Balm and the Captured Castle: Dodie Smith, Marilynne Robinson, and the Literature of Faith

By Ellie Wymard

Before a friend urged me to read I Capture the Castle, J.K.Rowling had called its protagonist “one of the most charismatic narrators I’ve ever met,” Erica Jong characterized it as “a delicious, compulsively readable novel,” Chloe Schama had said it was a “too narrowly celebrated masterpiece” in her column for the New Republic, Julian Barnes deemed it the “comfort book” for a character in his Man Booker Prize winner The Secret of an Ending, and it had won a place on the BBC’S List of 100 Great Books.

Today — 68 years after it first appeared — modish bloggers continue to find their way to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Each spring, Lisa of the lifestyle blog The Most Happy reads the novel for its “literary magic.” Evie Wyld, exhausted from completing her novel All the Birds, Singing, turned to Castle for distraction and found a work of unexpected layers. And at Slate, the novel remains on the highly recommended list.

On the surface, the book is clearly the story of the zany and destitute Mortmain family, narrated by 17-year-old Cassandra who, Schama rightfully claims,  “should rank with Jane Eyre, Pip, Huck Finn, Scout, and Holden Caulfield.” But while acknowledging that the novel has more depth than perceived, commentators seem to miss the source of its persistent power.

“It’s too exhausting and demanding” to write about faith in fiction, Marilynne Robinson said in an interview with Sarah Pulliam Bailey for the Huffington Post. Robinson, author of many novels centering on religion, including Housekeeping and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, went on to say, “I would never write about anything I didn’t want to write about. So my imagination goes to where it basically lives.” Likewise, as Cassandra’s imagination searches to find where it basically lives, Dodie Smith weaves a theme of faith and writing so seamlessly into the narrative that it seems to have gone unnoticed.

Smith, also the author of The 101 Dalmatians and a writer of popular plays during the 1930s and ‘40s, doesn’t suggest an interest in religion in her other work, but Cassandra is a character who struggles with the tension between faith and art. A dawning religious sensibility is key to Cassandra’s imagination. To explore this theme does not diminish Cassandra’s ebullience, but rather adds to the complexity of her character.

The theme unwinds from the very beginning of the novel, which, it should be said, is set in a village called Godsend. The Mortmains live in penury there, inside an abandoned castle. After serving jail time for ludicrously brandishing a cake knife at his wife, James Mortmain, the famous author of a book titled Jacob Wrestling, acquires a derelict castle as home for his family. Mortmain remains cloistered inside the castle, reading mystery novels hand-delivered by Miss Marcy, the village librarian, while his second wife, the good-hearted Topaz, a former artist’s model, takes charge of the household and occasionally wanders nude, communing with herself and nature.

Left to themselves, Cassandra and her 21-year-old sister Rose engage in literary repartee and confide their problems to Miss Blossom, their late mother’s dressmaker’s dummy, who obligingly offers advice, while their little brother Thomas, “perpetually underfed,” creates his own boy-world.

The only regular visitors to the castle are the Vicar of Godsend, who is the guardian of the villagers’ souls, and Miss Marcy, the guardian of its literature.

From the first sentence, Cassandra wins affection as she sits with her feet in the kitchen sink, balancing on the draining board while she writes. At this point, she is writing a poem that she decides is very bad. Throughout the novel, she works on other poems, keeps a journal, and practices writing fiction in the style of Jane Austen. Abandoning the poem, she turns to her journal to describe the decaying castle-home with “drips from the roof” and with a “kitchen fire, near which my sister Rose is ironing — though she obviously can’t see properly, and it will be a pity if she scorches her only nightgown.”

Competition between the sisters for the romantic attentions of two young, rich American brothers who have inherited a neighboring estate echoes both Austen and Henry James, and soon begins to drive the narrative plot. But the story beneath the story tells of Cassandra’s search for artistic integrity, which turns out to involve faith.

For this plot line, Smith reinvents the caricature of the bumbling village vicar. Unlike the gossiping clerics who populate novels from Trollope to Pym, the Vicar of Godsend is intuitive and sensitive, “the nicest man…and most unholy,” in Cassandra’s view. When she disagrees with his compliment about the beauty of the Mortmain women, he quickly retorts: “Ah but you’re the insidious type — Jane Eyre with a touch of Becky Sharp. A thoroughly dangerous girl.” Cassandra likes that the Vicar is a “comfortable sort of man.” No longer used to comfort, she must often give up working as a writer at night because of poor lighting, numb fingers, and access to only scraps of paper. “Contemplation seems to be about the only luxury that costs nothing,” she thinks.

The Vicar senses Cassandra’s gravitas beneath her girlish ways, and he deftly nudges her to consider “boring words” like God, faith, and prayer. They spar for the first time when he spots her at a Sunday service, and asks if her visit means she has an “axe to grind with God.” Stunned by his prescience, Cassandra hardly finds words, except to say, “No, I just dropped in.”

Increasingly conscience-stricken about her romantic attraction to her sister’s intended husband Simon, Cassandra visits the Vicar again. Ostensibly she has come to borrow sheet music but she’s also thinking what a relief it would be “to confess to someone, as Lucy Snowe did in Vilette.” Quickly, she dismisses the impulse because, having never thought about the Church when happy, she doesn’t feel justified in asking for solace now when troubled. However, chatting with the Vicar in his study, feeling as if she’s “paying a morning call in an old novel,” Cassandra guardedly tells him about her midnight swim with Simon in the moat on Midsummer Eve.

