In "I Capture the Castle," the Stepmother Archetype Gets A Bohemian Makeover
Her eccentric wardrobe and artistic side is reflected in the caring and sensitive choices she makes for her family.
Tara Fitzgerald as Topaz in a 2003 film based on the book. Screengrab via YouTube
Across literature, the stepmother archetype is frequently glamorous, though rarely kind. She’s often an insipid—or worse, a scheming—replacement for the protagonist’s saintly mother. Characterized as an interloper, the stepmother is typically younger than her husband’s late wife and (Grimm’s fairy tales, anyone?) actively neglects his offspring, while burning through their inheritance. In the 1948 novel I Capture the Castle, English writer Dodie Smith deliciously complicates this archetype with Topaz, an unwaveringly supportive bohemian stepmother and style icon.
Set in the 1930s, I Capture the Castle is structured as a series of vivid journal entries by Topaz’s seventeen-year-old stepdaughter, Cassandra Mortmain. We learn that Topaz is a famous artists’ model, who is “tall and pale, like a slightly dead goddess” with long “silvery hair” and a “sepulchral voice.” At the book’s outset, the impoverished Mortmain family find Topaz’s sartorial eccentricities, including penchants for vintage clothes and experimental dyeing, charming, if occasionally contrived. As the narrative unfolds, however, Topaz’s theatrical approach to fashion reads more as a keen understanding of visual politics. She wields an intuitive knowledge of artful dress, while also possessing gritty resourcefulness and the social acuity required to read a room. Topaz deploys these faculties in equal measure while expressing her own Grace Coddington-meets-Veela (the bewitching, moon-bright creatures from Harry Potter) personal style and supporting the Mortmains’ reentry into society.
Topaz is a famous artists’ model, who is “tall and pale, like a slightly dead goddess” with long “silvery hair” and a “sepulchral voice.”
A rare example of a sophisticated and selfless stepmom, Topaz is only in her late twenties and comes across as a cosmopolitan older sister or aunt. Cassandra and siblings Rose and Thomas share a friendly repartee with her and call Topaz by her first name, though Cassandra notes in her journal that her stepmother “claims to have been christened Topaz—even if this is true there is no law to make a woman stick to a name like that.” The family resides in a 14th-century castle ruin where modernist patriarch James Mortmain (simply “Mortmain” to the Topaz) has a forty-year lease and a worrisome case of writer’s block. At the castle, Topaz swans about in tattered dresses, including a “dyed-green tea gown, which is medieval in shape with long flowing sleeves,” and “black rubber boots” that she wears sans clothing whilst “communing with nature” at dusk.
While her style may be performative, the reader quickly realizes that Topaz is mostly performing for herself. Her favorite outfits are costume-like, combining self-seriousness with whimsy. At one point, Cassandra observes “Topaz . . . wearing a nightgown made of plain white calico with holes for her neck and arms; she thinks modern underclothes are vulgar. She looked rather like a victim going to an Auto da Fé [punishment for heretics during the Spanish Inquisition], but her destination was merely the bathroom.” Later Cassandra describes Topaz making potato-cakes in her “favorite dress, which is cream satin-damask—Italian—just about dropping to pieces; she wears a little ruby red cap with it.”
Topaz’s physical presence attracts people even before they note her unique apparel. “[Topaz] is very beautiful, with masses of hair so fair that it is almost white, and a quite extraordinary pallor,” writes Cassandra, continuing, “She uses no make-up, not even powder. There are two paintings of her in the Tate Gallery.” While her physical beauty and Medieval-and Victorian-inspired ensembles are often praised, Topaz identifies more with her passions (painting, playing the lute, and inspiring artists) than her looks, though one appreciates that she rarely succumbs to false modesty. Rather, Topaz is uniquely at ease with her beauty and occasionally calibrates its effects to specific ends, as when she dresses dowdily in tweed to avoid attracting attention away from Rose at the arrival of the wealthy American brothers, Simon and Neil Cotton. Unlike the bookish Mortmains, Topaz’s savvy derives from lived experience: “Before she was an artists' model, Topaz worked at a great dressmaker’s.” We also learn that Topaz was twice-married before, including to a circus master, and one imagines that she may have once been a flapper. In short, she is a woman of the world, and the one family member who has willing dedicated herself to supporting the Mortmains’ Austen novel-like existence.
At the castle, Topaz swans about in tattered dresses, including a “dyed-green tea gown, which is medieval in shape with long flowing sleeves,” and “black rubber boots” that she wears sans clothing whilst “communing with nature” at dusk.
Though often depicted as fanciful (she names the family dog and cat, Heloïse and Abelard), Topaz is in many ways the most grounded and self-aware member of the household. “She develop[s] a mania for washing, mending, and cleaning,” and altering ancient and inherited textiles becomes an outlet for Topaz’s rich imagination. Through these pursuits, as well as cooking, cleaning, and—perhaps most underrated of her skills—providing sartorial counsel, Topaz invaluably supports her new family. On several occasions, her insights into London-based trends combined with her preternatural aesthetic sensibility buoys the Mortmains’ prospects. Notably, it is Topaz who keeps Mortmain’s suits well kept for when he reenters the literary scene after a decade-long fallow period. It is also Topaz who tactfully encourages Rose to eschew ostentatious manners or dress when in the company of Simon and Neil.
On the one hand, an urbane insider sought out by artistic London salons, and on the other hand, a Brontë-esque wild woman who runs naked through the hills, Topaz’s consummate devotion to beauty and art underlie all her aesthetic choices. Importantly, she is oriented in parallel by a kindness of heart and the Mortmains slowly grow to appreciate her emotional maturity. Her care for the family, particularly the fate of her stepdaughters, offers a refreshing counterpoint to misogynistic renderings of stepmothers pitted against biological maternity. In a similarly countercultural vein, Topaz understands that her aesthetic is just one of many options and encourages those in her midst to express their own visions. At a chic dinner party hosted by the Cottons’, attendees pronounce Topaz “really a Blake.” While their comparison to the Romantic English writer and painter solely takes into account Topaz’s outward style, a more apt analogy would consider her free spirit and “pagan” energies. In Topaz’s own words, “I’ve got to inspire people, Cassandra—it’s my job in life.” In 2019, her work continues.