In a cloudy memory, nearly indistinguishable from some piece of fiction I may have read, I have been brought for the day to visit a grand garden, forgotten after the First World War and only recently reclaimed. I am standing somewhere leafy and dark, somewhere, Cornwall, South-West England, just about to walk through an open door in a worn brick wall, about to pass through a haphazard series of handkerchief gardens; in one I will find a row of Victorian pineapple pits, tiny greenhouses constructed for the nurturing of a fruit impossible in this climate. One door opens on an Italianate pond, square, dankly green and bookended with statues, the whole scene pulled back almost too late from decrepitude. In another demarcated patch there will be an impression of greenness, purples, whites of breeze blown herbaceous borders, and at the far end a sundial, the first I will have ever seen, and again, another brick wall through which I can see down to a large white manor house. These gardens, right down in the toe of England, are known as the lost gardens of Heligan. They haunt my imagination. I wonder at the mysterious lives of those who dwell in the faded grandeur of large English estates. I think of childhoods so different from my own rural Scottish island upbringing. I think of the warmth of Cornish coasts, of rooms upon rooms and huge trees swaying on the lawns, of girls sitting in wood panelled libraries stocked by their great-grandparents, speaking in plummy English voices about where their parents might be, since it’s been ever so long since they were home. But a building one cannot enter is necessarily silent. I glimpsed nothing of its inhabitants.
Though I may not have been able to access them directly – the brick wall, the closed wooden door, the army of charitable trust workers all standing guard – I came to know the other, quieter ways to find points of connection to worlds closed off from us. To build kinship, if we can call it that.
Ever since this early, half-remembered moment I have had a weakness for the wondrous, alien girlhoods lived in hedged splendour. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (1948), and Who Was Changed and Who was Dead by Barbara Comyns (1954), are both novels afflicted with the febrile nostalgic dampness of English rural life. Both written in the mid twentieth century by English women and set at earlier times, each containing a rambling house, eccentric families, love and humour – but so wildly different in terms of tone, as to make uncomfortable companions at first look.And I love them with a conflicted love, and both have carved out lush little spaces inside my heart.
I Capture the Castle was written by the author of The Hundred and One Dalmatians, while she was in America pining for an England left behind while the war raged – an imaginary upper-class England made kinder, wilder, by nostalgia. The story is narrated by a young woman, Cassandra Mortmain, and concerns her family’s trials and tribulations and her own growing confusion over love, desire and what might lie ahead for her future. Cassandra’s sister is the beautiful Rose, whose romantic muddles (along with those of Cassandra herself) shape the Shakespearean-comedy plot of the book. After the first, iconic paragraph, which finds Cassandra narrating from the kitchen sink, the novel opens slowly outwards to take in a scene both redolent and not of English rural life:
Drips from the roof are plopping into the water butt by the back door. The view through the windows above the sink is excessively drear. Beyond the dank garden in the courtyard are the ruined walls on the edge of the moat. Beyond the moat, the boggy ploughed fields stretch to the leaden sky. I tell myself that all the rain we have had lately is good for nature, and that at any moment spring will surge on us. I try to see leaves on the trees and the courtyard filled with sunlight. Unfortunately, the more my mind's eye sees green and gold, the more drained of all colour does the twilight seem.
It is comforting to look away from the windows and towards the 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. (I have two, but one is minus its behind.) Rose looks particularly fetching by firelight because she is a pinkish person; her skin has a pink glow and her hair is pinkish gold, very light and feathery. Although I am rather used to her I know she is a beauty. She is nearly twenty one and very bitter with life. I am seventeen, look younger, feel older. I am no beauty but have a neatish face.
I have just remarked to Rose that our situation is really rather romantic two girls in this strange and lonely house. She replied that she saw nothing romantic about being shut up in a crumbling ruin surrounded by a sea of mud. I must admit that our home is an unreasonable place to live in. Yet I love it.
The rain falls, the courtyard is lit by a dim and dreary twilight that is cleverly contrasted with the warmth of the romantically shabby family hearth and Rose’s flushed, firelit skin – even as Cassandra is highlighting what is to come, a Spring and all it promises, and her sister rebelling against the literary romanticism of the scene being built. And I feel brought into a gossipy confidence as if reading letters sent direct from an elegant pen friend, her letters a window to which I must press my nose up against to peer inside. Yet for all the sense of being invited in to a rarefied girlish world, with the vivid evocations of place, the nostalgic setting, there is more than a shade of the ephrastic about I Capture the Castle – even the title seems fit for a painting, and you can almost see it, stripped of irony, an oil landscape in nineteenth century gothic revival style, all soaring towers and red-haired maidens leaning out of windows, as in the distance a river banked with willows wends its way across a dappled countryside.
