Old book, new readers Publishing: 'I Capture the Castle,' 50 years old and practically forgotten here, has been reissued to critical rapture.

August 29, 1998|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

"I Capture the Castle," a 50-year-old novel long out of print in this country, is quietly capturing hearts this summer.

Written by Dodie Smith -- now remembered, to the extent that she is remembered at all, as the author of "101 Dalmatians" -- "I Capture the Castle" (a Wyatt Book for St. Martin's Press, $23.95) was reissued this spring with little fanfare.

Yet Entertainment Weekly gave it a rare A-plus. Ecstatic reviews also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Orlando Sentinel and the Weekly Standard, which called it "one of the best small romantic novels ever written much more fun than the reader has any right to expect."

At amazon.com, readers from throughout the country began posting their reviews, and every reader to date has ranked it five stars -- the highest score possible at the Internet-based bookseller. Writers as diverse as Erica Jong and Donald Westlake have sung its praises.

And the story behind this beloved book's resurrection is almost as delightful as the fictional exploits of Cassandra Mortmain and her eccentric family. It took three determined people to bring "Castle" back into print -- and two of them did it just for love.

Set in the 1930s, "Castle" is told in the form of a journal by Cassandra. .

"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink," it begins. "That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog's blanket and the tea-cosy. I can't say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left."

The Mortmains do, in fact, live in a castle. Father, once a successful writer, is blocked. Stepmother Topaz is a former artist's model who wanders the countryside in strange get-ups, playing her lute. Cassandra yearns to be a writer; the title refers to her attempt to get at the essence of things.

The story has echoes of Jane Austen and, to a lesser extent, Charlotte Bronte. But it is a wholly original work, where a seemingly predictable girl-meets-boy story works itself out in ways that will surprise even jaded readers.

Readers don't necessarily agree on their favorite scenes. There are those who laugh until they are sick when Rose is mistaken for a bear in an over-large fur coat. Others swear by the scene of Cassandra and her brother locking their father up so he will be forced to write again.

But the book's pleasures are ultimately indefinable, which is why people tend to buy it for friends and then pass it on, saying: "You must read this."

Never out of print in England, "I Capture the Castle" was written by Smith, a playwright, while living in America in the '40s. Smith died in 1990 at age 94. ("Dalmatian" fans will be pleased to hear she bequeathed $3,000 to her dog.)

Although once regarded as a near-classic, "I Capture the Castle" had been out of print in the United States for at least 20 years when Michele B. Slung, a Washington-based editor, found it at a yard sale in the early 1980s. Reminded of her own affection for the book, she began buying used copies wherever she found them and giving them to friends.

One such friend was the novelist Susan Isaacs, who quickly became a passionate advocate for "Castle." She started snapping up used copies to give her friends.

"I'm as tough a dame as anyone, but I get intensely ferklempt talking about this," says Isaacs, whose unbroken string of seven best sellers includes "Compromising Positions" and "Lily White." so alive. It's not a 'young adult' book, but it's a book that young adults can read."

The two friends tried to interest their considerable contacts in publishing in reissuing the book. But while Isaacs and Slung converted many new readers, no one was willing to take the project on until one of Slung's oldest friends, Bob Wyatt, set up his own imprint at St. Martin's Press.

"I took it on, because Michele and I talked about it a lot, and she told me Susan would be instrumental because she loved it so much," says Wyatt, who first read "Castle" in his Oklahoma youth. "My real thinking, I suppose, was very Oprah-oriented. She was announcing older books, and it occurred to me that a book doesn't have to be new to deserve an audience."

A hardcover edition of "Castle" was published in April this year. By then, Wyatt had left St. Martin's, taking his imprint with him, and "Castle's" fate has been left largely in the hands of editor Melissa Jacobs and St. Martin's overworked publicity department.

Jacobs says it has gone into three printings, and has about 8,000 copies in print. There is talk of a film version, to be directed by "Four Weddings and a Funeral's" Mike Newell. The paperback will be released next year.

Why did Isaacs, who has her own books to promote and write -- "Red, White and Blue," her latest novel, will be out from HarperCollins this fall -- throw so much energy into promoting Dodie Smith's old book?

"I'm not just a writer, I'm a reader," she says. "This is a classic, and it's a terrible shame people are being deprived of such greatness."

Pub Date: 8/29/98

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