For our Marginalia web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite works of literature by way of a short piece of prose. This week, Cherline Bazile—whose story “Tender” appears in our Spring 2022 issue—examines a passage from I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.
I return often to I Capture the Castle, a 1948 novel by Dodie Smith, for its sharp characters and gorgeous scenic construction. In this coming-of-age tale (by the author of The Hundred and One Dalmatians), two sisters, Cassandra and Rose, endure poverty in a rundown castle. Both hold diverging ideas about the sacrifices necessary to make ends meet. Cassandra believes that helping her father overcome writer’s block (by trapping him in a tower until he writes again) is the key to returning to their genteel lifestyle. For Rose, the older of the two, the way out is marriage to a wealthy young man whom she doesn’t love.
In a scene that takes place just before her wedding to Simon (their new landlord and recent inheritance beneficiary), Rose asks Cassandra to throw a card from her fiancé into the wastebasket. Cassandra declares, “Rose you don't love him,” to which her sister replies, “No. Isn't it a pity?”
What follows is a visceral scene with cutting questions and effusive exchanges, as Cassandra pleads with her sister to call off the wedding. The whole time, the sisters circle around what’s really upsetting Cassandra:
And you can stop pretending that you're doing it for us all—it’s simply to please yourself, because you can’t face poverty. You’re going to wreck Simon’s life because you’re greedy and cowardly—” I went on and on, in a sort of screaming whisper—all the time, I was conscious that I might be overheard and managed to stop myself shouting, but I lost all control of what I said; I can’t even remember most of it. Rose never once tried to interrupt—she just sat there staring at me. Suddenly a light of understanding dawned in her eyes. I stopped dead.
“You're in love with him yourself,” she said. “It only needed that.”
So much is omitted in this moment of revelation. We aren’t sure exactly what else Cassandra says to her sister, how much time has passed, how Cassandra might have looked as she unraveled. Despite these omissions, we have access to significant details: how the conversation begins, how it rises in volume until it settles into a whisper-shout, how Rose receives it—silently, until she understands the true reason for her sister’s anguish. Withholding information and shifting attention from the conversation itself to Cassandra’s interiority and then to Rose’s expression produces a sense of layered communication: what’s being said is only the tip of the iceberg. What’s not being said is what actually generates a rift between the sisters: that Cassandra is in love with Simon, that she no longer wants to make herself small for the sake of pleasing her sister, and, most importantly, her quiet dismay that she could feel so much without her sister knowing. Without the roundabout back-and-forth, the fractured conversation, and the accusations, Rose couldn’t have comprehended the depth of Cassandra’s feeling or their arrival at a standstill—two people who deeply love each other and desire the same thing but don’t know where to go from there. The moment captured in this paragraph is not simply a disagreement, but a crossroads wherein the two sisters decide what kind of people they will be to each other.
In my own story “Tender,” like Cassandra and Rose, two best friends, fall into a pattern of relating that doesn’t leave room for them as growing people whose desires and motivations change. The pressure of maintaining their relationship is a constraining force, leading both girls to engage in sly attacks in an ever-shifting oscillation between intimacy and distance. It’s only after Best Friend confesses that there’s been a seismic shift in her family structure, that the girls can arrive at a new place in their relationship. Greater than acknowledging familial challenges, Best Friend is also admitting that she and her pain are unseen in the friendship. Moments of revelation like this and the one in Smith’s paragraph rupture the status quo and provide a glimmer of a new, vulnerable and honest way of relating and being. What will the characters do with it?