Heaven: March Book Group - I Capture The Castle

NenyaNenya Shipmate
edited January 16 in Limbo
The new sparkling and shiny Ship of Fools Book Group pick for March 2018 is "I Capture The Castle" by Dodie Smith. Seventeen year old Cassandra Mortmain, described by J.K. Rowling as "one of the most charismatic characters I've ever met", hones her writing skills by telling her story and that of her family in their ramshackle English castle.

Happy reading to everyone - those who, like me, are revisiting a much-loved favourite and those who are discovering the Mortmains for the first time.
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Comments

  • Form a line right here by the kitchen sink ...
  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host
    I read this years ago but I think I would need a re-read to participate meaningfully in a discussion. I might try to give it a re-read if time permits in March, as I do remember loving the book.
  • I really enjoyed the book when I read it in the past and will re read.
    I also used to post very occasionally on ye olde shippe before tide and time meant I floated away. Hence book group - and this book in particular - will be a great opportunity to grab a deck chair and enjoy the view from the new shiny ship
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I'll try to get a read re-read in by the end of the month. One of the best opening scenes in literature I think. The film with Bill Nighy wasn't bad if people if I remember rightly.
  • SparrowSparrow Shipmate
    Form a line right here by the kitchen sink ...
  • Yea! I have loved this book since I was a teenager. Now the story and the words greet me like a familiar friend.
  • It fascinates me that Dodie Smith also wrote the wildly successful One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Her love of animals comes through in I Capture the Castle when she talks about the family's white bull terrier with 'fondant pink' skin showing through.

    Put my battered old copy next to the bed for March.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    A wonderful book, and certainly not just 'for girls' as it's sometimes suggested. Count me in!

    John (Not got a sig for the new forum sorted yet!)
  • SmudgieSmudgie Shipmate
    I'm reading a lot more these days, thanks to the combined delights of the commuter train and Kindle, so I have downloaded this to read on my way to work. Looking forward to comparing my reading and appreciation of it with all of yours. In fact, having a lazy day today, I may even start it now!
  • I'm in! Having a snow day today, so perfect timing for a re-read.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    OT, but is it just me or is there no option for a Sig on the new Ship?

    Andras
  • No, Andreas, no sigs as yet.

    Immersed in ICTC, can't believe how much I'd forgotten. The feyness...
  • When I was an anklebiter there was an old lady who loved animals (to the point, it turned out, she'd feed the rats on her bed) and had the most gorgeous garden who lived in the parish, if we went down that road we'd always look for her cottage.

    Her name was Dodie Smith...

    AG
  • One of the most magical “growing up” books ever. Loved watching my Goddaughter read it and fall in love with it recently at kpjust the age I first did...
  • NenyaNenya Shipmate
    When I was an anklebiter there was an old lady who loved animals (to the point, it turned out, she'd feed the rats on her bed) and had the most gorgeous garden who lived in the parish, if we went down that road we'd always look for her cottage.

    Her name was Dodie Smith...

    AG

    A few years ago I picked up a biography of Dodie Smith at one of our local charity shops and was interested to read of her life, and of her feeding the rats in her garden and how she admired their care for their young. I've been trying to find the book to reread it for this discussion but I think I may have passed it on. I did find it very upsetting in a couple of places. One was describing how, following complaints from neighbours, she began to feed poison to the rats in her garden and one of them took the poisoned bread from her and "turned sadly away." Another was the way that she could never bring herself to take her real life dalmatians to the vet for that final, merciful visit so the poor things suffered far more than they should have. :cry:

  • PantsPants Shipmate
    Ah yes, having just read the wiki summary, I remember the book.

    I really need to get back in to a book club and reading so may follow this thread.
  • SparrowSparrow Shipmate
    Hopefully I will join in this one, but without re-reading. Simply because for me this is one of those all time favourites that I can quote whole chunks of from memory, and I have to ration my re-readings of it so it won't get stale!

