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Book Review / Fiction

A Lively English Novel Gets a Second Life

I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith. A Wyatt Book for St. Martin's Press, $23.95, 346 pages

April 03, 1998|MICHAEL FRANK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is an occasion worth celebrating when a sparkling novel, a work of wit, irony and feeling, is brought back into print after an absence of many years. So uncork the champagne for "I Capture the Castle," a widely treasured book written in the late 1940s by Dodie Smith, the English playwright and author of "The Hundred and One Dalmatians" who died in 1990. The book is part minor-key Jane Austen, part "Cold Comfort Farm" and quintessentially English in its affection for eccentric families, country life, ancient bedraggled houses and language.

The endearing narrator is Cassandra Mortmain, 17, whose journals make up the novel. The capturing in question is writerly, as Cassandra draws portraits of herself, her family, their unusual house and certain romantic escapades that take place between March and October during one (unspecified) year in the 1930s. The family is headed, rather ineptly, by her father, James, who is the author of a famous book and whose severe writer's block has impoverished his brood. Cassandra's siblings are Rose, who at 21 sees absolutely no romance in poverty and is in near hopeless quest of a husband, and Thomas, her perceptive 15-year-old brother. Also part of the domestic constellation is Stephen, the 18-year-old son of the Mortmains' former maid. He dotes on Cassandra and leaves her sheaves of cribbed love poetry.

Although James once lost his temper and threatened the children's mother with a cake knife, a crime for which he spent three months in prison, Mrs. Mortmain died of "perfectly natural causes" eight years before the story begins. She has been succeeded by Topaz, an artist's model who plays the lute and likes to commune with nature by flinging off her clothes and strolling in the woods. Topaz is very beautiful and very pale. She once posed for a nude called "Composition," Cassandra tells us, but since the artist "painted her even paler than she is, 'Decomposition' would suit it better." Such is Cassandra's sly and cheeky humor.

After his release from prison, James took a 40-year lease on a curious property in Suffolk. Godsend consists of a Stuart house built onto the ruins of a Tudor castle, which is surrounded by an icy moat; a gatehouse where James reads detective stories instead of writing; and many rooms that have neither heat nor electricity. An even earlier structure, a 60-foot Norman tower called Belmotte, lends an enchanted note to the grounds as to the story.

The Mortmains live on vegetables and dine, as they do everything else, by candlelight. They take oven-heated bricks to bed for warmth. They have almost no furniture, books, linens or china, since their possessions have been sold off to bring in cash. They haven't paid rent in years for the privilege of living in such baronial splendor and are understandably concerned when their landlord dies and Godsend is left to his American heirs, Simon and Neil Cotton.

The Cottons provide the Mortmains and the book with relief both comic and romantic. When they first visit Godsend, they find Cassandra in her bath, where she is turning green from dye used in a vain attempt to give their threadbare clothes new life. Later, in an intricate set piece, Simon and Neil mistake Rose for a bear, the actual culprit being an inherited fur coat.

A courtship with many complications develops between Simon and Rose, and the impecunious Mortmains are given a taste of luxury and a lesson in American language and behavior. The rags-to-riches theme (much in evidence in movies and books set in the 1930s) is one among many entertaining twists in the novel, which also encompasses developments in Cassandra's romantic life, her father's work and Stephen's metamorphosis into a model and actor.

"I Capture the Castle" combines substance and frolic, though not always with seamless changes of tone. Cassandra struggles with melancholia and lovesickness, considers taking up religion and evolves into a nimble, observant writer who recognizes, humbly and authentically, how little she knows of "anyone in the world, really, except myself." She has a penchant for epigrams: "Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression"; "how extraordinary it must be not to find oneself interesting." For Cassandra Mortmain, this is never a possibility. Living in the shadow of Belmotte tower as she does, she is seldom at a loss for a bel mot, or beautiful word, so many of which she--or rather Dodie Smith--has knitted together into this delightful account of six months in a young woman's life.

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