Book Marks: Katherine Woodfine
Katherine Woodfine looks back at Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle
Everybody always talks about the rolling boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark, what's your literary equivalent? And why has it stayed with you? They won't necessarily happen in your favourite book, some of them might even be in books you couldn't convince yourself to finish. Whichever book they're in, we want to celebrate them.
Today, Katherine Woodfine, author of our Children's Book of the Month, The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, writes about the bluebell scent of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.
The taxi drew up at a wonderful shop - the sort of shop I would never dare to walk through without a reason. We went in by way of the glove and stocking department, but there were things from other departments just dotted about: bottles of scent and a little glass tree with cherries on it and a piece of branched coral on a sea-green chiffon scarf… The pale grey carpets were as springy as moss, and the air was scented: it smelled a bit like bluebells, but richer, deeper.
‘What does it smell of, exactly?’ I said. And Rose said:
Dodie Smith’s classic coming-of-age story I Capture the Castle is the sort of book that stays with you. From the iconic first line (‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink’) to the last, it isn’t a book that is easily forgotten – and it is certainly one that I find myself coming back to, time and time again.
One of the moments that has especially stayed with me is the scene in which Cassandra and her sister Rose go to London from their shabby, bohemian countryside home. Dressed in what they soon realise are ‘most peculiar’ matching white suits, they find themselves in a grand London department store. Here, they catch a tantalising glimpse of a glamorous and luxurious world that seems to be completely out of their reach.
Dodie Smith perfectly captures the girls’ sense of wonder as they take in their exotic surroundings, in which sophisticated women are buying ‘a dozen pairs of silk stockings at a time’. But while they are enthralled, they are also aware that they are out of place - outsiders who can only make ‘wistful cat noises’ as they look on from the sidelines, longingly sniffing the bluebell scent.
As it turns out, when family circumstances change and Cassandra later gets hold of a bottle of the bluebell scent for herself, it is not all she remembers: ‘it no longer reminded me of bluebells’ she reflects, but instead ‘there was just a mysterious, elusive sweetness that stood for London and luxury’. The glamour and glitter of the department store, in the end, proves to be insubstantial.
When I was writing The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, I couldn’t resist including ‘bluebell scent’ as one of the items on sale in my own fictional department store, Sinclair’s. Not only is it a sort of shorthand for anyone who loves I Capture the Castle, it also points to the strangeness of the world in which my heroine, Sophie, finds herself.
Like Cassandra and Rose, I wanted Sophie to be enchanted by the marvels of the department store - but also to know that they were out of her reach. As a lowly shop girl, she spends her days surrounded by the luxury of Sinclair’s, whilst leading a life that is far from luxurious herself. What is more, when the priceless Clockwork Sparrow is stolen, Sophie discovers that beneath the surface elegance of Sinclair’s, all is not as it seems…
Just as I loved immersing myself in I Capture the Castle and the world of the Mortmain family, I hope young readers of The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow will enjoy getting lost in the world of Sinclair’s department store – a (bluebell-scented) world of elegant hats, delicious bon-bons, mysteries and contradictions.
A fast-paced historical mystery adventure for readers aged 9+, with gorgeous Edwardian period detail.