I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

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I haven’t read such a charming yet completely authentic novel in a while.

Dodie Smith’s novel is a modern take on the marriage above all story-line typical of Jane Austen’s novels, but at the same time it’s a completely self-standing work.

The narrator-protagonist is 17-year-old Cassandra, who lives with her delightfully (really: delightfully! not irritatingly, not hatefully, not unbearably) crazy family in a romantic, half-ruined castle in the English countryside, writes her journal (using a unique, consciously naïve style) by candlelight, imagines herself to be the heroine either of a novel by Jane Austen or by a Brontë sister, and slowly grows up.

Her coming of age really starts when two eligible bachelors move to the neighborhood from the mythical world of the United States. Cassandra and her sister, Rose take an active interest in the newcomers and regard them as the possible means of saving their family from its not at all romantic poverty, so they start out on a quest to get a husband, each sister in her own way – Rose by assuming the role of a passive heroine and frantically batting her eyelashes, and Cassandra by… – well, she doesn’t really do anything at all; instead, she observes the people around her, interprets and analyzes her reactions and emotions, and comes to all kinds of conclusions – and very smart ones at that.

So this is really something like Pride and Prejudice, or Sense and Sensibility here, to the extent that it caught me by surprise when, for example, Cassandra once wondered around in London in the middle of the night – I was automatically thinking that no proper 19th century lady could ever have done something like this, no matter how impoverished her family was – and then I realized that we’re already in the 20th century here, where it’s possible for a young girl to walk around in London at night.

Dodie Smith, of course, plays with this feeling of timelessness deliberately. Even if you can more or less determine when the story takes place, from such details that there are automobiles, radios and gramophone records here (and I think there’s a single mention of the fact that we’re in the 1930s), still, there’s an ageless atmosphere here (or rather an atmosphere reminiscent of an era at least a hundred years earlier), and it’s hugely intriguing: roaming in this new-old English countryside, and comparing the real Jane Austen-world with this updated Jane Austen-like world, and seeing how they are different.

For me, the most interesting difference is that while in Jane Austen’s world marriage carries an inherent value (sure, it’s great if you accidentally find a suitable partner, however, if you’ve been stupid enough to hook up with a less than suitable person, then, well, tough luck, you still need to get married to that person for appearances’ sake), for Dodie Smith marriage is not inherently valuable, and there’s more than one possible way of life for a woman in her world. (Sure, it’s the 20th century already, with supposedly more opportunities, and so on – still, if I think how easy it still is to automatically follow the default way of life, then it’s really something that Smith writes about more than one possible ways.)

Besides all this, this is a pure feel-good novel. There’s an edge of sadness to the feel-good atmosphere, though, which makes it all the more interesting, but going into details about this would be a spoiler even by my lenient standards so I’ll just stop right here this time.

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Emma by Jane Austen

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I know (or at least vaguely remember) I always mention this when I write about Jane Austen, but I will mention it again that my favorite Austen novel is always the one I’m re-reading. So I enjoyed this again, a lot, and right now this is my favorite, even if my latest re-reading wasn’t the result of my usual spring-summer desire for English romanticism (which is, by the way, not really romantic at all – and I probably like it exactly because it’s not romantic) but mostly the result of the fact that Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own wrote about Austen in a most flattering way.

Looking at Austen from Woolf’s perspective, I realized that she really didn’t try or want to please anyone, which is great. Her style, her irony, her cool-headed sensitivity, the way she describes her characters through their style and mannerisms, and the way she criticizes are all very much her, filtered through her own experiences, way of thinking and imagination – and the amount of criticism or compassion she has towards people doesn’t depend on whether Austen is a man or a woman, or whether the character she describes is male or female.

I read somewhere once how Austen never wrote scenes where only men were present, after all, she couldn’t have known how men behave, what they talk about when they are in an all-male company. I must have been a bit surprised when I first read this but now I tend to consider it another sign of Austen’s genius, and I think about how fantastically smart she must have been, and how great it is that she never presumed to be a know-it-all, and didn’t attempt to write about things she hadn’t seen with her own eyes. And I think, too, that she could draw extremely precise conclusions from the things she had seen.

Of course: this is a true Austen novel, where the main goal is marriage, and where everyone lives happily ever after when the goal is reached. But I see her idea of conjugal happiness less and less romantic and fairy-tale-like, even if all her novels end with saying something like how the couple then went ahead to spend their lives in the most perfect harmony imaginable. Yes, the text might end like this, but the implication that this is not a static state is very much there.

Here and now I was especially struck by how much she emphasizes the importance of happy couples complementing each other, and how much her idea of happiness in marriage is based on the assumption or foundation that man and woman will have a good influence on each other.

Perhaps Austen was an archetypal romantic after all. But no matter in what I light I see her, I always feel that what and how she writes – is real, ever since I first read her work in my teens.

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

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There’s something in the story and atmosphere of Hartley’s novel that reminds me of Ian McEwan’s Atonement (it must be McEwan’s novel that’s similar to The Go-Between, and not the other way around, but I read Atonement earlier than this): it’s an ominous, cruel, and fateful atmosphere.