  • I love ICTC! Will be joining in.
  • TinaTina Shipmate
    Scots Lass wrote: »
    I love ICTC! Will be joining in.

    Me too :smiley:
  • latepaullatepaul Shipmate
    Just finished it last night. Loved it. Look forward to the discussion.
  • ClimacusClimacus Shipmate
    My library tells me it is due to be returned on March 16. I will hopefully get it then.
  • NenyaNenya Shipmate
    I am away on a work conference for part of the week beginning 19 March and would like to get the discussion under way before I go. Would anyone object to my putting up the discussion suggestions at some point over next weekend? Climacus, will that give you time to read or will you just avoid the thread until you're ready?

    Sandemaniac, I owe you an apology about my reply to your post, above. I didn't intend for it to sound quite so negative...
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Fine by me, looking forward to the discussion.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    Just about to re-read. I've read this book quite a few times so thnk I can contribute even if I haven't quite finished when the discussion starts.
  • Nenya wrote: »
    Sandemaniac, I owe you an apology about my reply to your post, above. I didn't intend for it to sound quite so negative...

    Apology entirely unnecessary, Nenya - all adds to the picture.

    Sadly, the garden isn't a patch on what it was - what was once a classic cottage garden is now mostly lawn:
    https://goo.gl/images/8NTnq7
    (I must work out how to link pics properly as per the old Ship)

    AG



  • NenyaNenya Shipmate
    Ok, everyone. Hop up on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog's blanket and the tea-cosy, stick your feet in the sink and let's get started.

    Below are some suggestions for discussion. Please feel free to use all, some, one or none - just make sure that you say what you want to say.

    First published in 1949, ICTC continues to appeal to readers. Why is this? How might readers have responded differently to the novel at the time of publication?

    Why did the author choose the form of a journal to tell the Mortmains' story?

    The Mortmains are fascinated by the Cottons and their American mannerisms, traditions and expressions, just as the Cottons are fascinated by the English ways of the Mortmains. What does ICTC have to say about English perceptions of America and Americans, and vice versa?

    ICTC has been described as the story of Cassandra's "coming of age." Is this a fair description of it and why, or why not?"

    How does ICTC reflect society's changing views of women at the time? How do the women in it view their roles and opportunities? Consider, perhaps, Cassandra and Rose, Topaz, Mrs Cotton, Mrs Fox-Cotton, Miss Marcy, Cassandra's mother, Stephen's mother.

    What do you think Mortmain's novel "Jacob Wrestling" might have been about?

    Do you have a favourite passage from the book, or one you find particularly striking? Which passage, and why?

    Go for it. :smile:
  • Why does it appeal?
    I think at heart it is because it gets the feel/ essence of family love so well.

    As a young teen I hated that it did not end in "true love", but suspect that is partly why I still enjoy it.

    It would be a completely different book, if not written as a teenage diary. How else could you get a 'non comic' voice to worry about the logistics and ethics of locking your father in a dungeon or the knowing, loving insight into the strengths and pretentions of a step mum like Topaz.
  • She is so easy to relate to and as a seventeen year old narrator there is a balance between knowing and naïvity that makes it such a believable account.
  • NenyaNenya Shipmate
    Yes, Cassandra seems very knowable and her voice is easy and honest. Keeping a journal is a very teenager-y thing to do as well; although I'm in my 50s and still keep one so not sure what that says about me. Ever young at heart, I guess. :wink:

    My favourite passage is her account of Midsummer Eve, alone at the castle and preparing for her rites. I don't fancy the meal of cold baked beans but apart from that the sunbathing, the gathering of the flowers, the extended time alone, is all marvellously atmospheric for me.

