I Capture the Castle

Dodie Smith is best known as the author of 'The Hundred and One Dalmatians' turned (twice) into execrable films by Disney. Disney drained the book of its wonder and mystery and turned a fable of good and evil that beautifully balances the humorous and the serious into comedic farce. You can only be thankful that they have never perpetrated similar violence on its sequel, 'The Starlight Barking'!

'I Capture the Castle' was Smith's first novel (having pursued a career as a playwright and screenwriter) and is magical. A precocious seventeen year old girl, a budding writer, observes her family trapped in genteel poverty and varied forms of eccentricity and their transformative encounter with two visiting Americans. It is set in the 1930s but was written in the 1940s when Smith, resident in the US, longed for her homeland - that it might survive its trial and that she should share in its trial.

It was a novel that united Smith's friend, Christopher Isherwood, and the composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams in an unlikely union of praise but it is a union that suggests two of the book's abiding virtues.

The first being the acute observation of the unfolding events through the eye of the seventeen year old Cassandra who is a blending mixture of prejudice, common sense, insight and the certainties of youth.

The second being a deep, abiding affection for a certain vision of England - genteel yet resilient, amateurish yet accomplished and decidedly and affectionately eccentric!

As with her books for children, there is too the subtle presence of the magical - coincidences turn meaningful, prayers are unexpectedly answered and the world turns on hidden hinges.

It is all done with grace and humour and a simplicity that cost untold effort on Smith's part.

It too gave rise in me a renewed sense of why reading such novels is important, not simply entertaining.

I was reminded of a earnest young monk arriving at an Orthodox monastic community on Mt Athos, eager to become a starets, a holy father. Meeting his teacher for the first time in the monastic library, his teacher, a man of renowned holiness and simplicity, handed him a copy of David Copperfield to read. 'What this?' asked the young man in disgusted tones, 'with all the holy books we have here of the Saints and Fathers of the Church, you give me this novel to read'? The elder replied, 'Yes, if you cannot align your sentiments with the compassion of a simple man like Copperfield, how can you expect the more difficulty task of having them transformed in the saintly life? They cannot be transformed if the sentiments are not anchored in the first place!'

Novels are, amongst many other things, read aright, educators of the heart.



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