I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

In this utterly charming, quintessentially English novel, we follow the highs and lows of six months in the life of seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, one of the most delightful narrators you are ever likely to encounter in literature. As an aspiring writer, Cassandra shares her story by way of a series of highly detailed journal entries through which she hopes to figure out and capture her feelings – the strange mix of emotions she finds herself experiencing during this pivotal time in her life. In essence, the novel is a coming-of-age story, complete with plenty of agonising over various romantic entanglements along the way. For some reason, I thought I might struggle to engage with this book and its ‘consciously naïve’ narrator, but nothing could have been further from the truth. This turned out be a great read for me – unashamedly cosy and indulgent with some moments of poignancy along the way to counterbalance the sweetness.

The novel is set in the midst of the Suffolk countryside in the mid-1930s. Cassandra lives with her rather eccentric family in a dilapidated castle which they have leased from their nearby neighbour, the elderly Mr Cotton. The household is notionally headed up by Cassandra’s rather frustrating father, Mortmain, a once-promising writer who hasn’t produced any new work in the past ten years, a point that only serves to exacerbate the family’s woeful financial situation. These days, the reclusive Mortmain spends most of his time camped out in the castle’s gatehouse reading detective novels and trying to solve crossword puzzles. Then there is Cassandra’s ethereal stepmother, Topaz, a former artists’ model with a penchant for nudity and communing with nature. (Cassandra adores Topaz in spite of all her idiosyncrasies.) Finally, completing the family unit, we have Cassandra’s pretty older sister, Rose, her younger brother, Thomas, and their odd-job boy, Stephen, son of the Mortmains’ former maid, back in the days when they could afford one. Stephen is covertly in love with Cassandra – a fact that she is fully conscious of but doesn’t quite know how to handle without hurting his feelings.

In spite of their residing in such formerly grand surroundings, the Mortmains have virtually no money to speak of. For years they have been living off the ever-dwindling royalties from Mortmain’s only book, the proceeds from Topaz’s modelling days (no longer in evidence), and little bits of money they have managed to borrow here and there. The rent on the castle has not be paid for quite some time. Moreover, all the family’s good furniture has been sold and replaced by the bare essentials, mostly cheap items acquired from local thrift shops.

Our room is spacious and remarkably empty. With the exception of the four-poster, which is in very bad condition, all the good furniture has gradually been sold and replaced by minimum requirements bought in junk shops. Thus we have a wardrobe without a door and bamboo dressing-table which I take to be a rare piece. I keep my bedside candlestick on a battered tin trunk that cost one shilling; Rose has hers on a chest of drawers painted to imitate marble, but looking more like bacon. (p. 16)

There is little heating or food to speak of at the castle – on a good day, there might be an egg or two to accompany the usual tea of bread and margarine. As a consequence, the girls, Rose in particular, long for some kind of escape. There is a very amusing scene near the beginning of the book where Rose threatens, albeit somewhat petulantly, to go ‘on the streets’ to earn some money, only to be reminded by Cassandra that it would be impossible for anyone to do so in the depths of Suffolk; it’s simply not that sort of place! In reality, Rose believes her best chance of a brighter future would come from marrying a wealthy man, someone who could sweep her off her feet and take her away from the crumbling castle forever. The trouble is, the chances of meeting any eligible young men, irrespective of their looks and relative standing, are practically non-existent, especially given the castle’s isolated location and the Mortmains’ limited resources. Nevertheless, Rose is determined to find someone, even if it means marrying a man she does not love, just to pull herself out of a life of poverty.

Then, just when the Mortmains appear to be at their lowest ebb, into their lives sweep two dashing young Americans: Simon Cotton, the wealthy new owner of nearby Scoatney Hall, and his younger brother, Neil. (In effect, Simon is the Mortmains’ new landlord, old Mr Cotton having just passed away.) Naturally, all this happens in typical fairy-tale fashion as the Cottons arrive at the castle just in time to see the Mortmain family at their most eccentric: Topaz has already been spotted on the nearby mound communing with nature; young Cassandra is taking a bath in the kitchen surrounded by a makeshift screen of clothes horses; and to top it all off, Rose appears at the top of the stairs dressed in a freshly-dyed tea dress, just as her recently returned stepmother starts playing the lute. It all makes for the most bizarre scene, but luckily the Cottons find the whole thing rather fascinating.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rose immediately sets her cap at Simon, seeing him as a potential future husband – this in spite of his beard which both girls find rather off-putting.

