The novel takes place between April and October in a single year in the 1930s. The Mortmain family is genteel, poor, and eccentric. Cassandra’s father is a writer suffering from writer’s block who has not published anything since his first book, Jacob Wrestling (a reference to Jacob wrestling with the angel), an innovative and “difficult” modernist novel that sold well and made his name, including in the United States. Ten years before the novel begins he took out a forty-year lease on a dilapidated but beautiful castle, hoping to find either inspiration or isolation there. Now his family is selling off the furniture to buy food.
The widowed Mortmain’s second wife, Topaz, is a beautiful artist’s model who enjoys communing with nature, sometimes wearing nothing but hip boots. Rose, Mortmain’s elder daughter, is a classic English beauty pining away in the lonely castle, longing for a chance to meet eligible and preferably rich young men. She tells her sister Cassandra that she wants to live in a Jane Austen novel. Cassandra, the younger daughter and the first-person narrator of the novel, has literary ambitions and spends a lot of time developing her writing talent by “capturing” everything around her in her journal. Stephen, the handsome, loyal, live-in son of the Mortmain’s late maid, and Thomas, the youngest Mortmain child, round out the cast of household characters. Stephen, a “noble soul,” is in love with Cassandra, which she finds touching but a bit awkward. Thomas, a schoolboy, is, like Cassandra, considered “tolerably bright”. …more