What Children’s Literature Teaches Us About Money: Dodie Smith’s ‘I Capture the Castle’

The art of romantic poverty.

I first read Dodie Smith’s 1948 novel I Capture the Castle when I was 15, and I’ve loved it ever since. I blame it for inspiring my firm, if deluded, belief that I will one day move to England and live in a castle. The novel is a classic coming-of-age story about first love, perfect for 15-year-olds, but I find that its appeal hasn’t diminished over time—in fact, it’s the kind of story that only benefits from an adult re-read.

I Capture the Castle is a diary written by 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain. Her father, just called “Mortmain,” is a one-hit-wonder novelist who can’t seem to start a second book. Cassandra has an artistic stepmother, Topaz, who was once an artist’s model; a beautiful, slightly bitter older sister, Rose; and a younger brother, Thomas, still in school. Then there’s Stephen, the son of a former maid (now deceased) who functions as a sort of handyman/honorary family member. The family used to be comfortably middle-class, back when Mortmain’s novel, a critically acclaimed bestseller, was first published. Now that the royalties have dwindled away, they live on pretty much nothing.

Even so, they live in a castle. It’s an old castle, partially ruined, with a Norman tower nearby. How can a family that lives in a castle — even one that’s crumbling — be poor? Well, the castle is a rental, for one thing, and their existence sounds pretty miserable. Smith doesn’t shy away from describing their meager meals (bread and margarine or cold Brussels sprouts and rice — eggs are a treat) and old, much-mended clothing. The castle is cold and drafty, they sold most of their furniture, and unless Mortmain writes another book, everyone is pretty much stuck waiting until Thomas finishes school and gets a job.

But, aside from Rose, everyone is resigned to this lifestyle. As Cassandra puts it:

Oddly, I have never thought of us as poor people — I mean, I have never been terribly sorry for us, as for the unemployed or beggars; though really we have been rather worse off, being unemployable and with no one to beg from.

In an early scene, they gather to make a list of their expected yearly income. The only person who brings in money at all is Stephen, who turns over the entire 25 shillings per week he earns at his job at a nearby farm. This detail always stands out to me; it’s pretty horrible that the Mortmains are living off of Stephen’s wages when they haven’t paid him in years. Stephen does get room and board — the board part being unsatisfying meals featuring a lot of vegetables he grew himself.

Things are so desperate that Rose threatens to turn to prostitution, although that’s hardly a practical plan when you live in rural Sussex. Instead, Topaz tells her:

“If you’re really taken with the idea of selling yourself, you’d better choose a wealthy man and marry him respectably.”

Rose, who is a little bit mercenary and also ashamed of their financial status, is already longing to try this. The trouble is, there’s no one to marry.

Enter the Cottons: two wealthy American brothers, Simon and Neil. Simon, the elder, has inherited nearby Scoatney Hall and is the Mortmains’ new landlord. When Simon and Neil meet Rose and Cassandra, an Austenian plot of love and misunderstandings begins. Like Austen, Dodie Smith and her narrator Cassandra are concerned with how love and money intersect. Wouldn’t it be convenient for everyone if Rose and Simon fell in love? And so they do. Simon forgives the rent arrears and reinstates the tradition of sending over a ham (which the Mortmains promptly serve to the Cottons at a dinner party, because they’re a little bit shameless). Soon, Rose and Simon are engaged, and everyone is occupied with shopping for a trousseau and pushing Mortmain to start writing again.

A note about Mortmain: it’s impossible to read this novel as an adult without thinking, “Get a job!” From a 2016 perspective, it’s easy to imagine that Mortmain could at least try to write articles, or work at a newspaper, or do something, anything, that would prevent his family from having to sell furniture to buy food. Curiously, though, the novel absolves him of responsibility because he’s brilliant. Over and over, we’re told that Mortmain is a genius — Simon compares him to James Joyce.

This artistic streak is what makes the Mortmains’ poverty feel bohemian and romantic, rather than grinding, I think. They’re white, which helps, but most of them are also artistic or intellectual: Cassandra and Mortmain write, Topaz paints, Stephen composes bad poems. They’re starving artists, not East End dock workers. But that’s also why they’re broke. None of them have any marketable skills, and there’s no money to send Cassandra to secretarial school or to pay for a flat in London so Topaz can return to modeling.

Rose isn’t especially artistic or intellectual; she has little respect for Mortmain’s literary reputation, she’s bitter about their lifestyle, and she’s consumed by the need to be financially secure. As the wedding looms, it becomes clear that Cassandra herself is in love with Simon — and Rose is not. Cassandra is angry, even though she knew that Rose would marry Simon either way. He’s the heir to Scoatney, and he loves Rose. Rose maintains that she’s doing this for her family:

“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!’”

She’s still willing to sell herself to secure her family’s future.

