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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

BPL Book Discussion: I Capture the Castle

I Capture the Castle
Last week, the BPL book discussion group met to discuss the 1948 classic novel by Dodie Smith,who is best known for 101 Dalmatians, I Capture the Castle is the captivating story of a British family at a cross roads.  From Reading Group Guides:
The glorious return of one of the century’s most beloved novels! I Capture the Castle is as brightly witty and adventuresome today as it was when it was first published fifty years ago. Long unavailable in American stores, it has been lovingly passed down from generation to generation. Until its reissue, it enjoyed the rare privilege of being one of the most requested items of used bookdealers.
I Capture the Castle tells the story of seventeen-year-old Cassandra and her family, who live in not-so-genteel poverty in a ramshackle English castle. Here she strives, over six turbulent months, to hone her writing skills. She fills three notebooks with sharply funny yet poignant entries. Her journals candidly chronicle the great changes that take place within the old castle’s walls, and her own first descent into love. By the time she pens her final entry, she has “captured the castle”--and the heart of the reader--in one of literature’s most enchanting entertainments.
Now on to our discussion:
  • We had a lighter crowd this month, which was fine since things have been getting a bit crowded at book club.  7 people liked the book, 4 were in the so-so category, and only 1 disliked it.
  • Many people of the 11 who liked or were so-so thought that it started off slow.  Since it is written as the journal of a 17 year old girl (who experience wise, is much younger than her years) they felt it was a bit slow to start.  A few people said there was too much detail.  However, they all found Cassandra charming so kept going.  As she improved in her writing skills the readers had more interest.  Also, later I outright asked the group if the rest of the book would have been as enjoyable if the first section was not as detailed.  They all agreed that the detail was needed for the reader to understand the characters, why they lived in poverty in a castle, and why they make the choices they do at the end.
  • Speaking of the journal.  This novel has a unique style which we discussed at length.  It is written in three parts, each part being a different journal Cassandra fills up.  The journals get more expensive as the family's fortune's pick up.  A few members have been life long journal writers and they shared their experiences.  They appreciated the detail but noted how writing a journal gives you insight into yourself. They saw Cassandra grow in this regard throughout the book.
  • Another person mentioned how the journal style allowed us to see the perspective of poverty from someone who had plenty when younger but now had to go without so much.  This participant drew comparisons to families going through hard times today.  Yet another brought it up to today by noting that they didn't think young people could write journals with this much insight and detail today.  Someone brought up the very first scene in the book as an example.  Cassandra is sitting on the drain board by the sink and simply trying to "capture" her family, each person, their surroundings, and their daily routines.  She patiently sits and records and goes back to fill it all in after the fact.  It was quite remarkable.
  • Characters: We talk a lot about the eccentric, rich, quirky and well developed characters throughout this novel.  Here are some of the things that were said about specific characters.
    • Cassandra: our narrator.  Her clarity and maturity came from her journaling, but she was still a child in many ways.  She wondered about things. She was close to nature.  Many participants mentioned the beauty of the scenes when she writes about swimming around the moat at night with Neil (one of the American brothers who enter their lives) and the Mid-Summer's Eve ritual she begins alone and finished with Simon (the other brother).  Even though Cassandra is our only point of view here, it did not feel one-sided.  No one longed for the voices of the other characters because she did such a great job "capturing" everyone.
    • Rose: Cassandra's big sister and the one who gets engaged to the rich American, Simon Cotton.  She came across as shallow but we forgave her because she had so little life experience.  She was extremely beautiful.  All Rose knew about love was what she learned from old novels.  In Jane Austen's time the only option for a woman was to get married.  She also thought she needed to marry up to help her family.
      • Interestingly, Rose and Cassandra together show how women's options were changing, we decided. Rose eventually marries Neil, the wilder brother and moves to America, still raising her family's financial standing, while Cassandra rebuffs Simon's love.  We think she would go on to become a writer.  She hints that she will one day write her father's biography.
    • Speaking of Neil and Simon and the love triangle with Rose.  Only three of us figured out before the end that Rose and Neil were really the ones in love, not Simon and Rose. We decided it was hard to figure out because we saw everything through Cassandra's eyes and she had no idea what was truly going on.  What she doesn't notice, we don't notice.
    • The Cottons were interesting.  Their $$ opened doors for Cassandra and her family. Simon was so infatuated with all things English, Mrs Cotton was infatuated with Cassandra's father the recluse author, and Neil, well he seemed to like none of it, but actually he loved Rose.
