I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
published 1949 Chapter 8 set in about 1935
[The Mortmains are going to dinner with the new family at the big house. There are hopes for the elder daughter, Rose, with a young man there.]
...Father came from the bathroom and went through to his bedroom. The next second I heard him shout: ‘Good God, what have you done to yourself?’
He sounded so horrified that I thought [stepmother] Topaz had had some accident… She was wearing a black evening dress… her hair was done up in a bun and she had make-up on…The result was astounding. She looked quite ordinary – just vaguely pretty but not worth a second glance.
“Oh Mortmain this is Rose’s night. I want all the attention to be focused on her - ”
I was bewildered at such unselfishness… I knew what she meant of course – at her most striking she can make Rose’s beauty look like mere prettiness… Oh noble Topaz!
I heard Father shout: “To Hell with that. God knows I’ve very little left to be proud of. At least let me be proud of my wife.”
When they came down, Topaz was as white as usual and her silvery hair, which was at its very cleanest, was hanging down her back. She had her best dress on which is Grecian in shape, like a clinging grey cloud, with a great grey scarf which she had draped round her head and shoulders. She looked most beautiful – and just how I imagine the Angel of Death...
It is Mother’s Day in the UK, so let’s hear it for the stepmothers and substitute mothers. The wonderful Topaz shows a true generosity – particularly kind as Rose is often rude to her.
Those of us who re-read this book every few years, having started at the age of about 14, may have the shared shock of growing older than Topaz. Heroine/narrator Cassandra is 17, and to her and her teenage readers, Topaz is quite grown up. It is quite a surprise to realize, years later, that Topaz is all of 29. She has an exciting past, only ever hinted at, is prone to some affectation, but is a lovely person. The book, so specific in its time, place, milieu, gender, is one that anyone could read and enjoy. It is so much more than its surface, and Cassandra is one of the finest heroines in English literature, as well as one of the funniest.
Dodie Smith is best known for writing the Hundred and One Dalmatians, but it this book which is her great legacy. A casual description would make it sound as if it were a first-time writer’s autobiographical novel of first love, but there is no trace of her own life in the details, and she was over 50 when it was published. She spent years writing it, revising it and polishing every word, and it shows. It is full of descriptions of clothes, so expect to see it again. (It has already been mentioned in this blog entry.)
The photograph shows Ruth St Denis, one of the American pioneers of modern ballet. Martha Graham was her pupil, as was the heart-stoppingly beautiful silent movie star Louise Brooks. (Brooks was sacked from the dance company with the accusation that she wanted everything presented to her ‘on a silver salver.’ Bewildered, she said ‘what is a silver salver?’ – lines that could have come from I Capture the Castle.)
The picture comes from the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and can be found on Flickr.