For love and money

A '40s English novel, recently reissued, glitters with the hard edge of Madonna's "Material Girl."

Published May 6, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The atmosphere of Dodie Smith's "I Capture the Castle" is so plummy and familiar that you sink right down into it, as if you were returning to a cherished vacation spot. It doesn't diminish the book's comforts that the opening is given over to the 17-year-old narrator's description of the conditions of damp and cold and hunger in which her genteelly impoverished family live. Her name is Cassandra Mortmain, and her tone -- a verbal sure-footedness masking both longing and doubt -- returns us to the heroines of Jane Austen's novels (from which this book is a pop descendant). The rural English setting, calling up dozens of books and movies, plays to all our cozy Anglophilic fantasies. And we recognize the story's promise of heartbreak and happiness from all those works, American as well as British, in which the hopes of young women exist alongside the threat of imminent, melodramatic disaster, in which family alliances (particularly sisterly alliances) are tested by new romance before emerging strengthened. But beneath all these familiar molds lies something else: a distinctly modern, tough-minded practicality.

Smith's novel was published in Britain in 1948, and according to the jacket copy on the edition St. Martin's Press published in this country last fall, it has never gone out of print there. (This month it comes out here in paperback.) I'd never heard of the book until I came across it while poking around in the hardcover classics section of a local bookstore. I had read Smith's most famous novel, "The Hundred and One Dalmatians" (1956), and believe I would have loved it even if I weren't a sucker for animal stories. (The Disney version -- still the best animated feature it's ever made -- preserved much of the book's spirit.) So I expected a more grown-up version of that book's charm.

And "I Capture the Castle" is charming. It's about how things finally go right for Cassandra and her family. Mostly. From the beginning Smith injects a strain of candor that Cassandra's plucky voice keeps tempting us to glide past. What Smith is doing here recalls -- in a very different tone -- the way Philip Barry, in his play "Holiday," immerses us in the glittering, sophisticated chat of his characters before allowing the melancholy and divisions beneath their words to well up and overwhelm us.

Cassandra, who dreams of becoming a writer and keeps a journal as practice for a novel she plans, lives in a crumbling 17th century house attached to a 14th century castle. Her father is a writer. Or was. His one highly acclaimed novel, published years in the past, provides most of the family's inadequate income. But he's long been blocked and spends his days shut up in the castle's gatehouse reading detective fiction. Cassandra's stepmother, Topaz ("there is no law to make a woman stick to a name like that," Cassandra says), is a flighty but good-hearted younger woman who occasionally contributes to the coffers by taking up her old profession of artist's model. There is also a younger schoolboy brother, Thomas, as well as 18-year-old Stephen, whom the family has cared for since the death of his mother, their former maid. Cassandra is still enough of the dreamer to fall under the spell of their dilapidated surroundings. "Two girls in this strange and lonely house" is how she puts it to her sister, Rose, who, "nearly 21 and very bitter with life," has no such illusions: "She saw nothing romantic about being shut up in a crumbling ruin surrounded by a sea of mud."

Smith never lets us forget the impracticality that is largely responsible for the Mortmains' straitened circumstances. We're never asked to confuse the plight of the Mortmains -- who belong to that odd class of intelligent and cultured people who are also unskilled and unemployable -- with the desperation of the truly poor. Smith manages the tricky task of detailing those circumstances (the worn-out clothes, the furniture sold off bit by bit, the meager meals, the hoarded candles that provide the only light) without breaking the romance of her premise. But we also know that Cassandra's youth makes this life easier for her to take. Her ability to savor a hot brick warming her bed or an unexpected egg for supper is tied up with her discovery of her burgeoning powers of description. Smith wants to make us share Cassandra's love for this life, to stir us into recognizing her as a heroine embarking on an adventure.

