DO YOU EVER worry that you’ve read it all—not all of it, of course, but all the books that prompt that flashlight-under-the-covers, can’t-stop-till-I’m-done, giddy glee? The fear strikes me sometimes, when I’m scanning bookstore tables piled high with novels set in Brooklyn or Forks, Washington, or skimming through the lesser works of my literary loves. (I don’t recommend the soldiers of Sebastopol Sketches for anyone seeking another Vronsky, though Tolstoy’s account of his time in the Crimea certainly has its charms.) And then you find it, and under the covers you go.
I Capture the Castle is the beloved but far too narrowly celebrated masterpiece of British writer Dodie Smith. Born Dorothy Gladys Smith in 1896, Smith became famous as a playwright in the late 1920s, while working for a furniture store. (“Shopgirl Writes Play” was the headline that heralded her arrival.) During World War II, she moved to America with her husband Alec Beesley—a conscientious objector—and worked in Hollywood. In 1948, she published her first novel, I Capture the Castle, but it was her later work for children, 101 Dalmatians, that brought her greater fame (particularly once Disney got its hands on it) and eclipsed I Capture the Castle, the more complex and moving piece of literature.
If you’ve read 101 Dalmatians or even seen the film, you know something about Dodie Smith. She is an utterly charming, unabashedly British, and entertaining writer. Disney got that last part right, but what the film loses is the matter-of-fact inversion—familiar to anyone who has surrendered to puppy eyes—of the dog-and-owner hierarchy; you might be taller, but there’s little doubt as to who is in charge. “Then they put the Dearlys on their leashes,” writes Smith, “and led them into the park.” The Dearlys seem happy with their domestication: “‘I wish we had tails to wag,’ said Mr. Dearly.”
I Capture the Castle has the same crisp, wry, and charismatic tone, but it is wrong to couple the two books, as some who see I Capture the Castle as a juvenile or a—to use the loathsome label—“young adult” novel have done. It contains much, much more. The book is narrated by the seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain (it is purportedly her diary), who lives in a decrepit castle with her older sister Rose (“particularly fetching by firelight because she is a pinkish person”), her brother Thomas (“a cumbersome lad of fifteen with hair that grows in tufts, so that parting it is difficult”), her step-mother Topaz (a once-famous artists’ model who runs naked through the grounds), her father (a semi-dissolute, unproductive writer, famous for one masterful work), and an adopted-son-cum-groundskeeper called Stephen (“noble-looking but his expression is just a fraction daft”). Cassandra describes herself as “tolerably bright,” but it is clear from the semi-famous first line of the book—“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink”—that she is not only bright, but quirky and precocious, a “nasty noticing child,” to one of her antagonists, and delightfully honest and funny: “We are a sorry lot: father mouldering in the gatehouse, Rose raging at life, Thomas—well he is a cheerful boy but one cannot but know that he is perpetually underfed.”
Cassandra, in fact, is really what I Capture the Castle is “about,” as the novel’s plot wavers between the predictable and the absurd, with a superfluous dash of theatricality. The Cottons, a wealthy American family with two dashing sons, move to the village where Cassandra and her family live and become the Mortmains’ new landlords. Tired of threadbare dresses and rationed tea, Rose throws herself at one of the sons. Hijinks ensue. One of the more absurd examples: the sisters go to London to retrieve a minor inheritance—furs, mainly—and on their return, encounter the brothers. To avoid an embarrassment—the roots of which are obscure—Rose runs off with a coat on her back and is mistaken for a bear. Here, and elsewhere, Smith lets the dramatist take over. Enter a bear doesn’t work quite so well in fiction.
But when the novel stays close to Cassandra—showing her frustrations, desires, and fears—it is a remarkable feat. She is a narrator who should rank with Jane Eyre, Pip, Huck Finn, Scout, and Holden Caulfield. (When Smith first submitted the typescript, she requested that it be published anonymously with “I Capture the Castle by Cassandra Mortmain” on the title page—which seems to me a tribute to Jane Eyre.) And Cassandra is, according to Smith's biographer, Valerie Grove, “pure Dodie.” “Although she claimed to be embarrassed to identify herself so completely with a seventeen-year-old girl,” writes Grove, “she knew that therein lay the books real claim to be ‘in some tiny way, a work of art.’” Decades later, when she was ninety, she told the London Observer: “Of all my books and plays I think I like Castle best. I wrote myself into Cassandra.”
