“How I wish I lived in a Jane Austen novel!”
Meet 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain who, alongside her family, lives in a rented castle. They’re poor (no-one earns any money) but they like to dream. The girls dream of love and marriage, the parents of unending days and food. And they feel that their status and their lack of money can mean only ruin in the future unless an appropriate husband is secured.
And what I thought about most was luxury. I had never realized before that it is more than just having things; it makes the very air feel different. And I felt different, breathing that air: relaxed, lazy, still sad but with the edge taken off the sadness. Perhaps the effect wears off in time, or perhaps you don’t notice it if you are born to it, but it does seem to me that the climate of richness must always be a little dulling to the senses. Perhaps it takes the edge off joy as well as off sorrow.
At first I resisted liking anything about it, including Cassandra’s repeated use of the word “capture”, but now I find myself thinking about how to describe this or that and involuntarily using the word “capture” in my thoughts. The story is at times screwball and at times elegant but always delightful and completely won me over.
“I shouldn’t think even millionaires could eat anything nicer than new bread and real butter and honey for tea.”
Cassandra Mortmain loves to write. The book starts with her writing in the sink. She likes to update her diary with everything that happens – be it big or small. She wishes to “capture” the castle as well as the people living in it, in her writing.
“There is only one page left to write on. I will fill it with words of only one syllable. I love. I have loved. I will love.”
Cassandra skillfully describes her father’s distance and failure to do anything to provide for the family, her stepmother’s charm and eccentricity, and her older sister Rose’s despair at their isolation and poverty. But what broke my heart was her matter-of-fact descriptions of how their poverty affects their lives every day: the too-small, worn-out clothing the girls have to wear; her gratitude for having eggs along with bread and margarine for their evening meal; the way the girls trade off sleeping in the one comfortable bed in their room (which hasn’t been sold only because it’s in such bad shape).
“I am a restlessness inside a stillness inside a restlessness.”
Rose, the more beautiful sister, is grimly determined to escape from poverty, even if she has to marry a man she doesn’t love. When two young American brothers move into town (the older son, Simon, is the family’s new and wealthy landlord), the Mortmains’ lives are all turned topsy-turvy, with love, romance and secrets.
“Oh, it is wonderful to wake up in the morning with things to look forward to!”
Cassandra’s insights into own and others’ personalities and motivations are sharp and witty, and occasionally even a little prophetic; I think the symbolism of her name from Greek mythology is deliberate, although she misses at least one major secret that a member of her own family is hiding.
The story in itself is nothing particularly exciting. It is a regular family saga, with pennies missing and food scarce, selfish women who can’t do any work themselves unless it involves getting naked (either modelling or for sexual intercourse reasons) and can survive only by marriage.
“There is something revolting about the way girls’ minds so often jump to marriage long before they jump to love.”
The characters are all facsimiles of the lower-upper-middle class of England who probably had a bit of Old Money tucked away but spent it all on a charming castle because, well, you would, wouldn’t you? The Castle was the best character of the whole piece.
The cover is gorgeous. It looks pretty good in my bookcase, but after reading it, I’m not sure whether it still has a place there. The descriptions of the countryside are quaint, and I liked the atmosphere created by Smith in regards to the castle. I felt like I was really walking around it, breathing in it’s ancient scent.
Good points: playful tone, sister love and good view of family drama, the innocent narrator, the confusion about love and the facts of life.
Bad points: long and dragged out, useless father who is sometimes depicted as abusive. Her father shoves her against a wall and doesn’t even apologize, and neither he nor Cassandra seem aware he’s done anything wrong. This is not a sweet little pastoral look at the English countryside like I expected — the “we’re poor, but it’s fun!” approach — instead, it hides a sort of secret viciousness beneath the jovial front.
I don’t really want to write anymore, I just want to lie here and think. But there is something I want to capture. It has to do with the feeling I had when I watched the Cottons coming down the lane, the queer separate feeling. I like seeing people when they can’t see me. I have often looked at our family through lighted windows and they seem quite different, a bit the way rooms seen in looking glasses do. I can’t get the feelings into words-it slipped away when I tried to capture it