- Realism, Modernism, and the Representation of Memory in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle
In January 1939, the British playwright Dodie Smith travelled from London to see the American production of her play Dear Octopus (1938). When war was declared, she and her husband, who was a conscientious objector, decided not to return to Britain. Smith was removed from her usual audience and social circle and felt unable to continue writing the drawing-room dramas set among the English upper-middle-classes on which she had built her reputation. Following a period as a Hollywood “script doctor,” she decided to write a novel; and, after a difficult gestation, I Capture the Castle was published in 1949.1 Written in the form of a diary, I Capture the Castle tells the story of seventeen-year-old Cassandra, a young woman growing up in an eccentric family, who nurses the ambition to be a writer. As Smith’s biographer notes, the novel’s setting and milieu draws on a vision of “England and Englishness that can only have been emptied from the recesses of [Smith’s] memory, six years into her exile” (Grove 163). While the diary form promotes a focus on present and very recent experiences, these are depicted in the novel as incipient memories, a technique that both implies the transitory nature of perception and indicates that this is a novel not only about being but also, given that its narrator is moving from girlhood to womanhood, about becoming.
Smith’s choice of narrator and her decision to situate the action in a politically tranquil and for the most part pastoral version of the early 1930s might appear to evade engagement with the political, social, and cultural turmoil of wartime England, which she felt ill-equipped to evoke from the other side of the Atlantic. Her situation in self-imposed exile gives the novel’s [End Page 328] nostalgia for a chimerical version of English pastoral a particular resonance. However, anxieties about the future articulated through meditations on the apparently unchanging cycles of country life were not uncommon during the 1930s and 1940s and, as I will show, Smith’s novel can be placed in the context of other works from this period that equate the countryside with the nation-state, seeing the country as a repository for the values and traditions that were threatened by war. For many authors, including, I will argue, Smith, this was not merely a nostalgic maneuver and she acknowledges that, even prior to the war, the countryside had been encroached upon by the forces of progress. In the postwar period, attempts at forging a sense of national and cultural identity on a pastoral vision of England become increasingly fraught, and in this regard, I Capture the Castle can be placed in a lineage alongside such works as L. P. Hartley’s The Shrimp and the Anemone (1944) and The Go-Between (1953), Philip Larkin’s A Girl in Winter (1947) and Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956). If literary modernism is in part a response to the depredations of modernity, these authors strive to negotiate with both modernism and modernity in an aesthetic that is rooted in the familiarity of realism. This is not simply a case of realism looking back in response to modernism’s orientation toward the present and future. As I will suggest, Smith shows an awareness of how modernism altered understandings of perception and memory, but she expresses this awareness through a largely realist aesthetic. Modernism and realism may appear at times in the novel to be opposed to each other, but taken as a whole, I Capture the Castle both displays and enacts a more complex interrelationship between these two modes. Smith engages critically with modernism, but this does not imply that the realist aesthetic is presented as an unproblematic or straightforward means of representation.
Beginning with a consideration of the implications and effects of Smith’s decision to present I Capture the Castle as a diary, I will suggest that this form is suited to the depiction of a self-conscious narrator and allows for both the presentation and the interrogation of nostalgia. The...