Reading this book as a teenager, I always sided with Cassandra, because how can a woman marry a man she doesn’t love? I mean, they live in a castle; it has to end more romantically than that. Now that I’m an adult, reading the early descriptions of bread and margarine for supper helps me see Rose’s side. She uses the only resource she has (her beauty) to get out of a desperate situation.

However, as the romantic castle setting suggests, there is definitely more to this story: Rose and Neil, who’ve been sniping at each other this whole time, are secretly in love. Simon is the rich one, so Rose feels compelled to accept his proposal, and Neil finds that reprehensible. (Neil wants to use some money of his own to start a ranch back in the United States, but it’s clear that Simon has both more money and more willingness to help the other Mortmains.) Finally, Neil realizes Rose loves him, and they run off together.

Austen would have ended this story with a double wedding. After an appropriate length of time, Simon would fall for Cassandra, and the Mortmains would still be able to benefit from his patronage of their father’s literary efforts. But Simon doesn’t marry Cassandra. There’s a moment when he asks if she’d like to go to the United States with him and it seems like he may be about to propose to her. Wisely, she replies,

“If only I were trained already, I could come as your secretary.”

Cassandra knows that marrying a man whom she loves much more than he loves her won’t make her happy. Her response reframes their relationship in the context of employer/employee, a slight revision of the patron/artist relationship, and reminds him that money, not love, is still the heart of their connection to each other. Reading this as a teenager, I was terrified that Cassandra would say yes to Simon and lose all the independence she is just about to experience. It’s to Smith’s credit that the novel ends not with a double wedding but with Cassandra choosing to use her newfound financial security to train for a career and continue her writing.

Despite these rejections, Simon continues to support Mortmain financially, and this is where the novel’s commitment to romantic poverty is most evident: if you’re poor and fascinating, a rich man will send you a ham or agree to marry you at exactly the right time. The Cottons are enchanted by the Mortmains, continuing a long tradition of the wealthy offering patronage to struggling artists. The castle, the dyeing clothes to make them last longer, the dinner served off an old door because all the good furniture was sold: it’s this performatively eccentric version of poverty that makes Rose and Cassandra so attractive to the Cottons, despite how Rose treats them both.

It’s important, too, to consider the book’s historical context. Because I Capture the Castle is set in the 1930s, I always thought it was written and published then, and I only learned while researching this piece that it was written during the Second World War and published in 1948.

As Downton Abbey taught us, during the 1920s and 1930s many aristocratic British families with “great houses” were struggling to maintain those homes. Eventually, many lavish old country houses were simply destroyed. They were too expensive to keep up, and there was no one to buy them. The Mortmains don’t own their castle, but the setting lends that air of faded aristocracy to their poverty.

And then there’s the war. It makes perfect sense that Smith wrote I Capture the Castle, her first novel, during those years. (At the time, she was living in California.) The book certainly has a keep-calm-and-carry-on flavor, even as it romanticizes a pre-war Britain for which Smith felt homesick. Stretching a single ham into a week’s worth of meals is a form of rationing, after all, and Topaz and Cassandra’s plucky attitudes about their situation bring to life that idealized version of Britain going it alone during the war. That idea of Britain, I think, will never truly fade (see the Brexit “yes” voters), and it’s interesting to see it appear in a novel that ostensibly has nothing to do with the Second World War.

I Capture the Castle is first and foremost Cassandra’s coming-of-age story, and that narrative thread still feels fresh and poignant. Many of the book’s other, unspoken assumptions — that a certain type of poverty is romantic, that the wealthy are benevolent patrons of the arts, that your employee will hand over his paycheck every week — are more dated. So what do we learn about money from this book? Having money makes life easier, there’s no question about that, but having a literary or artistic streak (and a castle) seems to make a lack of money romantic. Wealthy men turn up at exactly the right time, and you don’t even have to marry one for him to help your family.

These are cynical observations, but I Capture the Castle isn’t a cynical book. Poverty has actually taught Cassandra skills that will be essential in the coming war years (not that she knows it yet). She can ration, mend clothing, and live without silk stockings, among other things.

At the end of the book, Neil and Rose leave for the United States, and Simon and Cassandra part ways — him to go recover from heartbreak, and her to consider university or secretarial school, now that there’s money for it. Simon promises to come back someday, but I’ve always hoped that he doesn’t. I imagine Cassandra moving to London, maybe working at a magazine, and living out the war years with the skills she learned growing up in an old, ruined castle. Financial security doesn’t end her story, the way that Austen’s weddings, essentially a promise of financial security, signal an ending.

For Cassandra, that security is just the beginning.

Kathleen Keenan is an editor and writer in Toronto. She writes a monthly newsletter for a local bookstore and very occasionally blogs about what she’s reading. Follow her on Twitter @KathleenMKeenan if you’re interested in tweets about books, cheese, and Nancy Drew.

Previously:

What Children’s Literature Teaches Us About Money: ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’

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