Without the two sisters’ clashing and mistaken romances, the book could sail on forever around the sweet, sodden moat of itself, with clever little brother Thomas rambling on about school, Cassandra and Rose thinking up strange rituals, James Mortmain not ever working, and local lad Stephen wistfully existing on the margins. But there must be love, and drama, and this arrives in the form of two brothers, Simon and Neil, exotic American inheritors of the castle and estate. And in this the scrap of plot, as slight as the developments in a life: there must be a wedding, and quickly, for the penniless Mortmains to keep their place in the land, to keep up the standards they are accustomed to. The Mortmain siblings constantly complain of failing to pay the rent on the sprawling home in which they live and mostly do not labour to provide for, in keeping an age old trope, the impoverished rural rich, only differentiated here by the artisan class to which father and stepmother belong. I think perhaps I should feel kinship with Stephen, coming as I do from a long line of members of the lower orders. Servants and coachmen, and still others who would have ever been allowed in, not even permitted past the gatehouse; the chemical factory workers, the coal miners, the navvies. But this is not a book to look to for exploration of class consciousness. This is a kind hearted book about love between the right and wrong beloveds. Flirtations are clumsily aimed. Dresses are worn against the tastes of the day. Prospective romantic partners and in-laws are uncomfortably direct (sometimes when they believe themselves not within earshot). But there is never any doubt that love will prosper, even if the final note of the book has a dash of uncertainty to it – will the young Cassandra and older Simon come together later? Or will their romance have been purely part of the fabric of a young woman’s life, a step on her coming of age journey? But this is Smith leaving the window open so to speak, to give the characters breathing room, allowing the audience to wonder a little at what lives Cassandra and her family might live after the close. Cassandra might very well send me another letter, if she finds the time for it. This is an old mode of storytelling, Scheherazade-like, shot through with a personal nostalgia. Something that appears deceptively simple, that weaves itself out and pulls itself in again each time I read, and leaves the thread of its possible narratives stitched through my heart. At the same moment there is nothing sinister about this binding. This is a warm, inviting fire-lit novel meant to be read, or re-read for the tenth time on a stormy night, with family near to hand, with the belief in love and friendship and essential human goodness. With a belief in the girl in her castle, and the confidences she places in her imagined reader.
Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is on the surface by contrast definitely not a kind-hearted piece of fiction. It is sharp, shocking story of an English village chaotically upended first by a flood, then by an outbreak of a violent, inexplicable madness that affects both animal and man. The mystery of the madness will eventually be solved, but it is never quite clear until then whether the author will reveal the source, or how, or if it (or anything) matters in the grand, cheerfully bleak scheme of things. If I Capture the Castle is one girl writing to a distant friend, Who Was Change and Who Was Dead is the story your strange grandmother might read you, while you lie in bed with a fever. It has the calm, vaguely jaunty and utterly terrifying tone of the worst of the Grimm stories. Comyns admitted to setting the story in the village where she spent her childhood, which explains why scene-setting details, though slight compared to I Capture the Castle, describe as they do fragments of a full picture. In this case, all the better to lead the reader lightly by the hand into the uncanny.
Time – Summer about seventy years ago
The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night. Old Ives stood on the verandah steps beating his red bucket with a stick while he called to them, but today they ignored him and floated away white and shining towards the tennis court. Swans were there, their long necks excavating under the dark, muddy water. All around there was a wheezy, creaking noise as the water soaked into unaccustomed places, and in the distance a roar and above it the shouts of men trying to rescue animals from the low-lying fields.
A passing pig squealing, its short legs madly beating the water and tearing at its throat, which was red and bleeding, and a large flat-bottomed boat followed with the men inside. The boat whirled round and round in the fierce current; but eventually the pig was saved, and squealed even louder. The children, Hattie and Dennis, watched the rescue from a bedroom window, and suddenly the sun came out very bright and strong and everywhere became silver. Old Ives below said, “It’s a bad thing for the sun to shine on a flood, it draws the dampness back to the sky.”
The grandmother came and joined him, and they talked together in the verandah. There was a great smell of mud, and it was the first of June.
This evokes for me those lost gardens, the sense of nature at its slow, inexorable rampage. A flood takes no notice of the borders we construct between inside and out. Like Cassandra sitting in the kitchen sink at her window, the Willoweed family and servant Old Ives can do nothing but observe. Cultural connect: English country society in its mode of dampness and civilised disorder. The sense of a historical locale evoked in I Capture the Castle by the courtyard and moat are here conjured by the presence of a verandah – evidently the house is a large one, with at least one servant, Old Ives, needed to keep it running. Follow the lure of the language, chilly, flat, direct: “The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in.” Hear the blunt weight of ‘it was the first of June’ falling like a bodybag from a hayloft. One strange, implausible thing happens, because of another fact, and then it is on to the next action, with none of the lengthy romantic, jokey and socially awkward constructions of I Capture the Castle. Insights into the minds of character provide little to no comfort and occasionally rip at the fabric of our perceptions altogether. Perspective hovers around like a butterfly, rising and landing on various inhabitants of this stricken village, seemingly seeking out the bloodiest, least noble thoughts held within. Comyns is the kind of storyteller who knows that even the prettiest butterfly craves a taste of sun-warmed, salty blood. In this example, Emma Willoweed, hard at work cleaning in the morning of the flood, watches her father take down his breakfast tray:
Into the scullery her father tripped. Although he was a large man he always walked on his toes, rather leaning forward with his shoulders hunched.
