8. I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith

055A few weeks ago when recuperating at home over the Easter weekend, my mum and I started a spring cleaning purge of epic proportions, going through some of my childhood things that are still boxed up at my mum’s. There are so many things still sitting there, waiting to come home with me to London or to go on to a new life in a charity shop (it’s all very Toy Story 3!) Among the treasured possessions up for sorting were (obviously) a small mountain of books, and one of them caught my eye.

I Capture The Castle is a book I’ve had for donkey’s years but never actually read past the first chapter. However, this being many years ago and my copy coming complete with an endorsement on the cover from JK Rowling, I thought I’d give it another go, making it the 8th in my 52 Books Challenge. Author Dodie Smith was also the writer behind one of my favourite childhood stories, 101 Dalmatians. My copy of this was also in storage at Mum’s, and is currently waiting for enough bookcase space to make the transition to London. However, the two stories could not be more different. The only similarities are the 1930s time period, and the Suffolk setting.

Our narrator is Cassandra Mortmain, 17 year old daydreamer in a family of eccentrics. She begins keeping a journal to practice her speedwriting, but it soon becomes a way to chronicle an exciting period of change for her family. She is supported by a slightly bonkers cast: her beautiful, frutrated older sister Rose; her aloof, genius father; her nudist stepmother, Topaz; studious brother, Thomas, and the handsome help, Stephen, who is hopelessly in love with Cassandra. The Mortmains rent a castle from the wealthy owners of Scoatney Hall. When the heir, Simon, and his brother, Neil, descend on the Mortmain’s sleepy village from America, all of their lives are changed forever…

Cassandra has been described as a charming narrator and at the start of the story I certainly find that. Her joy of everything, even the simplest things, is refreshing and made me smile:

“Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.”

She has a very ‘make do and mend’ mindset, and is cheerful thorughout the family’s enduring poverty. But she is a little precocious, and at the point when she falls in love for the first time, she becomes almost unberable. Of course, this is her private diary, and therefore she is entitled to ramble as much as she likes, but I found it a little tiresome. She takes great offence when her older sister Rose suggests that is just ‘calf love’, not a real ‘first love’, and I found that an annoying trait in her. This love changed her personality, but not for the better. Overall I found her a very human narrator, and often felt the urge to give her a shake and give her a talking to. But shut away in her Rapunzel-like existence, I could hardly criticise her naivety.

Rose, the eldest sister, was also a character I found it difficult to root for entirely. She was clearly stifled and bored at the castle, aching for any kind of excitement, any avenue of escape:

“It is as if she is egging the weather on, wanting louder claps of thunder…Father said ‘Let me add to your simple pleasure in Nature’s violence by reminding you that there will shortly be at least six glorious new leaks in our roof.'”

But her methods of finding that outlet were not entirely orthodox. Yet I warmed to her more throughout the book than I did to Cassandra – I think I understood her more, and felt more sympathy for her.

This is really Rose and Cassandra’s story above all the others, but the other characters deserve a brief mention. Topaz was bonkers but loving, and Thomas far cleverer, more observant and astute than Cassandra ever gives him credit for. Stephen is sweet but a little pathetic (although nobly so, in pursuit of love). Mortmain is entirely frustrating and unrelatable. He hasn’t worked since he published his first and only book, years and years prior to the story. His employment is the reason for the family’s poverty and suffering, yet he chooses to shut himself away in the Gatehouse and read detective novels rather than do something useful to help his family.

Simon and Neil are vaguely interesting but a little two-dimensional and unrelatable. Through Cassandra’s eyes, they are mysterious Americans who are the source of much speculation and not much knowledge. Personally, I think two of my favourite characters were actually the animals – Heloise the English Bull Terrier and Abelard the cat. I particularly like how Cassandra writes about Abelard:
“Abelard went into the tall green wheat a few minutes ago, looking like a lion entering the jungle”.
I just love that quote, it’s such a good description! It instantly puts me in mind of Mum’s cat Sampson – it’s such a cat thing to do.

The coutryside also gets a much-deserved bit of attention. Cassandra also excels herself in the description of the beautiful English countryside, and you really feel her joy in the simplicity and wonder of Nature:

“Bees are humming, a dove is cooing, the moat is full of sky.”

It is hard not to share in Cassandra’s delight in the English countryside, and it was clearly a passion of Dodie Smith’s as well. I found it interesting to read that she wrote this while homesick and living in Pennsylvania in the late 1940s, which also explains the American angle!

Reading this back it seems as though I’ve been overly harsh with I Capture The Castle, and that I really didn’t enjoy it. But that’s not the case – I actually really enjoyed reading this book, and the issues I have are with the characters themselves, not the way Dodie Smith wrote them. I think it also has something to do with the time in which this was set – 1930s England. And I think that Rose and Cassandra are victims of circumstance and period as much as anything. Whatever you do, don’t let my reservations put you off if this book appeals to you. This is a charming coming of age story, and will take you straight back to your diary-writing teenage years!

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