I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith is possibly at least one of the most famous and well-loved children's books of all time. It was first published in 1949, a remarkable 67 years ago or so: remarkable because, despite harking back to the 1930s giving it a certain nostalgic feeling, it still feels fresh and almost modern.
I think most people know the story. It begins with that famous sentence, "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink...". This is one of my favourite characters, the narrator Cassandra Mortmain, recording her family life in a castle in Suffolk - Godsend Castle, based on Wingfield Castle (also Suffolk). The Mortmains are Cassandra, her older sister Rose, younger brother Thomas, her father James, step-mother Topaz, and not forgetting the cat and dog Abélard and Heloïse. and lodger Stephen (an 'honorary' family member). They are all eager awaiting a repetition of James Mortmain's success after writing 'Jacob Wrestling'. Ten years on, in debt and in poverty, he is no closer. So they struggle on, essentially isolated: Rose unhappy at her lack of prospects, Topaz, the bohemian artist, Thomas studying, Stephen bringing in the only money they have, and James not writing. Their hope is that one of the daughters will marry well - Rose is very beautiful, but as she observes, what chance does she have when they never meet anyone?
And then one night Simon and Neil Cotton appear, recently inheriting the nearby Scoatney Hall. Simon is the elder brother, and the richer of the two, and Rose is determined to marry him despite not being in love with him. Despite numerous complications she does, but that's only half the novel: despite her best efforts not to, Cassandra loves him too.
I Capture the Castle is an absolutely essential read. As I say, it's nostalgic and was at the time of publication. It a vivid reminder of the pre-war 1930s. The uncomfortable poverty, social isolation, and writers' block is against the beautiful Suffolk backdrop in the medieval castle and the novel has pagan and bohemian undertones throughout, and a great many literary references: Austen, the Brontës, Shakespeare, Proust, Keats, and many others. At the same time its narrator Cassandra is a straightforward and intelligent girl laying down the facts and letting the beauty shine through in her unpretentious prose. It is warm and humorous despite some very sad and poignant moments. Though we cannot all live in such a castle with such a glamorous, sweet, and a rather lovably over-the-top step-mother the complications faced by the family are very familiar. It's an absolute favourite of mine - one to be read and re-read and loved always.