    And the saddest part? When she weeps on Miss Blossom's bosom and then comes to the awareness that it's simply a dressmaker's dummy. She sees Miss Blossom clearly then, putting on her jacket, looking reproachful and leaving forever. More than anything else for me that symbolises the end of her childhood.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    The narrative just glides along and I can see myself there in the cold castle with her family. According to the introduction to my copy the revisions of the book took two years, Smith had a 100,000 note book of the background of the book, her husband made models of the castle etc etc (Valerie Gove introduction to the 1996 Virgo edition). I think all that background effort is why it seems to real and Cassandra's voice sounds so convincing.
    I'll come back to some of the other questions later.
  • That diary form lets the author use an unusually intimate and uninhibited first-person narrator speaking to the 'you' of a trusted reader. I found it interesting that the diary itself is written in a coded shorthand so that others who catch glimpses of it can't read what is written: not Cassandra's father, not, Rose, not Simon. In other words she is free to write about those around her in plain view of them, and only we get to read the entries. And the diary gives the impression of impulsive spontaneity and immediacy, that the story is unfolding as the diarist comments each day. We can't know more than she does and her discoveries are our discoveries.
  • NenyaNenya Shipmate
    I hadn't thought of it like that but of course you're right - we are "in the know" in a way no one except Cassandra is. I feel a bit intruded upon when her father and Simon try to read her diary, even though they fail.

    Despite the fact it's encoded she still goes to great lengths to hide it, doesn't she? She describes where she hides it when she and Thomas are keeping their father imprisoned. During that episode we see Thomas as a particularly strong character; he becomes a worthy companion for Cassandra in Rose's absence and I like him a lot.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Rereading ICTC this time I was struck by how closely the structure mirrors that of Pride and Prejudice; there's the same vague hope that the wealthy newcomers may offer some sort of salvation, the same reaction when they appear to reject the heroine and her family, and so on. I don't want to draw too close a parallel, but it did catch my attention in a way it hadn't done before. And of course P&P was originally planned as an epistolary novel, which isn't a million miles away from Cassandra's diary.

    And the sudden 'discovery' of Stephen reminds me of Seth Starkadder's sudden elevation to Hollywood stardom in Cold Comfort Farm.

    But even if some of the plotting is a tad derivative, the prose is magical. Cassandra's assertion that she and Topaz (wonderful name!) are 'women of the world,' unlike the librarian, or the comment that Cassandra had never thought of La Belle Dame Sans Merci as having a home life, are ample testimony to Dodie Smith's brilliance as a writer.

    It's interesting that she makes so much of the Mortmain family; the only play for which she's remembered today - Dear Octopus - is also very strong on family. But I get the strong impression that Dodie Smith preferred her dogs to people - she certainly didn't want anything to do with children!
  • I had never really imagined that James Mortmain's book "Jacob Wrestling" was really about anything, at least in terms of story. Is it even described as a novel? Isn't it referred to as a book? I could be wrong there.
    If it had a narrative, I have always assumed that this was subservient to the structure, and was about out struggle to understand, as indeed his second book would be as well. But that is a fascinating question, and one which I had never really thought about until now, despite having the book almost memorised!
  • MaryLouiseMaryLouise Shipmate
    edited March 2018
    @Cathscats, Mortmain's book is described as a 'very unusual' book, a 'mixture of fiction, philosophy and poetry'. It was a great success in America although very few readers claim to understand it. My understanding is that it was a Modernist novel along the lines of James Joyce's Ulysses or Finnegans Wake and James Mortmain a wild, amoral genius not bound by the conventions of others.

    Dodie Smith was in America during the Second World War and looking back at the 1920s and 1930s in England. The shadow of Bloomsbury is there: a generation of writers like Virginia Woolf, EM Forster, TS Eliot, Ezra Pound reinventing the novel and the epic poem.

    The delightful Topaz who develops into one of the wisest and most 'maternal' characters in ICTC, begins as a Flapper become artist's model posing for a lecherous painter (MacMorris) who is a ringer for the dissolute Augustus John, a notorious sex pest by the 1920s.

