Friday, July 27, 2007

I Capture the Castle

The past fortnight of Pottermania has made me extra-sensitive to questions of genre. Genre can be of great use as an aid to description and understanding of a book, but instead it often becomes prescriptive, limiting expectations for both a book's artistry and its potential audience. Most of the tut-tutting about how Harry Potter's popularity with adults is a sign of the apocalypse is tied to its being a children's series, and while that strain of criticism seems less prevalent this time around, with previous volumes a lot of commentators allowed that aspect of the series to obscure the undeniably cheering fact that the books' great popularity has led 8.5 million people--many of whom do not spend a lot of time talking or thinking about writing--into discussions of the elements of creative art, such as narrative structure and strategies, artistic intentions, and representation of character. (Michael Berube has a fascinating article in the most recent issue of the Common Review about his son, who has Down Syndrome, learning about how stories work through reading Harry Potter.)

I wouldn't argue that the Harry Potter books aren't children's literature. Rowling is specifically writing for children (or young adults), and her structure, concerns, and approach, however creative and well executed, fit too neatly within the tradition for me to say otherwise--but I also don't care, because a genre classification has no power to limit the books' audience at this point. There's joy and excitement for readers of any age there, along with a singular (and fun) feeling of community that books, by their very nature as solitary objects of contemplation, generally don't provide.

Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle (1948), on the other hand, I would argue could use the boost of not being regarded as a children's book--or at least not regarded solely as such. Marketing it that way makes sense: Dodie Smith is best-known for The One Hundred and One Dalmations, the book is told in the form of the journal of a seventeen-year-old girl who lives in a decaying castle in rural 1930s England, and the publishers make extravagant use of praise for the book from J. K. Rowling. But at the same time that it is a novel in every way suitable for a smart teen or pre-teen reader, there is nothing about it that ought to limit it to that audience. Without disrupting the verisimilitude of her young narrator's perspective, Dodie Smith's perceptiveness and intelligent attention shine through, and though I Capture the Castle is a gentle book at heart, with little of the darkness of the world, there's at the same time a palpable sense of reality to it. Its gentleness and humor are not created through avoiding or denying life's dangers but through enthusiastically embracing the world as it is--imperfect, yet still able to take your breath away with its shimmering beauty. Smith is not talking down to anyone, and she's not limiting the insights her story can generate: she's simply showing us a young woman learning about herself, her family, and the differences that make us who we are.

The narrator, Cassandra, lives in genteel but actual poverty with her family in the ruined castle, which they rent from a family of landed gentry. Her volatile father is a writer who published a critically hailed avant-garde book (which comes across as a mix of Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave, the more fragmented portions of "The Waste Land," and, say, Finnegans Wake) when Cassandra was a toddler, but hasn't published a thing--or earned a shilling--since. The rest of her eccentric family consists of the teenage son of an old family servant, her younger brother, and her beloved older sister, as well as her stepmother, Topaz, a former model and artistic bohemian who is by turns silly, self-involved, dedicated, and kind. Topaz is the sort of character Anthony Powell or Evelyn Waugh might include in a party scene, though Smith presents her as a far more complicated figure than those two's passing mentions would allow. In a near-perfect isolation, sometimes glorious, sometimes constricting, the family ekes out a unique, cobbled-together existence, the roles of parent and child indistinct, the children without even a clear idea of how other people live. Like Iris Murdoch would later do in a couple of novels, Smith shows how the such unusual places can develop their own odd atmospheres, affecting and infecting the people living there; though the bonds such isolation forces can be glorious at times, the possibility that they will curdle and become malign is ever present.

As the novel opens, Cassandra's sister has reached her late teens and is beginning to despair of ever escaping the family's insularity and establishing a life of her own; life has established a pattern, and it seems unlikely ever to change. But suddenly change bursts upon the family in the form of the new heirs to the manor house, a pair of attractive young men who stumble into the castle one night while searching for their grand new home. (Another similarity, now that I think about it, to Murdoch: her novels are full of figures who enter established groups and disrupt them--though Smith's young men are essentially benign, while Murdoch's are almost always at least chaotic, if not demonic. I could certainly imagine Murdoch knowing and liking this book.) Like Austen heroines, the sisters spin dreams around the men, and those dreams begin the inevitable process of forever changing their seemingly changeless family life.

Through some luminously described scenes--a paired swim on a cool spring night around the six-hundred-year-old moat, an illicit late-night dance in the candlelit manor, a solstice bonfire--the girls fall in and out of love, the family's life is turned upside down, and Cassandra grows up. Like her sister, she welcomes the idea of escaping their poverty, but that escape inevitably brings a loosening of the family bonds as well. The book ultimately reminds us of the inevitability of change and the importance of accepting it--we can and should try to hold on to what is good, but there often comes a point when such efforts become false, and a healthy heart must learn the art of gracefully moving on. It's a hard lesson for anyone, let alone a teenager, and Smith presents Cassandra's acceptance of it with great subtlety and care.

Dodie Smith invests the Cassie and her language, as well as the other characters, with such evident warm love and empathy that I will confess to assuming that she had drawn them from her own childhood, though her Wikipedia entry gives no hint of a connection. I think that obvious love is another reason that I Capture the Castle gets pigeonholed as a children's book: a lot of people do read it when they're young, and that warmth resonates strongly, inspiring a deep devotion that we don't often develop for books we read as adults. So if you have smart, bookish children, by all means give them a copy--but be sure to find the time to read it yourself. You won't regret it.

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