“I can read the speedwriting quite easily, even the bit I did by moonlight”
This novel is Dodie Smith’s (of 101 Dalmatian fame) first novel and centres around the manic Mortmain family: a hermit father with writer’s block, a stepmother who longs to be a muse, a son who is quite hardworking if not cheeky, his Jane Austen heroine idoliser sister and finally, the charming Cassandra, who embraces her family’s weirdness in open arms. They are quite content with their life in a collapsing castle, until two polar opposite brothers from America and change their lives.
Cassandra Mortmain, this novel's protagonist is what I would describe as a 'manic pixie dream girl' who exists not for anyone's benefit but her own. She is the best character I have ever read. I love her curiosity and her strange tradition of a Midsummer needfire. She goes through so much in this coming-of-age book: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink”, a quote that perfectly describes Cassandra’s unique ways, and writing, to "I have grown out of wanting to write about myself" a sentence that reflects her change from the innocent girl at the start of the Sixpenny Book to the mature young woman with whose life experiences have moulded her.
Dodie Smith was said to have written this novel as an ode to the happier times in the English countryside. This is evident in the way she has put so much care and thought into describing Suffolk, my home county, which I have never previously thought much of. The setting of the castle, a usually ominous and removed place, does not cause the story to steer away from the plot but adds to it in a way no other structure could. The background of this crumbling castle, an almost oxymoron, as Cassandra's home, gives her more depth and fortitude, that nothing else physically could. A teenager who is almost '"naïve"' - as Simon so carelessly put it- yet wise beyond her years, in genteel poverty, and who speaks to almost nobody outside of her family is living in a castle, a place more familial to her than most people in the book.
Music, literature, and art are also taken great care of in the descriptions in this book, so as not to trivialise the basis of our otherwise dull lives. Although, obviously, you cannot hear or see these arts, Cassandra’s experiences with them are astounding. I can never re-live listening to ‘Clair de Lune’ or ‘La Cathédrale engloutie’ for the first time, but every time I read page 339, I can hear Cassandra's, "you hear the drowned cathedral rise with its bells ringing, then sink into the sea again" - and that is even better.
The characters are all incredibly individual and I could criticise nothing, for these are, unfortunately, realistic characters, who make decisions very much in keeping with their character, a fact that sometimes makes us readers cringe, such as the decision to disguise themselves as bears to save face, an incident, which as you may have guessed, does not. Every time I think about, or re-read this book, it gives me new dimensions on the characters and their decisions, which I try to rationalise in my non-castle living mind, again and again.
My only critique of this fantastic book is that it includes absolutely no diversity, only white people who are rich or were once well-off. This novel was written in 1948 by a woman born in 1896, however, this is still a forewarning to this book, with the only missing being diversity.
Overall, this book gives us an interesting insight into a young girl living in 1930-something, who also happens to live in a castle with characters that are lovingly painted into words. This story will stay in your mind for weeks.