This book (‘Now a major feature film’, as its cover proudly states) seems an odd addition to the Red Fox list because it is hardly a children’s story. However, as its narrator and leading character is a 17-year-old, this light romance can presumably be regarded as a teenage novel. The plot unfolds through entries in the journals of Cassandra Mortmain, who is an interesting amalgam of naiveté and extreme perceptiveness.
She chronicles the vicissitudes of her family who live in an ancient, cold, damp and crumbling castle, somewhere in the wilds of Suffolk – and, timewise, somewhere between the two world wars. Cassandra’s father is a celebrated, but regrettably one-book-only, author whose literary powers have dried up, and who spends most of his time locked away from everyone reading detective novels. Hardly an efficient breadwinner! His colourful wife, Topaz, a former artists’ model, is the only member of the family who occasionally works.
The family is largely dependent on handouts from better-off (or harder working) friends: the castle has no gas or electricity, and even basic foodstuffs are in short supply. The ambition of 21-year-old Rose, the elder daughter, is simply to marry for money. Present-day readers may find it surprising that neither Rose nor Cassandra is trained to pursue any kind of paid work: they are described as ‘unemployable and with no-one to beg from’ (and of course there was little social security in their time).
The family fortunes improve when two rich and charismatic American brothers come onto the scene. Through one of them Rose rather zanily achieves her ambition, and through the other the burnt-out author finds a sponsor.
Cassandra sees herself and Rose as ‘two Brontë-Jane Austen girls, poor but spirited’, and certainly her conveyance of the family’s exploits is lively. Despite the apparent superficiality of the characters, we are carried along by Smith’s zestful and sometimes whimsical style – and though there are no dalmatians in sight, an engaging bull terrier contributes to the action!