It is a pity that Simon is the heir, because Rose thinks the beard is disgusting; but perhaps we can get it off. Am I really admitting that my sister is determined to marry a man she has only seen once and doesn’t much like the look of? Is it half real and half pretence – and I have an idea that it is a game most girls play when they meet any eligible young men. They just…wonder. And if any family ever had need of wondering, it is ours. But only as regards Rose. I have asked myself if I am doing any personal wondering and in my deepest heart I am not. I would rather die than marry either of those quite nice men. (p. 66)

At first, the brothers consider Rose somewhat too forward and obvious, viewing her manner as more affected than alluring. Nevertheless, both Cassandra and Topaz are determined to aid Rose in her quest to get close to Simon. After one or two false starts, an invitation to dine at Scoatney is finally extended, an opportunity which Rose is determined to seize. In this scene, Cassandra is discussing Rose’s chances with Topaz.

I closed the kitchen door and said: ‘What did you think of her manner today?’

‘At least it was quieter, though she was still making eyes. But, anyway, it doesn’t matter now.’

I looked at her in astonishment and she went on:

‘Simon Cotton’s attracted – really attracted – couldn’t you see? Once that happens, a girl can be as silly as she likes – the man’ll probably think the silliness is fetching.’

‘Is Neil attracted, too?’

‘I doubt it,’ said Topaz. ‘I’ve an idea that Neil sees through her – I saw him give her a very shrewd look. Oh, how are we going to dress her, Cassandra? There’s a chance for her with Simon, really there is – I know the signs.’ (p. 122)

All too quickly Simon finds himself falling in love with Rose, and when he proposes marriage she naturally accepts. Cassandra, Topaz and Mortmain are all delighted at the news; Neil, however, is furious, a fact he reveals only to Cassandra, urging her to keep his outburst private. It would appear that Neil sees Rose as a gold-digger, someone who seems intent on marrying his brother for the money alone, irrespective of any genuine feelings of love.

As preparations for Rose’s wedding get underway – she is promptly whisked off to London by Simon’s erudite mother who insists on buying her a glamorous wardrobe and trousseau – Cassandra continues to chart the various developments in her journal. She is decidedly more grounded, more perceptive than her rather materialistic and foolish sister, a fact that becomes increasingly apparent as the narrative progresses.

Alongside Rose’s romance with Simon, Cassandra’s own feelings have also been thrown up in the air – not only by Stephen, who declares his love for her, but by Neil and Simon too. As far as Cassandra sees things, Neil is the more approachable of the Cotton brothers, more easy-going and open; and yet there is also something very attractive about Simon, especially once he dispenses with his beard. Much to her initial surprise, Cassandra also finds herself falling in love. Once again, the journal entries help Cassandra to make sense of her feelings. In effect, they provide an outlet for the experience of first love, marked as it so often is by that blend of exquisite pleasure and undeniable pain.

After that I talked easily enough, making him laugh quite a bit – I could see he was liking me again. But it wasn’t my present self talking at all; I was giving an imitation of myself as I used to be. I was very ‘consciously naïve’. Never, never was I that with him before; however I may have sounded, I always felt perfectly natural. But I knew, as I sat there amusing him while the band played ‘Lover’, that many things which had felt natural to me before I first heard it would never feel natural again. It wasn’t only the black dress that had made me grow up. (p. 323)

I don’t want to reveal too much more about the way in which the story finally plays out, save to say that there are one or two twists along the way (especially toward the end). Dodie Smith wrote the book while she was living in America, homesick as she was for her native England. As a consequence, the story is shot through with a touching sense of nostalgia, a reverence for the eccentricities of the nation she loved.

This is a captivating, slightly bittersweet novel, one that appears frothy on the surface but is actually deeper and more insightful than its initial levity suggests – I have barely scratched the surface of it here.

I Capture the Castle is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

51 thoughts on “I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

  1. heavenali

    I love this book! It is a delightfully, comforting read and I’ve read it twice. Cassandra is such a likeable narrator and I always enjoy an eccentric family. Great review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. I’m glad you enjoyed it too. The scenes with her family were so much fun – I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Radletts from Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love. Quite a few parallels there, I think.

