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Writers, writing and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith Writers, writing and Dodie Smiths I Capture the Castle

 

When reading PG Wodehouse’s Love Among the Chickens recently I was struck by the narrator’s curiosity regarding “to what extent the work of authors is influenced by their private affairs.” These words resonated with me as they were the third time in as many books that I’d come across a similar sentiment; the other books being Nabokov’s Lolita and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, both of which are transcendent works that involve literary types and themes in a way that’s mesmerisingly recursive.

In her introductory essay to I Capture the Castle (included in the Folio Society edition), Valerie Grove describes the torment experienced by Smith in the writing of the novel: 

“She kept a 100,000-word notebook on her progress, which reveals that it almost drove her to a breakdown. She was so anxious that her first novel should be a success after the long years of frustration that she spent two years on rewriting, when every line of dialogue reverberated in her head, interrupting her sleep, causing her to wake each day with a visceral dread, her mind nagged with doubt, her brain throbbing. She felt she was disintegrating, mentally and physically…endlessly, she noted her anxieties over whether the characters worked: ‘never, never have I suffered so over any piece of work. Sometimes I would spend two hours without getting one short paragraph of revision right. And always I was dogged by the fear that my creative powers were fading for good, that I should never be able to write anything else in the future.’”

The novel, incidentally, reads in an astonishingly effortless manner, its breezy, mirthful prose belying none of the creative anguish experienced by Smith. Where this conflict does break through to the surface is in the contrast of the characters of narrator Cassandra and her father, the reclusive and acclaimed author James Mortmain. Cassandra’s efforts to “capture the castle” are almost hypergraphic: her narration occurs in what is close enough to real time, brimming with quick and easy observation and unselfconscious diarisation. She has mastered, she tells us, the art of “speed writing”.

In contrast, her father is crippled by what is described as writer’s block, but which seems attributable instead to the overwhelming pressure he faces in writing a sophomore volume capable of living up to, or surpassing, his debut Jacob Wrestling. “It’s time that this legend that I’m a writer ceased,” he snaps at his daughter at one point. And when asked by a visitor when a follow-up might be expected–this some years after the book’s publication–he responds, deflated, shoulders sagging, with a breathed, “never”.

His interrogator quickly seeks to atone for his misstep with the following:

“Certain unique books seem to be without forerunners or successors as far as their authors are concerned. Even though they may profoundly influence the work of other writers, for their creator they’re complete, not leading anywhere… The originators among writers–perhaps, in a sense, the only true creators–dip deep and bring up one perfect work; complete, not a link in a chain. Later, they dip again–for something as unique. God may have created other worlds, but he obviously didn’t go on adding to this one.”

This is certainly the case for Cassandra’s father, whose slowly transpiring follow-up effort involves a bizarre mish-mash of exploratory elements–everything from nonsensical crossword puzzles to fishbone-inspired word art. It’s the creative equivalent of the identity binary found in siblings: the only way to avoid comparison with a brother or sister is to position oneself in an utterly oppositional manner. And the author whose oeuvre is utterly divergent is safer, in a way, than the author who works down a kind of bibliographic train-line. It’s easier to separate the author and work, after all, if the work is all manner of things.

It’s hard not to draw the kind of parallel suggested by Wodehouse here: the inevitable link between the author and the authored. After all, as Milan Kundera suggests, aren’t all characters simply an author exploring his or her possible selves? (“But some characters in books are very real,” writes Cassandra.) But this brings with it an obvious issue, as alluded to above: the conflation of the author and the author’s work, and the resulting critique not only of the work, but of the individual.  This seems to be at the heart of James Mortmain’s writer’s block, and it’s an idea that Smith looks at with deep-seated irony and cynicism. There’s a point where Mortmain is said to have “changed his mind about it–he now thinks he did mean all the things the critic says he did,” and it’s hard not to read this as a cynical capitulation, particularly when we hear of the subject of his second book.

Although plot-wise it comprises only a small element of the book, the battle of the author and author’s creation (and indeed the re-creation of that creation by the reading public) is immensely palpable throughout I Capture the Castle, and despite Mortmain’s sardonic note about the interpretive liberties of critics, it’s hard not to concede Wodehouse’s point about the inevitable interrelation of art and life. “To what extent is the work of authors influenced by their private affairs?” he asks; to which we can respond to as great an extent as the reader wishes it to be so…

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Other books by Dodie Smith:

It Ends with Revelations by Dodie Smith Writers, writing and Dodie Smiths I Capture the Castle The Town in Bloom by Dodie Smith Writers, writing and Dodie Smiths I Capture the Castle The Hundred and One Dalmations by Dodie Smith Writers, writing and Dodie Smiths I Capture the Castle

11 comments

  1. I loved this post so much! I Capture the Castle is one of my all-time favourite books & I always feel I have found a kindred spirit when I find someone else who has loved it too. I did not know the story behind Dodie’s writing of it – my copy is a very battered edition from my childhood & doesn’t have the introductory essay. I’d love to read it! It makes feel so … I was going to say happy but that’s not the right word … Relieved, perhaps … To know I’m not the only author that suffers agonies of the spirit while writing ….

    • Thanks so much, Kate! I absolutely adored this one (incidentally, have you read A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper? It certainly riffs on this).

      I had a look around, and Valerie Grove is the author of a Dodie Smith bio, so that might be worth tracking down. Let me know if you’d like me to photocopy and post over a copy of the introductory essay–I’m happy to do so if you’d like.

      I read a wonderful quote just the other day by John Irving that you might like, too:

      “If when you’re writing, you feel like at any moment you’re about to humiliate yourself, and you feel that you’re writing far above your head, and you feel that everything is terrible, and you’re not going to be able to succeed, then what you’re writing is great. And if you don’t feel this, then you shouldn’t be writing.” – John Irving

      You’re certainly not alone!

  2. Laura Boon /

    I Capture the Castle is an old favourite of mine too. It’s one of the books I read as a teenager that have stayed with me. Also love the new look of the readinasinglesitting blog :)

  3. This seems to be a book that’s resonated with so many readers, which is quite a lovely thought given all the pain and effort that went into it. :) I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed it, Laura.

    And thanks for your kind words about the site. It definitely needs some more tweaking and streamlining, but it’s slowly getting there!

  4. Thanks for an interesting look at life/fiction on a favorite book.

  5. This is one of the most interesting posts on I Capture the Castle I can remember reading. I didn’t know she had struggled with it so much — poor dear! At least it came out pretty close to perfect, at least in my opinion. You’re right, the writing does feel effortless. Such a good book.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Jenny. :) I think the book is a remarkable achievement, and that the anguish involved in writing it definitely doesn’t come through in the final product!

  6. Samantha D /

    Hi, Stephanie,

    I loved “I Capture the Castle” when I read it as a teenager. In fact, I loved it so much that I cannot bring myself to read it again because I want to keep my teenaged memory of it intact.

    I do remember the prose seeming effortless and very witty, so I was surprised to read that it has caused her so much anguish.

    Regards

    Samantha

    • Hi Samantha,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one. I know exactly what you mean when you say you don’t want to spoil your memories of the book–I feel similarly about books I read as a teen!

      Stephanie

  7. I love this review. I like the fact that you gave us some ‘behind the scenes’ sort of details of the book that I always find intriguing. I haven’t read the book but now it’s on my ‘to-read’ list.

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