Verisimilitude between author and protagonist did not make the book easy to write, and Smith’s account of the creation of I Capture the Castle shows the scars of the struggle. In 1945, almost done with the draft, her “inner ear—that faculty for hearing every word spoken in my head before I write it—suddenly went out of gear,” she wrote. “It dawned on me that every word of a novel ought to be as carefully balanced as every speech in a play. Since then life has been quite nightmarish.” Revisions did not go any easier: “Never, never have I suffered so over any piece of work. Sometimes I would spend two hours without getting one short paragraph of revision right.” When she prepared to send the manuscript to her publisher, she did so with foreboding: “I’d almost like to shut the book up in a drawer, rest and think about another book,” she wrote in her diary in December, 1947. She had begun the novel in 1940.
On the eve of publication, her doubts did not dissipate. She was dismayed when the Literary Guild—a somewhat lowbrow Book of the Month-style organization—ordered 40,000 copies in advance and asked her to change the ending. She refused. “I see how dangerous to the integrity of the author these book clubs are.” Just before the book’s publication, she had dinner with her gloomy editor, who regaled her with stories of “disappointing sales of many established authors.” (He later admitted a general lack of New York literary interest that had prompted him to pull ready-to-go ads for the book.) Her friends tried to reassure her of the book’s merits. “To say ‘I couldn’t put it down’ is hardly original, but true,” wrote Christopher Isherwood in a letter. “It is a book that will be very much lived in my many people; because you can live inside it, like Dickens.” Isherwood was right. The book became a bestseller.
Smith lived off I Capture the Castle for many years. When 101 Dalmatians was published in 1956, she experienced another bout of success (even more when the film was produced in 1961), but by the ’70s, she was scraping by. When she sent off the first volume of her autobiography to her publisher, he offered her £800. (She had received $42,000 from the Literary Guild for Castle; when the film of Dalmatians was re-released in 1991, it grossed $66 million.) Desperately in need of new clothes, she bought two Shetland wool dressing gowns with the paltry payment from her memoir, as well as two Norwegian lumber coats, which she and her husband shared. For most of the ’70s, Smith was little interested in writing about anything other than herself, and her reputation and her finances continued to suffer for it.
Researching Smith’s later years, however, I couldn’t help but think that despite her falling fortunes and increasing solipsism, she remained true to the sprightly spirit of Cassandra: intellectually adventurous and decadent in the most endearing ways. At the age of 73, writes Grove, “her deepest pleasures now were: reading over breakfast; reading over coffee after lunch with Alec; getting into a warm pre-supper bath with a book; and reading in bed.” Cassandra Montmain also knew the tonic of a hot bath with a book: “I have discovered that the first few minutes are the best and not to be wasted—my brain always seethes with ideas and life suddenly looks much better than it did.”
I Capture the Castle seems to be having a mini-mini-moment. On the season finale of season one of the TV show “Girls,” Ray, one of the more acerbic and straight-talking characters, is buried in the book while protagonist Hannah is lost in US Weekly. (I can’t help but think that Lena Dunham is a fan and that this is a wry, self-sacrificing wink.) At Slate, Dana Stevens and Stephen Metcalf have recently been banging the drum on behalf of the book. And I Capture the Castle has always been regarded as a classic in Britain, periodically lauded when an eminent type is asked to participate in a literary parlor game masquerading as literary journalism. The book was even made into a movie, produced by the BBC, in 2003. But on this side of the pond Cassandra hasn’t quite entered the pantheon of lovely, wise, and entertaining literary children. Just as much as her castle, this is where she belongs.
Chloe Schama is the Executive Editor of The Book.
Chloe Schama is a story editor at The New Republic.