    Another infamous book features in the first visit to Scoatney hall. The predatory Leda Fox-Cotton (a Surrealist photographer) is keen to finish her calf-bound book. '...no book for little girls,' she tells Cassandra. Later the Vicar picks up the book and reads it, says to Cassandra that it is 'no book for little vicars'. What is this book? My guess would be DH Lawrence's banned Lady Chatterley's Lover.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I'm still re-reading the book and have got to the part where Cassandra visit the vicar. I think he is one of my favourite clergymen in literature.

  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    I'm pretty sure that Jacob Wrestling is meant to be a modernist novel; what else can it be? History ends up regarding such works either as perfectly mainstream or as being unreadable tosh; I wonder which this would be?

    Is Mortmain really suffering from almost terminal writers' block, or the equally common 'Do anything but write' syndrome? I suspect the latter!

    I'm not quite sure that the episode with the 'bear' hunt works as well as the rest of the book. But when Cassandra ends up after midnight at Lyon's Corner House and realises too late that she hasn't got her purse - that's the sort of horrible heart-stopping moment that most of us have felt at one time or another. I'd guess that something like it had happened to Dodie Smith - she almost paints herself into that scene when she describes the theatre company waiting for the Notices after their First Night.
  • NenyaNenya Shipmate
    Andras wrote: »
    Rereading ICTC this time I was struck by how closely the structure mirrors that of Pride and Prejudice; there's the same vague hope that the wealthy newcomers may offer some sort of salvation, the same reaction when they appear to reject the heroine and her family, and so on. I don't want to draw too close a parallel, but it did catch my attention in a way it hadn't done before. And of course P&P was originally planned as an epistolary novel, which isn't a million miles away from Cassandra's diary

    Rose herself of course draws the parallel between their situation and that of the Bennet sisters, near the beginning of the book. I did nearly put up a question about the parallels with Pride and Prejudice and we could discuss it if people would like to. I'm afraid I wouldn't have much to contribute. I did my entire English literature degree without reading an Austen novel. Not something I'm proud of. I find it quite funny that a bit later Cassandra observes that the Bennet sisters didn't give one thought to the real facts of marriage and worries that Rose isn't doing so either, although Rose also being a stepchild of Topaz will be as informed as Cassandra herself.

    I'd love to have a go at the "mixture of fiction, philosophy and poetry" that was Jacob Wrestling . I presume Simon's description at the end of the book as "your father's whole work is only an extension of metaphor" includes Jacob Wrestling and it does sound fascinating.

    I find the bear hunt episode a bit unsatisfactory too and to me it seems out of kilter with the rest of the book, only making proper sense at the end when we find out about Rose and Neil's kiss and Stephen being a witness to that.

    I was always quite taken by Topaz's way of communing with nature and planned to try it myself one day. Have not yet got round to it, though I guess there's time.

    The vicar reading Lady Chatterley's Lover. That's an inspired thought.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    Nenya wrote: »

    How does ICTC reflect society's changing views of women at the time? How do the women in it view their roles and opportunities? Consider, perhaps, Cassandra and Rose, Topaz, Mrs Cotton, Mrs Fox-Cotton, Miss Marcy, Cassandra's mother, Stephen's mother.

    I've been puzzling over this question, as I don't think Smith intended it to be a book about women in society. I was imagining what it would be like set in the present day. I think Topaz would update well as would Mrs Cotton and Mrs Fox-Cotton. Miss Marcy wouldn't, I don't think and neither would Miss Blossom, whose 'voice' I love, even if it is very much a stock working class working woman's voice (I'm thinking of various thirties detective novels here).
    As for Cassandra and Rose. I assume Cassandra would still be in sixth form and Rose would be lounging around having finished a degree in something nebulous vaguely hoping some sort of internship is going to turn up. I'm not sure that either of them would be assuming that only marriage would get them out of their poverty. I'm also sure that at the end Cassandra wouldn't be talking about not needing to go to college, but would be awaiting her Oxbridge interview.
  • NenyaNenya Shipmate
    It does seem to me very much a sign of those times that the girls assume that marriage is their only way out of poverty. These days they'd get jobs as baristas at the local coffee shop at least.
  • MaryLouiseMaryLouise Shipmate
    edited March 2018
    What is interesting though is how Cassandra's future stays open-ended. Like Nenya and Sarasa, I found certain characters and scenes to be comic pastiche and the shape of the book is undecided in some ways. Class prejudice too, though Cassandra becomes aware of this (as regards Stephen and his mother) and the Americans don't see it at all.

