Reading Helps Girls To Capture Their Castles
I love the film You’ve Got Mail more than is healthy. I make people watch it with me all the time and I have consciously modelled parts of my wardrobe off Kathleen Kelly’s sparky combo of pinafore dresses and large cardigans. While I sit here, waiting for someone who looks like Tom Hanks who happens to own a large book conglomerate to fall in love with me and ruin my career, I am content to mull over the endless array of wisdom that leaps out of Nora Ephron’s script. Kathleen, when justifying her career as a children’s book seller, says that ‘When you read a book as a child it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.’ And, of course, she’s right.
My mum was a librarian and I grew up surrounded by stacks of books littered around our house, like a kind of obstacle course. I read voraciously when I was little, and more importantly, I was read to. Sometimes my parents made slightly questionable choices; my Dad read me ‘Animal Farm’ when I was eight, which did nothing to discourage my latent socialist instincts. ‘Kidnapped’ was another interesting one, considering we owned a boat. I was convinced that I would be forced into naval servitude. My Dad sorted this out by promoting me to admiral (which naturally enraged my sister, whose career had stagnated at the rank of first mate).
But, aside from a couple of hiccups, the reading I did as a child was incredibly enriching. I’m not sure my mum and her friends had meetings about what ‘feminist’ books to provide me with, but they made sure that books fell into my hands that encouraged female independence.
For me, one book stands out because it altered the trajectory of my life. My thirteenth year started, by all accounts, poorly. My dad died the day before my birthday, and my house was in a kind of suspended, unreal state. The thing I remember most is the silence; his oxygen machine had been switched off, and my mum and I played scrabble, our voices tiny in the spaces left behind.
My mum’s best friend sent me a book, wrapped in a silk scarf. The pages of the book are stained with little blue fingerprints – my appetite was minimal and I survived basically on frozen blueberries. She bought me ‘I Capture the Castle’ by Dodie Smith. The heroine of the book, Cassandra, was the perfect friend for small, gangly thirteen year-old me. Cassandra’s struggles with understanding her family and her desire to be understood in turn speak of the daily reality of dealing with the complexities of our own inner lives while attempting to love people. It’s a book about growth, it’s about the fact that everyone’s families are insane. But Smith stresses that it’s the uncertainty of life and the casual, nonchalant beauty of it that makes it worthwhile.
Cassandra is given space to figure out who she is. And telling girls that they have time to sort things out is invaluable in a patriarchal landscape that demands maturity and perfection from women at very young age. The best thing I learnt from ‘I Capture the Castle’ is that experience, good and bad, must be gone through in order to grow. And, as Cassandra says ‘I only want to write. And there’s no college for that except life.’