shown the film on obliging friends (several times) and still the book loses none of its magnetism or its poignancy.

Sometimes you are lucky to come across books that sink very deeply into you and define a personal era, and this book is one of these. It was formative. Christopher Isherwood said “I think it is a book that will be very much lived in by many people; because you can live in it, like Dickens” and this is true. I could speak of the characters, of the Mortmains, the Cottons, the Fox-Cottons, as if they existed. (They do.) It has shaped the way I celebrate Midsummer; the Rites. I will always be grateful to my friend Andrea for driving with me to the Salt Water State Park two summers ago to find a fire pit as the sun set, and then run around it whooping like hooligans. We did not sunbathe nude, but if I live in a castle that will change.

Tragically, according to Julian Barnes Dodie Smith (who wrote 101 Dalmatians) became senile and could not remember that she was a famous playwright or novelist. I Capture the Castle was written after she and her husband emigrated to Los Angeles as conscientious objectors during the 1940s, and as consequence it is suffused with longing for home and extreme Englishness.

Yesterday I found a first American edition at Half Price Books for $5. I've been looking for a first edition because I wanted to turn pages someone first turned in 1948, when the characters were crisply created. This one is missing a dust-jacket and so isn’t worth much on the rare book market (jacketed books go from $200) but it was Meant To Be. The cover is stamped with a lovely blue imprint of a moated castle with the motte set away on the Suffolk fields. I can’t get rid of the first copy because it’s the one I read as an eighteen year old (and I think parts of me are still stuck or sewn into the pages) but this one is magnificent. Let me show it off:

Today is Shakespeare’s and Cervantes’ Death Day. Also the Feast of St. George, patron of England. Rumor has it that in Spain it is the Catalan holiday Rose & a Book Day. So give someone you love a rose & a book. It’s much better than Valentine’s Day.


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