1 The ending.
Somewhere around the middle of the book, Cassandra’s trying to decide if she envies Rose or not. She says:
“When I imagine changing places with her I get the feeling I do on finishing a novel with a brick-wall happy ending–I mean the kind of ending when you never think any more about the characters.”
And so of course this book isn’t going to have that kind of ending. I’m not going to spoil it for you, just in case there’s any chance you’re reading this and you haven’t read ICTC, but let me tell you that Dodie Smith provides an ending which could not be more perfect, leaving you looking hopefully into the future with Cassandra and giving you plenty of scope for thinking about all the characters. Thank goodness no publisher nagged her into providing a sequel!
2 The sense of time.
The trouble with journal books and letter books is that usually they don’t account for the amount of time the character has to spend actually writing in between all the things they’re doing. In ICTC, we get the sense of how long writing takes – sometimes Cassandra tells us that it has taken her two or three days to complete an episode – and also a sense of her in the present, as she writes: think of the first sentence, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink,” and the end, “Only the margin left to write on now. I love you, I love you, I love you.” There are no slips: we learn straight away that she’s practising speed-writing which is why she writes so much even before anything begins to happen, the now around her is beautifully integrated with the events she’s describing.
3 The evocation of a time gone by.
It didn’t occur to me when I first read this that it was anything other than a contemporary novel when it was written. I was struck by the differences between then and now: the idea of them living on hand-outs in a castle, the treatment of Cassandra by everyone as if she were a child though she’s 17 or 18 (it’s not made clear) and her – I can’t think what to call it – backwardness? innocence? when it comes to men. The whole attitude to love and marriage really: it all seems deliciously old-fashioned. The thing is though, when you sit up and take notice, this is a book published in 1949 about the 1930s. By 1949, that decade before the war must have seemed like another world. And once you realise that, you start to notice how much there is in the book that’s there just to give you a glimpse of this other world. Think of the part when Simon and Cassandra stand in the village taking in the sights and sounds and smells, or the off-hand mention of the sheep in Hyde Park (it’s true, see http://www.peterberthoud.co.uk/2012/03/hyde-parks-shepherd-his-sheep/). It’s a very conscious evocation of the past.
I could go on. I could tell you that it’s laugh-out-loud funny in places and in others full of the joys and agonies of unrequited love. I could witter on about the marvellously ‘captured’ characters and settings, and the funny little digs at ‘arty’ people. I’ll stop now though, but for one thing: read it or reread it. It’ll make you smile.