Have you ever read a book that struck you so hard it made an impact on you for the rest of your life?
Many, many wonderful heroines influenced me while I was growing up, and I really think that they shaped my personality just as much as did my non-fictional female role models. Matilda showed me that I wasn’t alone in my love of reading; Alanna the Lioness taught me that I could do anything, even in a man’s world; Princess Cimorene showed me it was okay to be outspoken and move outside the crowd; Anne Shirley shared my temper and taste for escapades, but opened my eyes to beauty and goodness and kindness. Elizabeth Bennet, Vianne Rocher, Helena Justina; all these women and more made such an impact on the woman I am today.
But no heroine has ever touched my heart as much as Cassandra Mortmain, the wonderful, utterly real protagonist of I Capture the Castle.
From the first sentence of the book I was smitten with her slightly self-conscious narration. I love the way she describes her surroundings and her family as if they were fictional, and that her frames of reference include so much literature. I love her imagination and her conflicted feelings and her believable teenage behaviour. What I love most about her, though, is that it was always impossible for me not to identify with her – she is like me, and I am like her, ‘consciously naive’ and striving to be grown up and full of romantic ideals learned from literature that don’t quite apply to real life.
What made me think of how much I love Cassandra is that I’ve been wearing my sample of Penhaligon’s Bluebell perfume.
“Can you smell bluebells?” “I can smell heaven.”
The first time Cassandra and Rose smell bluebell perfume, they are in a posh department store in London, utterly in awe of the elegance and shine of the rich and grown-up. It becomes symbolic of a world they do not belong to, and when Rose buys some for Cassandra when she comes into money, it is a defining moment, and one that I wish I could capture for myself. Having a bottle of bluebell scent (“Americans say ‘perfume’ instead of ‘scent’ – much more correct, really; I don’t know why ‘perfume’ should be considered affected in England.”) is for me the romantic ideal of having ‘made it’: having my life together and being grown-up. I long to have that beautiful blue bottle on my dressing table.
Perhaps it’s silly to attach so much meaning to the fictional, but I love the idea of tying my life a little more closely to Cassandra’s, sharing something of hers. Smelling bluebells on my wrists lets me romanticise my life a tiny bit – it lets me be a bit more fictional.