    • The Father: the famous author of Jacob Wrestling.  The family is in poverty because after an incident where he went to jail briefly, he never wrote again.  His masterpiece, Jacob Wrestling, and especially its popularity in America had kept them going for many years. Throughout the novel, the plot of Jacob Wrestling is referred to but never discussed at length.  We deduced that it was probably a pre-James Joyce modern novel.  It was probably an obtuse retelling of the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel.  By the end of I Capture the Castle he is writing a new novel which is an attempt to recreate the development of thought in children and their learning process into narrative form
      • We talked about why it took so long for the father to break his creativity drought.  Some of us were upset that he let the family almost starve while he did nothing.  Could it be depression.  The intellectual attention of Mrs Cotton seemed to snap him out of it.  But a few others noted that when the Cotton's came into the picture, the family also started eating regularly and that could have done a lot to make the father more productive as a writer.  There is also a lot in this novel hinting at the beginnings of psycho analysis.  Mrs Cotton became a therapist for him, in a way.
  • The book has a very open ending.  While Neil and Rose go off to America and get married, we don't know what will become of Cassandra and if she will marry Simon one day or not.  In the face of open endings, we always vote.  We were 9-3 in favor of Cassandra and Simon remaining close friends (with Simon writing literary essays about the father's work and Cassandra possibly writing his biography) but not marrying.  We supported our opinion because in the novel Cassandra is challenging Simon to grow up.  She thinks it is appalling that he asked her to marry him even though he is still in love with Rose.  We also decided that she needs a Stephen/Simon hybrid guy.  Those 3 who thought they would marry some day confessed to being romantics.
  • We talked about the title some. Cassandra talks about using her journal to "capture" her family and their life.  But someone else mentioned how the title reminded them of the game "capture the flag." This enhanced Cassandra's playful and whimsical side to that person.  We also felt that Cassandra captured herself too.  Her writing helped her to come of age and find herself.
  • There are many class issues in this novel.  The family is poor but they are still considered from the upper classes.  In the beginning when they are trying to figure out a job Rose or Cassandra could get, none are deemed appropriate for them.  I was thinking that one of them could go to London and be a nanny, but that was not even mentioned.  Though Stephen, their houseboy, who was never paid, except in room and board, can easily go work on the neighboring farm and use his salary to run the household.  That is just one example of the myriad of class issues subtly outlined here.
  • We were all touched by the conversation between Cassandra and the Vicar toward the end of the novel.  We loved his description of God and how the Vicar felt it was more important to be spiritual than religious.  He told Cassandra to go sit in the empty church and see what she felt.  We talked about this conversation and Cassandra's spirituality at length and decided that the conversation between the two of them could still happen today.  It was very well done and struck us all as important.
  • We ended by talking about why this novel is still appealing to readers.  Here are some of the reasons people gave:
    • it's timeless
    • dreams come true
    • it is a coming of age story
    • a book about a writer
    • romantic
    • great descriptions, especially of the castle.
  • Finally I asked  why post-WWII readers found this novel appealing.
    • It was a nice story for escape after the horrors of war
    • England as a whole went through extreme poverty after WWII, so readers there could relate
    • For many American readers, English society, especially castles, has always been of interest
    • Finally, the English/American dichotomy set up here would have been timely after fighting side by side in WWII
Readalikes:  As I mentioned here, Cassandra reminded me of Flavia de Luce.  But another member also mentioned how much this novel reminded her of watching Downton Abbey on PBS.  And still another member was very interested in reading more about old English castles. Just click on the links in the previous sentence to access more information about these readalike options.

Cassandra and her sister Rose often comment that they feel like they are in a Jane Austen or Bronte sisters  novel.  You can use the links for more suggestions.  Also, our book club will be reading Sense and Sensisbility by Austen in June.  We planned this to come after I Capture the Castle for discussion's sake. Come back the third week of June to see how that went.

A few other suggested novels would be*:
  • A Brief History of Montmaray  by Michelle Cooper which is narrated by a 16 year old girl who chronicles her life on a tiny island as a German researcher visits right on the brink of WWII.
  • Cold Comfort Farm  by Stella Gibbons which follows another eccentric family, the Starkadders, as a distant cousin visit their Sussex farm.  The cousin sets things in order, which ironically puts the family into chaos.
  • The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice is set in 1950s England, also in a crumbling mansion, and involves a friendship which catapults the poor girl into London's high society.
  • Don't forget the work of L.M. Montgomery also.  Most would be a good readalike, but think beyond Anne of Green Gables and turn to Emily's Quest.  Set in the early 1900's on Prince Edward Island, this novel is the last of the Emily Star trilogy and follows Emily as she learn what it means to be in love.
*suggestions found with the help of NoveList.  Use link for access for Berwyn Public Library card holders with their library card number.

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