The Favourites: Alana Eising on I Capture The Castle

Words by Alana Eising

Published on November 17, 2011

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”

No, not me. I write this sitting at my desk in my stifling Brisbane bedroom, the sash window stuck and air-conditioning broken. The kitchen sink might be cooler, but I doubt my housemates would like that. I’m trying to forget that it’s only November, that it’s going to get much worse than 30 degrees. So instead I’m thinking about the book I read at the start of the year, an impulse buy, a cheap Vintage Classic. The cover was pretty, and I always  judge a book by its cover. In this case I’m glad I did.

I Capture the Castle is not a game or a war cry. It’s a book I keep telling everyone about, pressing into the hands of friends, cleverly disguised as a birthday gift.

It’s the kind of book that, if read when I was younger, I would have either slept with it under my pillow, bunched-up, thin and tea-stained and falling apart at the spine, or left out in the rain. It’s the kind of book that, after reading it now, I went out and bought the plastic-wrapped first edition (when I say ‘went out’, I mean ‘sat at my laptop scrolling through eBay’).

On the surface, it’s a little bit Cinderella. Two sisters, a stepmother, a castle, a handsome saviour. Except the protagonist isn’t the beautiful one. Cassandra Mortmain may be plain, but she’s a hell of a lot more interesting than Cindy and Cassandra’s sister Rose put together. The stepmother isn’t evil-she’s a lute-playing artist’s model who walks naked in the rain. The castle isn’t Disney – it’s a crumbling ruin damaged by Cromwell and vandalised by the Victorians, devoid of proper plumbing. And the handsome saviour is not a prince, but an (unfortunately bearded) American, and one that’s in love with Rose.

Dodie Smith wrote a few novels, including The Hundred and One Dalmatians,  but none with as much care or inspiration as this. It took her three years of writing and rewriting, rehearsing every line of dialogue, building models of the castle and completing a 100, 000 word notebook on her characters’ development. The result is flawless prose, too-good-for-reality characters and an unpredictable yet strangely satisfying plot.

When I read it, I remembered why I wanted to be a writer. And not only so I could write myself into a character like Cassandra, who dances around a Midsummer bonfire and is overjoyed at the prospect of eggs for tea. I want to create a book that breathes as this one does, each eccentric character or setting rendered in complex and comprehensive detail.

Or perhaps I just want someone to shut me up in the bottom of tower as Cassandra does for her word-choked father, sending down sumptuous feasts and providing inviting new stationery so I can write my own masterpiece, one that I could love as much as I Capture the Castle.

Alana Eising has just completed a degree in Creative & Professional Writing, and unlike Cassandra Mortmain, has no problem with handsome, bearded saviours.