Friday, December 9, 2011

Life After Betty

via email from Betty van den Betsy:

Life After Betty – Dodie Smith

Dodie Smith (1896-1990), a prolific playwright and novelist in the mid-twentieth century, today is best known for her children’s book The Hundred and One Dalmatians. You should read that, and The Starlight Barking, its sequel, even if you’re a grown-up, because they are delightful and scary and vividly evocative of the setting. That their setting is upper-middle class life in mid-century London and rural England, albeit from the perspective of some very anthropomorphic dogs, is a bonus.

However, her best-known novel for adults, I Capture the Castle, may be of more immediate interest for fans of Betty Neels. The narrator, Cassandra Mortmain, is almost 18 and captured by family circumstances in a crumbling 17th-century house grafted to a 14th-century castle. She has literary aspirations, and as an exercise in learning to write, she begins a journal – with the sentence, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”

Mortmain family life is as quirky as Cassandra’s writing perch. The family has “been poor for five years now,” living on what they can get from their garden, sales of the good furniture and the small royalties still coming in from a very important work of literature Cassandra’s father wrote about 15 years earlier, before the first world war. Since then, he has been jailed briefly for a minor dust-up with a neighbor, has moved his wife and three children to the Sussex castle/house of the title, and remarried, following his wife’s death, an exotically-lovely artist’s model named Topaz. Most urgently, though, he has stopped writing, which means the family finances have suffered, to the point of near-catastrophe.

Cassandra has begun her journal at a fortuitous moment, though; the family fortunes are about to change. While she finds her situation, viewed from the outside perspective of the sink, at least potentially romantic, her older sister, Rose, is disgruntled, inclined to bitterness, and desperate enough to wish on the gargoyle that juts from the castle wall into the family kitchen. Her wish seems to produce results when two American brothers, the elder heir to a local manor house, stumble upon the Mortmains.

Simon and Neil Cotton arrive at the castle one night in a downpour that carries the first scent of spring, while Cassandra is in the tin bath by the fire, protected by just-dyed sheets hung to dry around her, Topaz is walking about the ancient tower mound wearing nothing but Wellington boots, and Rose is modeling a romantically-lovely tea gown with Medieval sleeves. They are captivated by the family’s unusual situation, and their interest is reinforced by Simon’s appreciation of James Mortmain’s famous book. However, the initial relationship is rocky, and it takes a dramatic situation to resolve early misunderstandings.

As the families get to know each other better, a love pentagon – or maybe even hexagon – develops, while Cassandra and others worry about James Mortmain’s increasing eccentricity, and try to channel his renewed intellectual energy into writing. Cassandra, suffering the first pangs of infatuation, love and desire, takes counsel from the wise village vicar as well as from family, other friends, her favorite authors and her daydreams. Since the novel is in the form of a journal, written journalistically as events happen, the reader must puzzle out the connections and conclusions along with the narrator. That process strengthens the realistic tone of the story.

The book’s sweep is ambitious. Cassandra considers love, literature, family, duty, faith and art as grand questions as well as daily realities. The book’s setting is comfortable: even in the face of poverty and emotional distress, the reader feels confident Cassandra will win through – if not to a traditional happy ending, at least to a better sense of herself and her abilities, and continued interest and excitement in life’s possibilities.

Dodie Smith writes vividly. The reader hears the rain she describes, feels the joy of eggs for tea, and smells the bluebells blossoming in the woods. Her characters are genuinely likeable and surprisingly realistic for so romantic a group. The main characters, Cassandra and Rose, are supported by an assortment of colorful, complex and fully-fleshed secondary characters. Cassandra sets out to “capture” the castle and its inhabitants, and the book succeeds at painting a rich and evocative portrait of some unique and admirable individuals at a point of transition and growth. Perhaps one of the loveliest lines in this consistent lovely story comes at the close of the first chapter: “I think it worthy of note that I never felt happier in my life – despite sorrow for father, pity for Rose, embarrassment about Stephen’s poetry and no justification for hope as regards our family’s general outlook. Perhaps it is because I have satisfied my creative urge; or it may be due to the thought of eggs for tea.”

Clothes: a dyed-greenish tea gown (“As if anyone ever wore a tea gown for tea!”), old white suits, a bear-fur coachman’s coat, a pink muslin dinner frock worn over a crinoline, an outgrown schoolgirl’s swimsuit and schoolboy swim trunks (“they were helping to stop up Thomas’s draughty chimney; luckily they are black”), a fashionably-black evening dress worn with shoes that keep slipping off, and much, much more.

Food: bread and margarine and boiled eggs for high tea, and on another, better occasion new bread, real butter and honey (“I shouldn’t think even millionaires could eat anything nicer”); oatcake with margarine and sugar in lieu of a biscuit; cocoa; a chocolate bar to eat in the bath; roast chicken with bread sauce, two veg and treacle pudding; real champagne at a dinner party where Cassandra realizes “you can’t notice food fully when you are being polite,;” steak cooked over a fire (“this is called a ‘barbecue’”); cherry brandy: marvelous jellied soup; and, yes, more – much, much more.


  1. I don't remember if I've ever finished the book but I adore the Topaz character. She's hilarious and quite iron-willed in her own way.

  2. Betty van den BetsyDecember 9, 2011 at 7:56 AM

    Topaz is wonderful - so entirely comfortable in her own skin, as they say. She's very modern in her behavior but almost aggressively old-fashioned in her commitment to serving men of genius.

    The movie version with Bill Nighy as James Mortmain and a bunch of people I've never heard of in all the other roles is excellent, if you're interested. It got an R rating, which seems ridiculous. Tara Fitzgerald is the actress who plays Topaz; she doesn't look the way I envision the character but she acts the part beautifully.

  3. I just re-read my own review and realized I've done this book a sad disservice in not specifically noting that it is really, really funny.