For readers all over the world, I Capture the Castle is a much-loved book – and, since it is frequently described as a woman’s novel, I ask myself why it means so much to me. In my case, there are some personal factors – its East Anglian landscape is my landscape, and the period the novel reflects is the period of my childhood. So there are, for me, satisfying feelings of recognition.
The 17-year-old narrator, Cassandra Mortmain, wishes to ‘capture’ in words her family life in their crumbling castle in the middle of rural Suffolk, a few miles from King’s Crypt, a fictional version of Bury St Edmunds. She tells an absorbing and unusual love-story in a context of poverty, wealth and class. But the appeal of the novel really lies in Cassandra herself. I can’t think of any other writer who has created such an endearing narrator – a little naive, very truthful, often sharply satirical. Her narrative voice is firm and intelligent. The reader is given a dynamic sense of the complex ‘inwardness’ of Cassandra’s emotional and imaginative life – what it is like to be Cassandra Mortmain (a quality missing from the current film adaptation). She is generous in her judgements of other people and ruefully aware of her own shortcomings. Her first kiss, sexual embarrassment, the excitement and confusion of arousal – these are all the staple ingredients of hormonal romance, but Cassandra’s account of them is impassioned, honest, thoughtful at every point. And she never gives way to cliché.
For Cassandra is learning to become a writer, so that the enterprise for her is the struggle for meaning and truthfulness, the search for integrity of language and narrative. The writing of the novel becomes the subject of the novel, and everything is unobtrusively coloured by ideas of capturing and releasing.
And there is something else: the writing has the sharpness and immediacy of a true journal written without foreknowledge of what will happen next. Towards the end, Cassandra decides to give up writing the journal because ‘there are thousands of people to write about who aren’t me’. The journal has been her apprenticeship in authorship, and at the same time the story of her first love.
There is no solemn didacticism in this book. It has a deliciously beguiling Austen-like quality – observant, intelligent, funny and satirical. It reads easy and it reads deep.