There's nothing foolish about Cassandra, as there is about Rose, who, while not unlikable, is vain and given to fits of drama. ("For some time now," she announces near the start, "I've been considering selling myself. If necessary, I shall go on the streets.") But Rose also has a practical side, which is no less vital for beginning in self-interest. It's understandable that she would hate never being warm enough or full enough. But what's most wounding to her comes from her desire to possess things -- for instance, being unable (like Katharine Hepburn in "Alice Adams") to afford a new dress in which to receive potential suitors. "If you're really taken with the idea of selling yourself," Topaz tells Rose afterward, "you'd better choose a wealthy man and marry him respectably." And soon Rose gets the chance, when two rich American brothers arrive in England to become their new landlords.

What follows is, of course, about how true love and sisterly love right themselves after stumbling over the obstacles in their course. But instead of merely treating Rose as an avaricious schemer who needs to be punished, Smith is daring enough to let Rose justify her intention of marrying for money. "Oh darling," Rose writes her sister, "do you remember how we stood watching that woman buying a whole dozen pairs of silk stockings and you said we were like cats making longing noises for birds? I think it was that moment when I decided I would do anything, anything, to stop being so horribly poor." Despite that honesty, Rose is still kidding herself at this point: "It's so wonderful that I can be in love with Simon as well as everything else." But she is unrepentant even when Cassandra forces her to face the fact that she doesn't really love Simon. "No. Isn't a pity?" she says calmly, plainly. Only when Cassandra accuses her of selfishness is her composure ruffled: "You talk as if I were doing it all for myself," she says. "Do you know what my last thoughts have been, lying here night after night? 'Well, at least they've had enough to eat at the castle today.'" Rose has reasons for not loving her young man -- for one, his emotional neediness, which repels her. But Smith, being a clever popular novelist, finds a way to give the girls both love and money. (Withholding either would be breaking faith with her readers.)

Yet her evenhanded attitude toward Rose is still startling, because the intersection of money and sex is a topic that has never lost its power to raise hackles. I don't know how many times I've heard people try to smooth over Madonna's "Material Girl" by claiming it was a satire on the greed of the Reagan '80s. And none of the disapproving reviews of Adrian Lyne's "Indecent Proposal" acknowledged that this glitzy, terrible movie was a hit because its admission that love isn't always enough touched a nerve. Rose's truest descendant may be the woman in Cyndi Lauper's 1984 cover of the Brains' new-wave hit "Money Changes Everything." Lauper switched the song from the perspective of a man whose girlfriend has left him for a rich suitor to that of the girlfriend herself, explaining to her lover that she's leaving him because he can't give her the things she wants. The mixture of self-recrimination and plain-spokenness in the performance is indelible and chilling. "No one can judge me harshly as I judge myself," the singer is saying. "No one can understand the choice I've made. Walk a mile in my Blahniks." The attitude of that performance is, at least in part, a reaction against the stereotype of the heartless gold digger and the femme fatale, male constructs that identify as evil the same unemotional logic men often criticize women for lacking.

Given all that baggage, it may seem strange to characterize "I Capture the Castle" as lovely and enchanting and deserving of all the other similar adjectives generally accorded it. Rose's engagement of convenience is merely the strongest in a series of incidents that opens Cassandra's eyes to the imperfect nature of romance and to the havoc that desire, material as well as sexual, can play with it. "I Capture the Castle" is an example of the sometimes deft way pop culture dealt with feminist issues in the years before feminism. What's wonderful about it, though, isn't restricted to issues of sex. This coming-of-age novel is too canny to equate the changes and compromises of growing up with the corruption of the world. Smith makes you fall in love with her young heroine's voice, and then every time Cassandra has to confront the fact of people she loves making choices she had never imagined possible, Smith allows her to find the strength to assimilate this new information without growing judgmental or scared. Cassandra learns what's worth settling for and what isn't. As the title promises, she sees the home she loves so much ultimately strengthened and stabilized. But the greater gift her creator gives her is a ticket to the world outside.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

MORE FROM Charles Taylor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------