“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. 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’m going a long way back in time for Throwback Thursday this week. I read this book in my early teens, but still hold it close to my heart. I’d read 101 Dalmations much earlier and hadn’t realised that the author had written anything other than children’s books. The truth is I’d been waiting my whole life for a heroine like Cassandra Mortmain. There are a lot of different influences to blame for turning me into the adolescent I was. Years trawling round stately homes had given me a yearning for a house I could hide in. We lived in a 1960’s bungalow with just enough rooms to live in, but I longed to hear lines like ‘ Hayley? No I haven’t seen her since breakfast. Could she be in the pink drawing room?’ Period dramas, particularly 1970s productions of D.H. Lawrence novels and L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between , both loved by my mum, had left me hankering after a wardrobe of full, floaty skirts and the sort of accessories that looked out of place. Like tramping down to the village shop wearing a feather boa, ten layers of petticoats, whilst dragging a grumpy spaniel. I would constantly imagine I was in a book or a film, walking the poor dog’s legs off while hoping to meet a man who looked like Mr. Rochester and lived in a Gothic mansion, minus the mad wife.
I also developed a fascination with Edith Holden thanks to the TV series of Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady and I even wrote off for a pack about the series. We already had the book, so I bought a sketchbook and some watercolour pencils with my pocket money. My brother and I would go out early, him with his fishing gear, and me with my books and paints. There was an old track down to the woods with a drainage dyke running alongside. About halfway down there were two willow trees that had bent so far over the water it was possible to climb up and lay down along the trunk. My brother would fish from his tree, and in mine I would paint flowers and butterflies and read my book. It was the closest thing I had to room of my own. So, in finding Cassandra Mortmain I felt like I’d found exactly who I was supposed to be. I wasn’t meant to be Hayley Baxter, lives in a sixties bungalow, with a working class family and no money. I was meant to be the broken down castle, bohemian sort of poor. Where parents were trying to make money from art, roof leaks dripped into buckets instead of being fixed and they were invited to tea by the landed gentry or their new American millionaire estate owners.
I loved Cassandra Mortmain’s confidence. She was determined she was going to be a writer and nobody told her she couldn’t be, so she was always curled up in some unlikely place, writing in her journal. If I said I wanted to write novels, my close family were supportive – my mum had always wanted to write. Wider family and friends would say ‘well, as long as you do well at school and have something to fall back on.’ There were aunts and uncles who would have been bemused if I walked constantly around with a journal and pen. Writing was seen as something you had to do – you wrote a letter, or a postcard – but not something pleasurable that you devote time to. That came much later, when I had my own home and my own wardrobe of floaty skirts. When I first read her story I was much like Cassandra herself, there were parts of life that she was recording without really knowing their importance or meaning. Although she narrates her own story, as an older reader there were things I understood that Cassandra didn’t as yet. This is a story of growing up and leaving some of that innocence of youth behind.
I thought on first reading that her sister Rose was incredibly beautiful, but grumpy and not very nice to be around. However, reading her years later I could see that because Rose was older, she understood more about the realities of life. For her, the broken roof and the lack of income were not romantic, but a real problem that needed fixing. Their father’s only published book can’t keep them forever and his writer’s block makes him a very difficult man to live with. Rather comically the women lock him in his study, in the hope that inspiration will strike when he’s forced to stare at his typewriter. It’s very clear to Rose that they are in dire financial straits. This is where the book takes on some Austen-like romantic tropes, as the Cotton family come to visit the estate where they are the rightful heirs and the Mortmains are their tenants. Mrs Cotton brings her two sons, the eldest Simon being the rightful heir, and Neil, the younger son. Simon is ‘detestably bearded’ but the most eligible and able to rescue the Mortmains from their current circumstances. Cassandra’s father and stepmother Topaz are seen as delightfully eccentric by the Cottons and the whole family are invited for dinner. This is where the romantic problems begin, as Simon is besotted with the beautiful Rose, and as Cassandra develops a crush on Simon, she is in turn adored by the Mortmain’s servant and helper, Stephen. Stephen is incredible handsome, but the Mortmain girls are about to find out that the heart is an unruly organ and wants what it wants. Despite this, it isn’t long before Rose announces her engagement to Simon. This solves so many of the Mortmain’s problems – it’s as if one of the Bennett sisters actually accepted Mr Collins. As the preparations for the wedding gather pace, Rose and Cassandra spend more time with the Cotton brothers.
Simon finds that he gets on well with Cassandra. He is the more cerebral of the brothers and while Rose is beautiful, she is not blessed with brains. Yet, Cassandra is too young for romance, and a very touching friendship starts to develop. The younger brother, Neil, is more stereotypically American, loud, brash and very active. He and Rose are usually swimming or messing around in boats, with Neil often play fighting or indulging in horse play. Cassandra has never seen her sister so lively, actually forgetting to be lady like and being in the moment. Everyone is touched to see Rose so happy, and assume it is her approaching wedding. To an adult reader the attraction between these two beautiful people is obvious, but Cassandra is stunned to find out they have run away together. If we hark back to Austen, her sister has turned out to be more of a Lydia than a Jane. How can the Mortmain’s fortunes be improved by their daughter’s marriage to the second son?
This is a novel drenched in charm and nostalgia. Interestingly, it was written by Smith when she was living in America, and that may explain it’s rose-spectacled view of England. There is something slightly melancholy in that we’re watching a young girl lose the charming innocence that makes her narration a delight to read. She falls in love, but not with the person who adores her and sees the devastation that can be caused by betrayal and jealousy. We realise, as Cassandra grows up in front of us, the chaos of a household run by adults who have no money and no rules, the embarrassment of having a stepmother who will happily walk around in the nude and that moment when you find your own sister inexplicable, because you understand storybook romance, but not adult desire. Cassandra is mostly in love with life. One character describes her as ‘the insidious type–Jane Eyre with of touch of Becky Sharp. A thoroughly dangerous girl.” Her narration makes even minor characters jump off the page and straight into your heart. Finally, I loved how Cassandra leaves us with an open ending. We shouldn’t be surprised that some loose ends are left dangling, because she has told us how much she hates ‘a brick wall happy ending.’ I think it’s true to say that in me, she found a reader as romantic about life as she is. This is one of those books I’ll re-read again and again, so I’m on the look-out for a very special copy to put on my forever shelves.