Revisiting this novel has made me quite emotional. When I say emotional, I mean it’s left me sobbing. If you haven’t yet read I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith, I insist you buy or loan a copy immediately because a life isn’t worth living that hasn’t read the opening line, ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.’
I exaggerate. But this is a beautiful novel written by Dodie Smith, best known for 101 Dalmatians. Dodie turned to this story in her 50s when she was living a successful life in California, and missing Britain terribly. She wrote this gazing over the Pacific Ocean.
Ostensibly a children’s novel, it speaks to anyone who has ever gone through the pain of growing up, falling in love and understanding that there are no happy endings in life – or even endings. The BBC produced a gorgeous and loyal adaptation, if you can get your hands on it.
It goes without saying that the same author who created Cruella de Vil understood the power of clothes. As far as I can see, there’s only one small sewing scene in I Capture The Castle but it’s a key scene:
All week we were getting ready for the party. Topaz bought yards and yards of pink muslin for Rose’s frock and made it most beautifully. (At one time, before she was an artist’s model, Topaz worked at a great dress-maker’s, but she will never tell us about it – or about any of her pasts, which always surprises me because she is so frank about so many things.) … It was fun while we were all sewing the frills for the dress; I kept pretending we were in a Victorian novel.
Fabric is Isle of Wight Liberty Tana Lawn, featuring Carisbrook Castle
Rose and her sister, Cassandra, are getting ready for a party that will change their lives. It’s a small but telling detail that Topaz buys pink muslin. The family is poor and muslin is cheap.
At the party, Rose will convince the rich American, Simon, to fall in love with her and soon she’s to be swept out of the poverty she craves to escape. She moves down to London and starts to prepare for her wedding. From the city, she writes to the sister she’s abandoned in a crumbling castle…
You are to have the most beautiful bridesmaid’s frock – you are to come up to be fitted for it – and I think the ready-made clothes I am wearing now can be altered for you, once I get my trousseau. And when I am married we will shop like mad for you.
Rose is a fast learner when it comes to the fine art of self-improvement – or, at least, acquiring a better wardrobe. A few chapters ago, she was thrilled to have a homemade dress sewn for a party. Now, even the luxury of wearing shop-bought threads has become outre as she visits couture houses to have her trousseau made. Poor Cassandra is expected to be grateful from afar for the hand-me-downs and for the bridesmaid dress that she will be fitted for on Rose’s orders. Oh, big sisters! Oh, shallow, vain, self-serving big sisters! (I was one. I’m allowed to say that.)
There is no neat solution to I Capture The Castle. Plans and love affairs are going to unravel, ravel back up, get knotted, loosen themselves. The final diary entry doesn’t feel like a happy ending necessarily, but it feels like an ending written for today’s brooding weather:
A mist is rolling over the fields. Why is summer mist romantic and autumn mist just sad? There was mist on Midsummer Eve, mist when we drove into the dawn.
He said he would come back.
Only the margin left to write on now. I love you, I love you, I love you.
And now I’m crying again.