I am having a very English experience today.
Yes, I am rereading Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and drinking tea out of my grandmother’s tea set. My idea of England is to sit around and drink tea and read mid-twentieth-century English novels. Apparently my fantasy is not quite the UK some of you live in.
In case you’re not sure whether tea is ever mentioned in Dodie Smith’s charming, humorous 1947 classic novel, I Capture the Castle, let me tell you it is. In the first chapter, Cassandra is very excited when Topaz puts on some eggs to boil: she hadn’t known the hens had laid, and had expected bread and margarine.
How odd it is to remember that ‘tea’ once meant afternoon tea to us–little cakes and thin bread-and-butter in the drawing-room. Now it is as solid a meal as we can scrape together, as it has to last us until breakfast. We have it after Thomas gets back from school.
I try to read I Capture the Castle once or twice a year and never am bored by it. Usually I read it on Midsummer Night’s Eve, because there is a very funny scene in which Cassandra celebrates with a bonfire and some witchery. But this year I’m reading it two days after the Fall Equinox–do you think that counts?
The narrator, Cassandra Mortmain, a 17-year-old aspiring writer, “captures” her life in a journal: she and her family live in a mouldering castle, which her father, James, bought on the proceeds of a Joycean novel he wrote. But he has inexplicably stopped writing, sits in the gatehouse all day reading mysteries, and thus the Mortmains have no income to speak of. In a very funny scene early in the book, the librarian, Miss Marcie, tries to help them figure out their earning power, and they are an unpromising lot: Cassandra’s stepmother, Topaz, is a former artist’s model who loves to commune with nature in the nude; Cassandra’s beautiful 21-year-old sister, Rose, wants to marry but knows no men; and their younger brother Thomas is normal but still at school. Only their servant, Stephen, has real earning power: he can do manual labor.
Fortunately their interactions with some new American neighbors provide both free food and romance. I am very happy to read Cassandra’s offbeat ruminations on her family, but I knew I needed tea and homemade muffins to make the experience perfect.
So what’s the story on the tea?
The Bavarian tea set in the photo was my grandmother’s. Pink flower patterns aren’t really to my taste, but it was given to me because I am the only one in the family who drinks tea. I vaguely thought Grandma had bought it at Woolworth’s; I got the Woolworth’s idea in my head because of all the stories she had told about being a farmer’s wife during the Depression and dressing my aunts in burlap feed bag dresses.
No, no, the tea set wasn’t that old! It wasn’t a Depression tea set, my aunt said. My uncle brought it home from Germany after the war as a gift.
Hmm, a guy’s taste: no wonder the pink flowers. Because we Frisbee women aren’t very flowery. We’re practical.
Occasionally I take it out and look at it, but we have broken a couple of the tea cups, so I usually leave it in the cupboard. Today I enjoyed drinking lapsang souchang (not chosen to pair with the muffins, but because it is the only tea I had in the house) out of the delicate cup, though I actually enjoy drinking out of mugs more, because the mugs can be banged around, and they rarely even chip.
Now what’s with the muffins? I know that’s what you really want to know.
I made them. They’re banana muffins. Does Cassandra eat banana muffins? No. I don’t believe bananas were on the menu.
But I bake what I have, and we had bananas. These are not super coffeehouse muffins, just the kind of stuff your mom used to make. If you use three bananas, they’re very moist, but I only had two, so, oh well.
They were good, though.
And you can get the recipe here at allrecipes.com