Discover a woman writer: Dodie Smith

This women’s history month, I’m pledging to highlight the work of women writers I’ve loved. This series is intended to show the breadth, variety and quality of women’s writing, and to challenge the notion of a narrow category of “women’s fiction.”

Sometimes, when I’m daydreaming about having kids one day, I like to think of what books I’ll read to them when they’re little, what books I’ll give them as they grow up. Somewhere high on this list for when my hypothetical children reach teenagerdom is Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. 

Smith’s legacy as a writer is founded on her insanely popular  The Hundred and One Dalmatians… but it’s her coming of age story about two sisters struggling in genteel poverty that is probably one of my favourite books of all time.

When you consider that I don’t live in the 1930s, or a castle for that matter, its quite a feat that I always identified with this book’s main character quite as much as I did. And yet for a book that was published almost seventy years ago, I Capture the Castle has some really contemporary things to say about being a young woman. Cassandra Mortmain, the protagonist and narrator, begins the book as a naive seventeen year old. She and her sister Rose are dreamy, bookish, longing for romance and escape from poverty and their slightly bonkers family. And yet the arrival of two eligible and rich young brothers disrupts the fragile harmony of the Mortmain family in ways Cassandra could not have imagined.

The novel deal’s with Cassandra’s sexual awakening in a frank and at times dark way: Smith doesn’t flinch from showing the uglier sides of romance… The jealousy, the agony of wanting what you can’t have, the pain of hurting others.

There’s a hard core of social commentary nestled beneath the romance too, as Dodie Smith’s keen eye roves over issues of class vs. money, the latitudes given to genius, the differences between Americans and the British. There’s sharp spiky observations that reveal Smith’s wit and observational skill.

So often coming of age stories feel kind of unsatisfactory to me, as if hitting a certain age mark or experience landmark confers sudden adult maturity upon you. What I love about this book is how complicated Cassandra’s path into adulthood is, how she will take two steps forward and then run half a mile back, how gaining adult experiences is not an uncomplicated series of events in her life. It’s painful, and it’s wry, and it’s beautiful. More than anything, Smith crafts what feels like a truthful representation of the emotional turmoil of growing up.

I probably haven’t gone back to re-read this since I was about twenty, but my suspicion is that it will hold up well. (Needless to say one of the by-products of this series is that I now have a longing to re-read all these old favourites!)… I highly recommend indulging your inner romantic teenager and submerging yourself in this perfectly formed book.

Image credit: Jill Heyer

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