    I wondered while rereading if there wasn't a darker book in here trying to get out. The fey paganism reminded me at moments of Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willows, a great publishing success in the 1920s, but the rivalry between the sisters and the 'hardness' in Rose reminded me of another novel I read at about the same time, E Arnot Robinson's Ordinary Families, published 1933, with a much fiercer study of warring sisters.

    And James Mortmain ( 'dead hand') is someone I don't find so charming, feckless and forgivable now. His violent outbursts, the 'attack' on his first wife, the plates flung at Cassandra and Thomas show him as a strange and even monstrous father, unlike the father figures of the avuncular vicar or even Aubrey Fox-Cotton -- I felt too that the pale withdrawn image of the dead mother haunted the book, although she does 'return' to help Cassandra find herself. It is a bildungsroman about the loss of innocence. With the disappearance of Miss Blossom (a clever trick of ventriloquism that took on a life of its own) and the last celebration of the pagan mid-summer's eve ritual, the old magic of the child Cassandra has gone, her farewell call on the mound (to the Wild Huntsman?) something final.

    And the significance of the kisses is ambivalent too: at the time a test of true love, the swoony enchanted feeling and the certainty this is real love. Then a door opening to disillusionment. Great 'coming of age' writing.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Doesn't every writer have some sort of Mrs. Blossom? Don't most writers' characters take on a life of their own, and elbow their way into places where the writer never intended them to go? (I exclude Thomas Hardy from the 'most writers' list as his characters are entirely made of cardboard and travel exclusively on the tram lines that their creator laid down for them. Other opinions are available!)

    There were, incidentally, many other things the girls could have done rather than just wait to get married. My own very rural-Welsh mother, who never really learned to speak proper English, nonetheless got herself work in London in the 1930s, first in a dairy and then as a sales assistant at John Lewis, and she was by no means atypical. She ended up working in a fairly senior job at the Air Ministry, so it was certainly possible for naive country lasses to 'go places.'
  • NenyaNenya Shipmate
    Andras wrote: »
    (I exclude Thomas Hardy from the 'most writers' list as his characters are entirely made of cardboard and travel exclusively on the tram lines that their creator laid down for them. Other opinions are available!)

    :lol: I tend to agree with you - well put!
    There were, incidentally, many other things the girls could have done rather than just wait to get married. My own very rural-Welsh mother, who never really learned to speak proper English, nonetheless got herself work in London in the 1930s, first in a dairy and then as a sales assistant at John Lewis, and she was by no means atypical. She ended up working in a fairly senior job at the Air Ministry, so it was certainly possible for naive country lasses to 'go places.'
    Indeed. On rereading the book recently I felt quite irritated by the "board meeting" with Miss Marcy when everyone's earning capacity apart from Stephen's came out as "nil." I wanted to tell them to use some gumption and get themselves off to offer their services as maids or gardeners up at Scoatney Hall.

