Fresh look: old books
A friend reminded me recently of the purportedly “best opening paragraph of all time,” which, according to LitHub author Emily Temple, is the one that opens We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson.
“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”
Whether or not you agree with Ms. Temple, you do have to acknowledge the brilliance of this book, in which two sisters live an exceedingly reclusive life sequestered in Blackwood House, caring for their ill and aged Uncle Julian. The narrative, which is carried by the younger sister, Mary Katherine (Merricat), gradually reveals that there is a sinister tragedy in their past, that the town holds a grudge against the family, and that in fact they are reclusive for good reason. All of Ms. Jackson’s trademark creepiness eventually prevails over the almost mundane initial tone.
Thinking about this book put me in mind of a different book with “castle” in its title. Dodie Smith wrote I Capture the Castle in the 1940s, and its opening paragraph is also beguiling, though with a completely different vibe:
“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 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. And I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring. I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen house. Though even that isn’t a very good poem. I have decided my poetry
is so bad that I mustn’t write any more
This book is also about two proud but poor girls who live a quiet life in a moldering castle, but that’s where the similarity ends. Rose and Cassandra Mortmain live in this ruin with their famously eccentric writer father, his statuesquely beautiful nature-worshipping second wife (who has the habit of wandering naked about the grounds), and their precocious little brother. The father has a massive case of writer’s block, and hasn’t published in years, and the family is all but destitute; the rundown property is all they can afford. When two handsome and wealthy young men move into the neighborhood, the entire household collaborates to change the family’s luck by ensnaring one of them as a spouse for the beautiful Rose. It’s obviously not a feminist tale on that account, but the younger, spunkier Cassandra has aspirations to be a writer, and the book is entertainingly narrated through her journals.
Another old book with “castle” in the title that everyone should experience is Blandings Castle, by P. G. Wodehouse, a set of 12 short stories about the dotty Lord Emsworth and his bone-headed younger son, the Hon. Freddie Threepwood; his long-suffering secretary, the Efficient Baxter; and Beach, the Blandings butler. The stories add to the main saga, which begins with Something Fresh and continues for 12 volumes. Although in my opinion they are not quite up to Wodehouse’s inimitable pairing of the clueless man-about-town Bertie Wooster with his enigmatic puppet master butler, Jeeves, they are similarly riotous in their mostly fond mockery of the British class system.
And there you have the results of poking about in my reader’s brain for books with little in common beyond a word in their title! Was this too thin a pretext for a book review?