I recently finished I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, a 1949 novel that is littered with scenes of eating. The narrator Cassandra is the middle child of the eccentric Mortmain family: her father was once a wildly successful author but hasn’t published anything in years; her step-mother is former artist’s model who enjoys communing with nature and painting; her main companions are her sister and brother, as the family resides in a remote and crumbling castle with few friends in the nearby English village. With neither parent working or selling pieces, the Mortmains live in a sort of genteel poverty that might appear romantic if not for Cassandra’s dutiful recounting of the winter’s discontents: they pay no rent to the lord of the land, but the castle is very cold and bare of furniture; they have a live-in servant, but they don’t pay him either–or give him quite enough to eat, since food supplies are limited. “I thank heaven there is no cheaper form of bread than bread,” Cassandra notes.
Nonetheless, even their plain meals are described with loving attention: if their hens lay eggs, if the vicar has donated some provisions, or even if there is only bread but it is nicely toasted, Cassandra notes the pleasures of the meal in her journal. At the novel’s very beginning, as she sits in the kitchen sink in order to watch and record the behavior of her sister and stepmother (who have brought their domestic work to the castle kitchen for warmth), Cassandra is suffused with a feeling of happiness despite the cold, discomfort, and her sister’s growing frustration. “Perhaps it is because I have satisfied my creative urge,” she muses, “or it may be due to the thought of eggs for tea.” Food provides the little comfort and sociability there is to be had at the castle; indeed, her father’s preoccupied distance from his family is illustrated most acutely in the meals he misses and the indulgences he asks for when there is so little to go around.
Despite these numerous little scenes of simple pleasures snatched from austere meals, the scene of eating that stood out to me most was the formal dinner at Scoatney Hall. When the elderly landlord of the castle and surrounding lands passes away, his grandsons Neil and Simon Cotton, who grew up in America, come to reside in their inherited estate. The Cottons find the Cassandra’s family strange but fascinating: they gravitate to the Mortmains as members of a class of artists and intellectuals, but the Cottons possess so much more wealth and worldly experience that misunderstandings naturally arise between the families. (Indeed, Mortmains misinterpreting social norms and Cottons misinterpreting Mortmain weirdness is the source of nearly all the novel’s conflict.) Nonetheless, the Cottons invite the Mortmains for a dinner party, which appears to smooth out or at least reframe some of their differences. Restrained by table manners, the Mortmain patriarch allows himself to be baited into a conversation about his stalled creativity; Neil talks with Cassandra about the differences between American and English manners, which is a more comfortable subject than the differences between the eccentric Mortmains and, well, anyone else. Overhearing their comparison of how the different cultures use forks and knives, the jovial vicar comments about how table manners may change over time.
“When this house was built, people used daggers and their fingers,” he said. “And it’ll probably last until the days when men dine off capsules.”
“Fancy asking friends to come over for capsules,” I said.
“Oh, the capsules will be taken in private,” said father. “By that time, eating will have become unmentionable. Pictures of food will be considered rare and curious, and only collected by rude old gentlemen.”
Immediately after this, Cassandra notices her sister Rose flirting with Simon, the Cotton heir, who she hopes to marry. Cassandra then reflects how odd it is to meet friends for dinner: food goes in the mouth and words come out, and at a formal dinner such as the Cottons’, invisible hands circulate the food and pretend not to notice the words.
The idea of dining becoming a lewd and private act underlines the uneasy and unspoken implications of the dinner: the Mortmains are all well aware that Rose’s motivation for pursuing Simon is somewhat mercenary, and yet they are all trying to help Rose make the most of her opportunity; the Cottons (including Simon) are also aware of Rose’s interest, as well as Simon’s growing attraction to her, although they do not wish to encourage either. This is a meal in which many unmentionable, possibly vulgar sentiments are being hidden away, and it is strange indeed not only that food and words are passing their lips but that so many other things are not.
In the larger scheme of things, the conversation about manners over time also illustrates another undercurrent theme of the novel: the conflicting attractions of nostalgia and modernity. The castle and Scoatney Hall and even the countryside belong to a far distant past, when daggers were acceptable utensils and when the castle walls meant protection. In the present, these ancient edifices and lands still bear weighty symbolism and expectations for both families: Simon embraces (and Neil resists) the expectations of English gentility; the Mortmain women practice pagan-esque rituals to celebrate the seasons and the countryside. At the same time, I Capture the Castle is set in the 1930s, when the fashionable world is caught up with the excitement of modern media, technology, and travel. Just a train ride away from their crumbling relic of a castle, London offers enticing shops, all-night cafés, and sophisticated literary and artistic circles. Would it make sense to do something as minimalist as taking food pills in the ancient halls of Scoatney? What place does Rose’s Austenian marriage plot and lavish trousseau have among the London avant-garde?
The story of Cassandra’s coming of age is also the story of learning to negotiate both worlds: honoring the past while making acquaintance with modern social mores and aesthetics; finding enjoyment in the occasionally bleak and terrifying adult world while refusing to be ashamed of her eccentric childhood convictions.