“He’s like a gingerbread man.” His daughter thought, “ginger hair, ginger moustache, ginger tweed suit.”
Elbin makes some inane comments about housework and leaves:
“Father makes me hate men,” thought Emma as she pumped water into the bucket. A slug tumbled out of the pump and she caught it and put it in a dark damp corner under the sink.
As an aside to the madness, to the killing and self-mutilation that goes on beside the waterways and gardens of this story, Comyns seems to ask, in an offhanded manner, if we are really sure that human beings are kind at all, or whether we do not think they are in fact brutes, hiding their animal cowardice behind a bland and laughable disguise of everyday small talk and manners. In this Comyns is much closer to, say, Shirley Jackson than Dodie Smith. Although to my delight the scales tip towards a comic rather than horrifying reading of the human condition. I have a weakness for stories with a nihilistic understanding of humanity, undershot with this kind of comic grace, which speaks to something lodged behind my sternum – some sense of loss and mortality and even shame at the last minute upturned, or at least held back, held in perfect check by close observation of the sunlit beauty that is present, for all of that, in each of our frail everydays. Let’s go watch that new Coen brothers film. Let’s take Good Morning, Midnight out to the park and read it, shivering, in the sun. I will return to Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, by a different road to the way I return to I Capture the Castle. I will lend it to any teenage girl who asks me for recommendations on what to read. Read a fable of our lack of control over our brief, meaningless, pretty lives, I could say. Picture me in a long black dress, heavily made up around the eyes, sipping on blood-red wine. But that is not who I am, or the sum total of who anyone is, who any woman is, a single image of poised cynicism. We have pluralities in our art because we are plural, shifting, funny, awkward, bleak. We want to hand out books in the street to show lives exist, comfort exists and chaos and terror too, but that nothing is simple. Because who wants to be told that life is at all times simple. Smith and Comyns, as novelists are aware that at heart people do not want the simple story, but neither do they want to believe that no comforts at all exist. Cassandra Mortmain lives in decaying splendour, writing about the shabby yet privileged life she lives and the tender, funny and confusing mores of love, like so many other English heroines before her – a comforting continuity. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, for all its isolating, distanced strangeness, works within the continuities of nostalgia and pastoralism too, even as it makes a carnivalesque of their materials. In the end of that book, the good end happily and the bad end up dead, inasmuch as it could be said there were good people, or bad. Life resolves itself into a series of wryly observed riches and successes. The teenage girl is given the bleakness she craves, but not left burdened with too much heartbreak at, for example, the idea of humanity’s essential meaninglessness.
Art and literature perform other, bleaker spells than those of I Capture the Castle and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. Say I gravitate towards Jackson and Rhys and Kincaid and Ogawa some days. Some days fidget under the desire that classic establishment fiction had more awareness of the structures propping it up, that Jane Austen noticed the servants and wondered about their interiority, or about the slavery-plumped wealth of the society she was satirising. That more people might be more critical of the fact that otherwise sharp-eyed writers are being knighted or otherwise absorbed into the benevolent respectability of the social system. But I am a reader, and I wade into sentences and worlds that charm me. It’s a well-worn idea now to say that readers, often outside or partially outside the venn diagram of white, upper class, straight, cis, etc, will often read fiction and consume other media that goes against their principals. And the choice to do this, to give time and breath to a text, comes down to a power, bestowed by writing choices made long ago. In the case of I Capture the Castle, it was Smith’s choice to go so lightly and comically and winsomely with the familiar romantic tropes, and with Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead the amoral objectivity broadcast in such unexpected sharp sentences. The reader has been permitted freedom to use their imaginative faculties, to impose moral meaning, or not, to ponder a future for Cassandra that she has not told. To question, to construct. The reader, then, takes the walking tour of the manor house grounds, led by a witty or callous custodian, through a misty, haunted spring day. As many times as they like, they take the tour, each time seeing things under different weather. The invisible servants and struggling tenants, the comic glaze lent to violent or neglectful tendencies. And little by little they can take the castle home, and rebuild it themselves, to their own wilder or more tender appetites, with a blood-stained moat and servants who speak, and the rain still going as it always does, washing things clean or just adding to the ever-churning mud.