Cassandra Mortmain from I Capture the Castle

15th Jul 2010

Cassandra Mortmain

Dodie Smith is perhaps better known as the author of The Hundred and One Dalmatians, but I am a much bigger fan of her first novel, I Capture the Castle, a first-person narration of the life of the Mortmain family living in rural Britain in the 1930s, told by the wonderful charismatic, awkward and blissfully funny Cassandra. This easy-to-pick-up, hard-to-put-down modern classic was made into a lovely, sweet-as-hell film in 2003, which I would also recommend.

Cassandra is the narrator, and sort-of heroine of the book, but for me the title of favourite character is hard to pin on her. For Cassandra would be nothing without her family, and so it is the Mortmain family itself on whom I heap the praise of the fangirl.

First, there is her depressive father, the great writer James Mortmain (cast perfectly in the form of Bill Nighy in the film), whose unpredictable temper and strange behaviours hang over the rest of the family, who subsequently bend to his every whim. None more so than his second wife, the artist’s model Topaz (my dream step-mother, she wanders around naked in the moors and talks eloquently about the God-like power of dying things green). The reason for this is Mortmain’s genius writer status: he once wrote a book called Jacob’s Wrestling, and if anyone knows where I can source a fan-written copy of it, please let me know, because I’d love to see it.

Then there is Cassandra, possibly a bit ‘consciously naive’ and country mouse in the way that would make me hate her in real life, but because she is an Original, as opposed to a Try-Hard who will put on a plumb accent and make jam (out of season), but doesn’t know how to use a darning needle and buys all their pyjamas from Primark, I love her very dearly. Almost as much as I despise her sister, Rose, who is beautiful and affected and so very desperate to catch a rich man in order to fulfil her consumerist desires you just want to push her in the moat. Which there is. Going around the walls of the dilapidated castle. Where they live. Jealous much, are we?

The two boys in the family, precocious younger brother Thomas, played to comic perfection by Joe Sowerbutts, who also voiced Harry in the Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone game (Aren’t you glad of Wikipedia?), and the gorgeous country bumpkin Stephen Colley, who lives with the family and is hopelessly in love with Cassandra, are happy asides to the whole gang. The castle is as much a part of the family as the rest of them, with strange corridors that go nowhere, towers, battlements, and a huge stone devil carved into the kitchen ceiling.

I know it sounds like idealistic nonsense, but it isn’t, its actually brilliant. When the family’s poverty becomes so extreme due to James’ refusal (or inability) to write anything and the girls unable to make a living for themselves (shows just how little choice there was for women, neither Cassandra or Rose have any education past 16, all they can think of to make money is selling off family heirlooms or taking to the streets (to which Topaz says she regrets having never taken to the streets because ‘one must sink to the depths in order to rise to the heights’. I love Topaz), the families fortunes look pretty bleak, until two rich American young men turn up in the neighbourhood. The book explores comparative wealth, the status of women, class boundaries, sex and sexualities, and, to my mind its biggest achievement, how seriously depression can affect a family. Although mental illness is more talked about now than it has been in the past, most of the emphasis seems to be on the sufferer. If you have had a family member or partner with depression, you will empathise so well with the children’s reaction to their father.

I love this book, and happily give it a re-read every year or so. I would recommend it to anyone who loves vintage charm, British humour, and dilapidated castles. And to everyone else.

Guest post by Jess Haigh (also known as @BookElfLeeds)