Dodie Smith can now be officially counted among my favorite authors. And she’s right up there, too.
Individual books are much easier to like, and much harder to rank. Series stories really only count as one book, when I think of them…as it’s rare to like just one book in a series, and if I lose enthusiasm for a once-favorite book in a series, I give up on the rest. But no matter how many books or series an author has—especially one with a really engaging character—I often don’t like the rest. So I am rather more picky in who I choose as a favorite author.
I Capture the Castle was the first book I read by Dodie Smith, and apparently, her first novel. During a free reading time in my middle school literature class I was caught without a book. And even though Mrs. R frowned on that sort of thing, I was such a generally voracious reader (in fact, I believe my dilemma stemmed from my finishing a book too early), she lent me one of her own. It was the re-release of I Capture the Castle published in 1998, the one with the blurb right on the front by J.K. Rowling herself. It’s actually a lovely, simple, old-fashioned cover, which entirely suits the book itself.
As soon as I started Cassandra’s journal, I loved it. I read that book straight through for the next few days—sneaking it open under my desk, only looking up when it seemed whichever teacher I had might be inclined to go wandering the aisles in search of such malfeasance. And then finished it in only a couple days, which was not a genius move, because at that point I had to give it back and stare at it on Mrs. R’s shelf for the rest of the year.
For loving it so much, I forgot it rather quickly. Or at least simply stopped thinking about it. Until I was in community college and hanging out at the local Barnes & Noble, and there it was helpfully displayed on a “featured” table. Same edition, same cover. I immediately bought it, and read it again. I loved the story just as much. And the oddest part of I Capture the Castle is that I never remember exactly what it’s about. Or rather, I remember it’s Cassandra’s story, and they live in a ruined castle, but never the specifics, so I can fall in love with it over and over again every time I open the book. I never thought to look up the author, though. I mean, it’s old right? What else could she have written?
Apparently The Hundred and One Dalmatians.
But that comes later, because I didn’t look it up until after I found The New Moon with the Old right next to I Capture the Castle while shifting books volunteering at the library. Intrigued, despite a boring library re-binding cover in green, with no hint of what it was actually about, I picked it up.
After looking it up, mostly to make sure the author really was the same—because Dodie Smith is such a common name—I actually found a few reviews, which for some reason surprised me. What surprised me more was the tone of those reviews (though admittedly I didn’t search very deeply): that the book was slow, that it was the conventional governess comes to town and children go adventuring story.
I think they missed the point.
The New Moon with the Old does begin with a secretary (named Jane, even) hired by a charming, handsome widower, Rupert Carrington, in the city, who is sent to work and live at his country home with the servants and the precocious, attractive children. But the ‘children’ are all, at least in age, adults, or mostly so. Of the two family servants, yes, one actually is named Cook, but they are both kind, function rather as nannies within the household—they like, even approve of, Jane.
Jane herself is in her “very late” thirties, and has been a secretary for years, fifteen in fact. Not the usual innocent creature of the gothic romance. She’s sturdy and practical, and frankly rather prudish. There’s the traditional long, winding drive up to the house. And then the father returns: by sneaking in the back gate, and confessing to Jane that he is in fact wanted by the police and is about to flee the country. He’s delightfully matter-of-fact about the whole thing. Jane is more than eager to believe him, and immediately offers to look after the family while he is gone—after having been there all of a week.
See, she just really loves the atmosphere of the house. Or the atmosphere and especially the house?
The devotedness is a hallmark of the gothic tradition, but Smith so emphasizes that Jane has only known the family a week, doesn’t have any particular affection for the older two ‘children,’ and harbors such deep love for her employer, that I can only read this as a gentle sort of parody. Because despite her affection for Mr. Carrington, she never actually acts or responds to him as a lover would—or anyone with genuine attraction, really.
As for the children who are actually mostly adults, well, I guess you could say they do have various adventures of their own. But it’s not really about that. It’s about adults who have been so sheltered from the world for their entire lives, with little to no consideration of who they really are, that they still are mentally children. They’ve never grown up.
Even throughout the prologue, Jane comments on the Carrington family’s lack of familial love. When Rupert commits his crime, he never bothered to have any backup for his family. The children hear about his dilemma—and their own—and are hardly concerned for their father’s danger, and at most find it exciting. There is no mourning or bewailing this new world; they immediately start wondering how they can make enough money to survive, and know perfectly well that they have no real world or marketable skills. That they have, in fact, been infantalized.
Working backwards from the youngest to the oldest (because I’m pretty sure that’s how the book does it) because that’s where I felt the novel really got the most interesting:
The youngest girl, nicknamed Merry, can act much more mature than she is–actually is and actress, and noted by her father as the child with the truest talent–but learns that her ability to be perceived as an adult does not make her one.
Then Drew, the younger son, the wanna-be author who can’t stop researching to actually write–finally reaches out to the real world, though he considers it research at first–and finds a little reality behind the fiction.
The second oldest, Clare, “wants to live in a book” and decides to make it happen–sort of.
And the oldest, Richard–the new ‘man’ of the family immediately takes up the mantle as expected of him–and realizes that perhaps it wasn’t what the family actually needed, or what he wanted. His growth wasn’t in following the sensible option, but in realizing that in taking it, he is avoiding the responsibility for his own life and calling. I think I can say he was my favorite.
If you can find it, you might want to read it. Especially if you are willing to read it generously, and are familiar with the classics. Good luck!