      Reply
  2. kimbofo

    Lovely review of a book I’ve long wanted to read. Like you, I’ve always wondered whether I’d get on with the narrator so have been a bit hesitant about picking it up, so it’s nice to hear that you loved it a lot. I must dig out my battered copy bought second hand about a decade ago!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Kim. Yes, do dig it out – I’d love to hear what you think. It can be tricky to strike the right note with child narrators, but that’s certainly not the case here. I found Cassandra both convincing and charming – a most engaging companion indeed!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s great, isn’t it? I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by this one. Thanks for the recommendation of her memoir – I’ll take a look at that.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, madame bibi. Lovely to hear that you’re a fan of this too. I have to admit that I was very pleasantly surprised by the tone of this book. I wasn’t expecting to like Cassandra as much as I did! It just goes to show that you should never judge a book by hearsay or rumour. (I think I’d been put off by a poor report from a friend a little while ago…)

      Reply
  3. gertloveday

    I’m so glad you have read and reviewed this book Jacquie. It is one of my all time favourites in this genre (along with Cold Comfort Farm) and I hope your review will encourage others to seek it out and give themselves a treat.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely! Isn’t it just the most delightful book? Cold Comfort Farm is a great comparison, another much-loved book in a similar style. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Nancy Mitford’s In the Pursuit of Love, which I also read this summer. (I must be on an English Eccentrics kick at the moment!)

      Reply
  4. Col

    I read this after several people told me how good it was – but my blokeish self was convinced I’d hate it – but they were right and I was wrong. I think you capture it well -on one level it’s rather poignant and bittersweet but in other ways there was such a lot going on. And though they were an eccentric family I loved there eccentricity – there was something really likeable about them.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Col – and I’m really pleased to hear that you liked it too! As you say, the Mortmains are such an eccentric but likeable bunch, it’s hard not to fall for their charms. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Mortmain, especially the ones near the end of the book – I’m sure you’ll know what I mean by that!

      Reply
  5. A Life in Books

    I’ve not read this but have never come across anyone who has who hasn’t loved it. ‘Cosy and indulgent’ sounds just the thing at the moment although it seems from your review that there’s more to it than that.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I guess it’s a little like Miss Pettigrew Lives or a Day – fun and frothy on the surface, but with enough depth to make it more interesting or satisfying than that. It’s definitely worth considering, especially if you ever feel the need for some comfort reading.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, how lovely. I think it’s the perfect book to read as a youngster. Mind you, one of my goddaughters baulked at the prospect of reading it when she received a copy as a gift a few years ago (she must have been around fourteen or fifteen at the time). For some reason, it just didn’t appeal to her modern sensibilities!

      Reply
  6. Brian Joseph

    Great review Jacqui.

    I have heard much about this book book I have not read it. The story and character development sound fantastic. The passages where the Mortmain family are shown in their eccentricities sound fantastic.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The Mortmains are firmly in the tradition of English eccentrics, a little like the some of the characters you see in an Evelyn Waugh novel. It’s worth considering, although I’d be tempted to point you in the direction of Waugh or Nancy Mitford first if you’ve yet to try them.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jane. I guess I was trying to capture something of Cassandra’s personality in my review. She turned out to be such an engaging character, much easier to warm to than I’d expected.

      Reply
  7. Morag Goldfinch

    I loved this when I was a teenager and have never dared read it again – in case the magic has gone. It’s an almost perfect book for an under- experienced and over- romantic adolescent ( and the rest of us, whatever age we are. I remember following this with Wide Sargasso Sea, which had just been published. Happy memories of endless time to read.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I can imagine that! It’s always a worry that a favourite book will fall short of your original impressions if you ever decide to go back and read it again. I felt much the same way about Brideshead Revisited which I loved the first time around. Luckily it stood up to a re-read, but it’s often difficult to know whether to take that risk. In some ways, I wish I had read this as a teenager myself. It would have been a great introduction to the trials and tribulations of the first flushes of love.

      Reply
  8. realthog

    So glad to hear you adore this book too, Jacqui. Reading your account of it was like reading the book itself all over again — you caught the essence of it very well indeed. I must have been about 19 when first I read it, and naturally fell absolutely in love with Cassandra.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, John – and how lovely to hear that you enjoyed it too! It’s actually very charming, isn’t it? Not too sweet or sickly which it so easily could have been. I’m not surprised to hear that you fell for Cassandra back in the day – she must have been very hard to resist.

      Have you seen the film adaptation by any chance, the one with Romola Garai? I’m not sure that I want to see it, just in case it damages my impression of the book!