At the beginning of the novel, Leo, a man in his sixties, comes across an old journal and other mementos of the past he had carefully hidden from himself throughout his life because confronting them would have been too painful. However, the moment of truth is finally here, so Leo starts out on his journey to the past.

The main story is set in the summer of 1900, when one hot day follows another. And weather is important here – there’s something menacing in the long heatwave of the summer, as it creates an atmosphere full of anticipation, an atmosphere with an oppressive and hypnotic force. You know the heatwave will end sooner or later, but while it lasts, it feels as if time has stopped, as if nothing could lead to consequences, and this encourages reckless, thoughtless behavior.

Leo, aged 13, spends the month of July vacationing at the pleasant country estate of one of his rich classmates of noble descent, and somehow he ends up being the messenger between the young lady of the house and two men who want to win her heart and hand. Leo dutifully carries the messages to and fro among the three adults, and for a long while he doesn’t suspect the significance of the verbal messages and written notes – and even when he learns about it, he still doesn’t grasp the real seriousness of the situation.

Which is, of course, understandable – England in 1900 was probably a very innocent world (or rather: a world full of pretended innocence), and Leo at the age of 13 has absolutely no idea what passions, feelings, and hidden motivations guide the mysterious adults. Leo is still just an average little boy (probably dreamier than average, and with perhaps more propensity to embellish the truth than the average boy), whose favorite pastimes include sliding down on haystacks and looking for treasures in the garbage pile. His mind is usually not on girls – and even when it is, he only thinks about them in a purely abstract sense, without the idea of bodily contact, and he finds the idea of lovemaking simultaneously boring and nauseating.

It’s hardly a surprise then that all this secret messaging leads to nothing good, but the process leading up to this nothing good is much more interesting than the events themselves, and the most interesting here is the behavior of the characters: their secretive and pretentious ways, the way they use, abuse, and manipulate each other without qualms, and the way they cheerfully ignore the possible consequences of their actions. It’s an amoral bunch, here (with one exception – who, naturally, suffers the direst consequences). And even if Leo is supposedly just an innocent child and isn’t much to blame, still – even he is amoral, frighteningly emotionless, and rather cruel – in a way children can be.

And seeing the events from Leo’s immature, naïve, childishly selfish perspective is strangely unsettling. Sure, there’s the usual dramatic irony at work here, and it’s upsetting that the reader knows and understands a lot of things better than the narrator. But it’s unsettling for me mainly because Leo as an adult is just as incapable of understanding the significance and the real meaning of events as he was at the age of 13.

Like I said, the story is told by the old Leo, not the 13-year-old one, and he interprets the events of his childhood as an adult now. We might assume that perhaps there’s a spark of empathy in him now, and that perhaps he’ll be able to understand things more now. But no. He just doesn’t get it. And reading his clueless recounting of the events I feel like crying tears of rage and desperation, and my heart breaks.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

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It’s nice to read a novel like this from time to time.

A novel that’s – old-fashioned.
A novel that’s – slow.
A novel where the author deeply cares about the characters and where you will deeply care about the characters, too.

At least I feel I must – reading 800+ pages without getting emotionally involved is impossible for me, so it’s also good that this here is not a postmodern novel where the author demands that the reader keep a distance from the characters and the events.

So yes, this is an old-fashioned novel, with dozens of characters and a whole lot of subplots and story-lines, with good guys and bad guys – but not good and bad in a black-and-white sense. If anything, the characters here represent several shades of gray, as regards the diversity of human nature and the millions of possible motivations.

The main character is – relatively surprisingly – a woman. Dorothea Casaubon (née Brooke) is an intelligent, benevolent, headstrong, energetic young woman who is lucky enough to be able to follow her desires because… – there are several reasons.

Because she has an independent income.
Because her friends and family always stand by her in the end, even if they initially object to some of her plans and ideas.
Because she’s brave and strong enough to defy the way things should be according to everyone else – multiple times, without fail, without damaging compromises.

Dorothea is quite an intriguing character: an independent woman who prefers to manage her estate on her own instead of trusting it to the care of a strong man, and who at the same time screws things up multiple times because she cannot assess and admit to what she really wants and how she could be happy. Still, slowly – very slowly – she learns from her mistakes.

Besides Dorothea, there are many other remarkable characters and story-lines, too: starting from the young doctor new to town (whose innovative plans don’t quite turn out the way he expects) through the young gentleman itching for an active life full of excitement to the hot-headed young poet who is willing to fight for his desires as much as it takes. (Pro quiz: whose heart and hand will our young poet win in the end? Yes. Exactly! But this is how it should be and the fact that the end is foreseeable doesn’t make it any weaker. And anyway, Eliot doesn’t waste too many words on things that are bound to happen. This is not a romantic novel.)

Besides the many individual stories, we also get a sense of the important events unsettling the English countryside in the 19th century. I admit this historical-political story-line didn’t really touch me – some 15 years I must have studied the history of the Whigs and Tories to some extent but that knowledge has safely been buried since, so the political fights and intricacies of the novel left me somewhat baffled. What I did get was that regular country people weren’t exactly keen on such novelties as the introduction of the railway.

But in the end, my ignorance didn’t stop my enjoyment because Eliot’s greatest strength is that through the fate of her characters she can say a whole lot about how it was, how it could have been to live in that era in the English countryside.