Literary Style: I Capture The Castle

“It was thrilling when we started to get dressed. There was still some daylight left, but we drew the curtains and brought up the lamp and lit candles, because I once read that women of fashion dress for candlelight by candlelight.” Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle

Do we ever truly shake off the aesthetics of our adolescence? I don’t think so. I think they haunt you as you grow older. Maybe to remind you of all your bad decisions (leggings as pants, those boys you thought were such a good idea with their singlets and cargo pants…), maybe just because, like all things that happen in adolescence, it meant something – something very real.

The aesthetic of I Capture the Castle was the defining one, the only one, of my adolescence. Elegant disarray and the tattiness of wealth gone to seed, it was romantic and despairing all at the same time, which I didn’t know at the time romanticism really was, of course. Here were the clothes of my youth, the habits of my youth, the curiosity and naivety and conscious innocence.

I pieced together outfits from things foraged from charity shops and vintage stores, stuff rescued from the forgotten heaps in the recesses of my mum’s wardrobe. The vintage tea dresses with pilled cardigans and worn-in Wellingtons. The floaty white dresses slightly too long and too big. The sweaters and berets that belonged on men. The coats with pockets so deep. Everything worn in, everything old, nothing new.

These were the things that Cassandra and Rose Mortmain wore, so I too wore them. When I was 16, Cassandra was my heroine – my idol – my touchpoint into the world that I felt that I belonged in. I once read an article by Amy Heckerling (of Clueless fame!) talking about why she loved Jane Austen so much. She said Austen made heroines of the sensible girls, the ones who stayed in on Friday nights and didn’t mind getting their dresses dirty and found their greatest pleasures in warm baths and chocolate (maybe not Emma though, right?). Cassandra was a sensible girl to whom things happened, which is exactly the kind of Austen heroine – Catherine Morland and not Isabella Thorpe – that, at 16, I longed to be. She lived in a castle (!!!), she was a writer – an aspiring one, but it counted nonetheless, I wasn’t anything yet – she had a sister, she was in love. All those things that count to 16-year-old anglophiles who read Forster and Waugh before they read Eugenides or Tartt.

In terms of style this book has everything. It is a conscious recreation of 1930s England and all of its dampness, its backwardness and its ingenuity. The Mortmains have no money – they haven’t paid rent on their castle (!!!) in three years – and their life is a study in making do.

“I thank heaven there is no cheaper form of bread than bread,” Cassandra says. Rose has only one nightgown and Cassandra has two (but one is completely worn out at the back so it doesn’t count), they keep warm with hot bricks wrapped in flannel in bed, and their beautiful lodger Stephen – who looks like “all the Greek gods rolled into one” and is played by a young Henry Cavill in the movie, yep – doesn’t take any wages and keeps passing Cassandra notes filled with his poetry….

What’s a girl to do? Head on long country walks in woollen overalls and big cardigans, wear your only good dress to dinner parties where you taste your first champagne (which is just like ginger ale, only without the ginger), and sunbathe naked at the top of the castle. Sit, knees pulled up to your chest, in the kitchen sink, dreaming of hot buttered toast and sponge cakes and running water.

What I love about this book is that sense of longing so particular to adolescence – how much you want something, that pair of jeans, that night out at the party, that someone – is writ large in the whole setting. They want so much because they have no money. Cassandra – ever the Jo March – is able to make her own fun with her imagination and her derring-do. Rose, a total upturned-nose Amy, is content only to complain. Complain about the fact she has to iron her only sundress every day, complain about their passé white linen suits, complain about the beautiful fur coat their Aunt leaves them in her will.

Longing is as central to the book as it is to adolescence. But why do I still love I Capture the Castle now? (And I really do, I named my blog after this book, after all…) Because that longing never leaves you. It just gets more centralised. I used to long for experiences and opportunities and romance. I’ve got those now, so I’m content to long for more pedestrian, no-less-fun things, like sweaters so big you can wrap yourself in them, and cotton playsuits that are just a little bit too short, and a pair of worn-in Wellingtons for traipsing through forests in. Cassandra would understand.


– Hannah-Rose Yee, Undone Girl

Image via Cabbages & Roses

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