      Reply
      1. realthog

        I had the same worry about the movie as you, and indeed the worry persisted until about halfway through it: grmmph, mmmph, getting it all wrong, hmmmph, sort of thing. And then I relaxed a bit and discovered it was actually a pretty damn’ fine movie. I’ve seen it again since and liked it quite a lot. They didn’t manage to capture the feel of the book, but that’s obviously not for lack of trying, because every now and then you get bits that are spot-on. That said, if you simply watch the thing on its own terms you’ll likely enjoy it just fine.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, that’s really good to hear. I may well give it a whirl then, especially seeing as it’s Romola Garai in the lead role – I can just imagine her as Cassandra. And that’s good advice about trying to view it on its own terms, almost as though it’s a separate piece – I’ll need to approach it with that kind of mindset.

          Reply
  9. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review as always, Jacqui. I remember starting this once, but for some reason getting waylaid and not finishing it – and I can’t imagine why, because it does sound marvellous. No doubt I’ll eventually get to it one day!!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Am I right in thinking that you’re a fan of Cold Comfort Farm? If that’s the case, then it’s definitely worth giving Dodie another try. Maybe it’s a case of finding the right moment, a time when you’re in the mood for something comforting and cosy?

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How lucky you were to have discovered it as a teenager! It must have been the perfect read back then, especially given your closeness in age to Cassandra. I feel I’ve left it rather late in life to discover the charms of this one. Ah well, better late than never as they say…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      As you’ll have seen from my intro, I had the very same worry as you – a feeling that I might find the narrator too gushing or irritating, but luckily, that was far from the case. I found her to be an utterly charming companion – quite a relief really as I was with her for the best part of a long weekend. Anyway, it’s great to hear that you’re willing to give this one a go, and I’ll definitely be interested to hear how you get on – good luck!

      Reply
  10. Caroline

    I had to skim your review because I want to read it soon. I’ve picked it up a few times and the put it aside again. I feel it’s a book one shouldn’t spoil by chosing the wrong moment to read it. If you know what I mean. And, I’m a bit hesitant because I know some bloggers who say it’s one of their very favourite books.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s quite alright. I do the same thing (or avoid the post altogether) if I’m about to read a book that someone else has just reviewed – you want to go into it without too many preconceptions or fixed impressions! And yes, it’s definitely a book where you need to pick the right moment. I was rather hesitant about reading it myself, partly because of the reasons you mention. Also, I had got it into my head that I might not ‘gel’ with the young narrator and her tone of voice. Luckily that wasn’t the case at all as I found her very engaging. Anyway, I’ll be fascinated to see what you make of it!

      Reply
  11. bookbii

    Excellent review, Jacqui. I read I Capture the Castle a while ago and found it completely charming and, as you mention, deeper than it first appears. It’s a lovely book, probably about time I re-read it. Thanks for the lovely reminder.

    Reply
  12. buriedinprint

    I especially loved the bookish bits of this one. It was recommended to me long after my own teen years and, like you, I wished I’d discovered it sooner but not in the sense that Ithought I’d’ve enjoyed it more if that’d been the case but because I’d’ve wanted its company for longer as a bookish girl. I remember, at the time, being struck by the idea that she’d also written the 101 Damatian stories and feeling that that couldn’t be so. Now I wonder if it might be fun to check them out: perhaps there was a similar sense of fun in them as well – before Disney got its claws into the stories!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a good point about 101 Dalmatians. I think I’d read it many years ago but had failed to make the connection with the author of I Capture the Castle until fairly recently – probably when I first looked through the introduction to the Vintage edition. It would be interesting to revisit the Dalmatians now that I’ve read this one.

      Reply
  13. Naomi

    I have wanted to read this for a long time. Just one of those books that I haven’t gotten to yet. I almost feel as though my time for fitting it in has already passed, so I’m glad to hear you loved it!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, it’s never too late to give it a go! Even though I’m well into my fifties, I still found it delightfully engaging. There’s something timeless about the themes and emotions here, so in spite of being set in the 1930s the core elements of the story remain fairly relevant today. I can see why it has survived the test of time…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Sarah. I thought I might be the only reader to arrive at this book a little later in life, but that’s clearly not the case at all. So glad to hear that you loved it too. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No worries at all, Lisa. I do the same thing if I’m thinking of reading a book that someone else has just reviewed. I’ll be interested to hear how you get on with it as and when…

      Reply
  14. Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal

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