    I've been thinking quite a lot about Cassandra's mother and her palpable presence in the book. Although Cassandra says she died "from perfectly natural causes" there must have been some, possibly distressing, illness as her youngest child was only seven when she died. She was clearly musical - Rose is described as playing on her old piano - and I can picture her being concerned about trespassing when they discover the castle, and staying with the young Thomas as he "woke and wept a little." I sense Mortmain gained inspiration from her (such as the idea for the title of his book) in a way that he doesn't from the more overtly artistic Topaz, who is also flamboyantly motherly in a way that Mother didn't seem to be. (I don't think we ever know her name, do we? She's simply "Mother.") And of course at the end she "speaks" clearly to Cassandra, who has inherited the ability to unlock something of her father's writer's block and whose understanding of his work her father hankers for.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I certainly have a 'Miss Blossom', I'm always writing stuff fromt he point of view of Victorian maids. I do worry that the voice is a bit of a pastiche, even if my grandmother who was a maid in Edwardian times did speak in a similar way.

    I like the fact that we don't know anything that Cassandra doesn't. Other writers of the time might have been tempted to look at the 1930s from the point of view of WWII, but there is no hint of that on the horizon, one of the advantages of using the notebooks to tell the story. Cassandra's description of the cake knife incident is very much from a child's point of view, assuming that her father can do no wrong and it is the neighbour at fault. I'm also assuming that Topaz's early life was pretty horrible and not at all the sort of romantic bohemian one that Cassandra imagines. Marriage to Mortmain must have seemed very attractive, awful behaviour or no.

    Does anyone else see Leda Fox-Cotton as a model from a Lempicka painting?
  • Oh, I really like that! Leda post-swan.
  • SparrowSparrow Shipmate
    Nenya wrote: »
    Indeed. On rereading the book recently I felt quite irritated by the "board meeting" with Miss Marcy when everyone's earning capacity apart from Stephen's came out as "nil." I wanted to tell them to use some gumption and get themselves off to offer their services as maids or gardeners up at Scoatney Hall.

    Quoting from memory, but didn't Rose at one point rather melodramatically declare that she would go on the streets - to be told by Cassandra that she couldn't go on the streets in the depths of Suffolk!


  • NenyaNenya Shipmate
    I've just looked at that passage again and to be fair (and annoyed with myself for not checking properly) Rose does say she'll go to Scoatney as a maid and it's Miss Marcy who points out that maids have to be trained (which happens on the job, surely?) and also that "I can't feel your father would like it." Bit of masculine overbearingness there, I rather want Rose to say, "Who cares what he thinks?"
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    It piques my curiosity that two of the ladies have names from the Siege of Troy story - Leda was Helen's mother, and Cassandra the Trojan princess and prophetess who was doomed to always prophesy the truth but never be believed - but the story doesn't seem to go anywhere with the allusions.

    Am I over-thinking this?
  • NenyaNenya Shipmate
    Andras wrote: »
    Am I over-thinking this?

    Perhaps - but do feel free to run with it. We could have a discussion about the significance of the names. Fox-Cotton, for example, makes Leda sound suitably predatory. And James Mortmain is a splendid name for an author. I always found the names of the three siblings quite an intriguing combination - a name with huge presence like Cassandra alongside a much more ordinary one like Rose, with a Thomas that I can never imagine was shortened to Tom and a Stephen who would never have been Steve; partly it wouldn't suit their characters and partly I don't suppose it would have been usual back then. Cassandra makes quite a thing about Topaz's name - "there is no law to make a woman stick to a name like that" - but as far as I'm aware we never know Mother's name, or the vicar's, or Miss Marcy's first name.

    Is anyone's name shortened? Neil at one point calls Thomas "Tommy" when he gives him the ham, and I have a feeling he calls Simon "Si" (can't find exactly where just at the moment) but it seems to be a particularly American thing in the book, apart from Miss Blossom calling Rose "Rosie" when she asks if she's keeping something up her sleeve after the bear episode.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Dodie Smith was clearly very aware of the implications of names - Cruella de Ville, anyone? - but in ICTC many of the characters' names do seem rather random.

    But yes, Leda Fox-Cotton is a wonderful moniker, and as for Topaz Mortmain - that's a real delight to roll your tongue round.
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