The Vicar never personalizes his advice but deftly leads Cassandra toward self-reflection and a consideration of things she cannot see. “If any — well, unreligious person, needed consolation from religion, I’d advise him to sit in an empty church. Sit, not kneel. And listen, not pray,” he tells her. “Prayer’s a very tricky business.”

Cassandra says goodbye, unaware that the Vicar’s request for her to close a window at the church is a contrivance to tempt her to pray. She doesn’t think he could possibly know how deeply she’s mourning her separation from Rose and how confused she is by her new experience of romantic love.

Alone in the church, Cassandra surveys the brasses, the altar, the white roses, but finds them all “extraordinarily meaningless.” So she gives her eyes and ears a rest, and turns to her other senses, remembering the Vicar’s words that “it was just as reasonable to talk of smelling or tasting God as of seeing or hearing Him… If one ever has any luck, one will know [God]with all one’s senses — and with none of them.”

Marilynne Robinson would no doubt agree with the Vicar that “prayer’s a very tricky business,” especially for writers feeling confined by prescribed words. “I find that my praying turns into thinking. It’s like trying to contain something and then perhaps it turns into prayer. It’s almost impossible for me to maintain it as a purely distinct activity,” she told her Huffington interviewer.

Similarly, young writer Cassandra closes her eyes to imagine blackness, when, typical of her literary sensibility, a line from a poem by Vaughn intrudes: “ ‘There is in God (some say) a deep and dazzling darkness’ — and the next second, the darkness exploded into light.”  She asks herself, “Was that God — did it really happen?” Then decides, “No. You imagined it.”

But after leaving the “stuffy church that didn’t seem to care whether [she] lived or died,” Cassandra begins to wonder if she had, indeed, “come by some little whiff of God.” Her ambivalence is distinctively human. Cassandra is not a character created by Smith to satisfy theological semantics; she is a credible 17-year-old in the process of discovering her authentic religious sensitivity while affirming herself as an artist.

To get her mind off her own self doubts, Cassandra visits Miss Marcy and looks around her room at “the postcard reproductions of old masters…painted boxes only big enough to hold stamps.” As if with new eyes, she ponders her reflection in the dressing-table glass, and asks: “Who am I? Who am I?”

While they share a comforting dinner of stew and apple pie, Miss Marcy tells Cassandra that her parents died when she was Cassandra’s age. She emerged from grief and stopped leading a self-centered life only, she says, when a local clergyman asked her to help with some children less fortunate than herself. “That wouldn’t work for me… I mean if I were ever unhappy,” Cassandra says, dismissing the suggestion.

But Miss Blossom, the dressmaker’s dummy, agrees with Miss Marcy. Cassandra hears Miss Blossom in her head, telling her what she already knows. “You go to that picnic, dearie…it would take you out of yourself. And doing things for others gives you a lovely glow.” Miss Blossom also chides, “getting religion should be easy since [you’re] so fond of poetry.”

In dialogue with Miss Blossom, Cassandra tries to unite the Vicar’s perspective with Miss Marcy’s in one vision where religion “can cure you of sorrow…just as art can make sad things beautiful.” She reasons that Miss Marcy loses her sorrow through service to others and that the Vicar values art as a mode of shaping images to give glory to God. Cassandra recalls his metaphor about “inexperienced pray-ers” who see “God as a slot-machine that is empty if nothing comes out — when the whole secret of prayer is knowing the machine’s full.”

That metaphor allows Cassandra to look at the world in a new way. For the first time, she faces the writer’s lifetime paradox of discerning how prose can portray the world we live in as well as the world that transcends it.

Such questions are even more resonant today. In an extensive New York Times Magazine interview with Wyatt Mason in 2014, Marilynne Robinson said that students are attracted to her classes at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshops because she encourages them to write freely from the language of their faith traditions as a particular gift to their imaginations. “Faith is one of the great structuring elements [for good] in civilization,” she said.

Robinson rejects being called a religious writer, but values “religion as a framing mechanism,” Sarah Hay reported in the Paris Review. This frame is evident in Gilead, as the title recalls the cry of the prophet Jeremiah: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician here?” Balm is in short supply in the town of Gilead, Iowa, where John Ames, a Congregational minister, is now at the end of his life. Ames, who is also a main character in Home and Lila, brings blessings to a friend’s prodigal son, and to anyone else who experiences pain in Gilead.

As Jeremiah shares the suffering of his people and laments their sinfulness, John Ames ponders his personal past and the violent history of Gilead from the days of John Brown and the abolitionists to the Civil Rights movements of the 1950s. And he crafts a meditative letter to his seven-year-old son to convey a legacy of love and faith, a gift of balm for the boy to treasure as he makes his own way through life, open to the “mortal loveliness of the world.” For Robinson, art is prayer.

Robinson’s plots are driven by character, and her characters discern inscrutable mystery even in the most ordinary of circumstances. “Anything that is written compassionately and perceptively probably satisfies every definition of religion, whether the writer intends it to be religious or not,” Robinson told Hay shortly after the publication of Home.

Like the Reverend John Ames, the vicar of Godsend quietly brings balm to individuals in his town and village. At the end of I Capture the Castle, Cassandra Mortmain has clearly responded to the Vicar’s compassionate, perceptive tutelage. Still a teenager, she is already thinking about art through metaphors and language inspired by a religious consciousness. Perhaps the secret of her enduring appeal is that together those frameworks animate her joyful plunge into the unpredictable vicissitudes of life, providing salve to our own unspoken fears.

Cassandra Mortmain could well have been Marilyn Robinson’s favorite student. Who knew?

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