By Imogen Lepere
I first read I Capture The Castle as a painfully shy 10-year-old in California. My father’s job had taken us from our Victorian home in London to a modern house in the mountains north of San Francisco. I was homesick and ached for both my best friend and hamster, the two relationships that defined my life at the time.
As I devoured the book on an AstroTurf lawn in the fierce Californian heat, so much about Dodie Smith’s first novel spoke to me. Or should I say whispered? This tale of a family living in penury in the mouldering remains of a Medieval castle has the haunting delicacy of “a caress in the air” (as the presence of the past is described in the novel, first published in 1948).
It is no coincidence that Smith, a British writer who had a strong liking for Suffolk, penned it while also exiled in California — it was 1945 and her husband Alec Beesley was a conscientious objector. As she sat at a desk in Malibu, she painted a nostalgic portrait of her beloved English county (she had a home in Finchingfield, in neighbouring Essex).
Only someone in a fever of homesickness could have conjured a house so irresistible. Godsend Castle has battlements, a corner tower and “all sorts of little lattice windows”. The 30-foot high beamed kitchen is “a great glowing cave” presided over by a gargoyle. I can see myself floating in the 600-year-old moat by moonlight as the sound of piano music mingles with the scent of stocks, and finally getting down to work on a long-imagined novel of my own in the gatehouse.
The opening line, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink”, provides a glimpse into the character of Cassandra Mortmain, who was played by Romola Garai in the 2003 movie of the story (main picture, above). Cassandra is a 17-year-old with just the right amount of honesty, naivety and humour to make her one of the most likeable narrators in literature.
Through her diary, she regales us with tales of how her sister, the beautiful Rose, “who looks particularly fetching by firelight”, convinces Simon Cotton, an eligible American who conveniently happens to be their new landlord, to marry her. No doubt her unconventional home is part of her appeal.
It all sounds rather Jane Austen. Yet the story avoids being predictable thanks to gorgeously funny characters: Mortmain, the girls’ father, a novelist suffering from writer’s block caused by a stint in prison following an altercation involving a cake knife; Stephen, the noble-looking hired hand whose expression is “just a fraction daft”; and my favourite, the girls’ stepmother, Topaz, an artist’s muse who longs to awaken Mortmain’s fire by playing the lute and stalks the premises in the nude.
Despite such a memorable cast, it is the setting that looms largest. Simon’s younger brother, Neil, observes: “So many of the loveliest things in England are melancholy”. What better backdrop for a coming of age novel about yearning, sex and money than a castle with “the strange long-ago look that one sees in old paintings”?
There are not many crumbling castles left in Suffolk, so I will have to look further afield to live my Cassandra Mortmain fantasy. This 10-bedroom, Grade I-listed manor house in Wiltshire, on the market for £5.5m, has enough twists in its tale to inspire even Mortmain to start writing again.
Alternatively, this rambling option in Kent comes with four cottages and a restaurant within its 137-acre grounds. Mine for a cool £11m, like Godsend it has turrets and little latticed windows aplenty. Looks like I had better get cracking with that novel.
Photography: Alamy; Getty Images; Knight Frank; Savills