December 5, 2012

Review: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Published: 1998, St. Martin's Press (Originally 1948)
Genre: (Young) Adult Fiction
Source: Library book

My imagination longs to dash ahead and plan developments; but I have noticed that when things happen in one's imaginings, they never happen in one's life, so I am curbing myself.

While I love reading young adult fiction, fantasies, historical fiction, and many other genres of more recent books, I also love classical literature. Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors, I like the Bronte sisters, and I have a deep respect for Charles Dickens' works. I do not intend to stop reading current popular books, but there are thousands of classics out there that I also haven't read. Reading I Capture the Castle reminded me of how good it can be to read something a little older, a story that isn't reflecting back on an older time from a modern perspective, but one that is about life and the time period as the author knew it. It definitely will become a goal of mine to read more older, classical books interspersed with modern, popular reads.

I Capture the Castle can best be described as an epistolary novel, told through the journal entries of Cassandra Mortmain (although chapter numbers replace traditional date headings). Cassandra lives in an old castle with her family in the countryside of 1930s England. From the outside, their lives may sound romantic, but a closer look reveals many difficulties. Her father wrote an incredibly successful experimental novel but has been unable to write one since and has not taken a job, leaving the family horribly destitute. Because of their financial situation and the physical location of the castle, the Mortmain family is rather isolated. While no one is very happy with their situation, the father has made it clear that he is unwilling (and unable) to try to do anything to better the family, leaving Cassandra, her older sister Rose, her brother Thomas, her stepmother Topaz, and Stephen, the son of their housekeeper, to search for solutions.

I loved the simplicity of this book, which I suppose is reflective of the entire time period. The problems the Mortmain family encounters are not necessarily black and white, but they always do seem to clearly articulate their problems and work towards solutions. I write basically everything on the computer nowadays, which certainly is convenient for someone like me who tends to constantly revise as I write. But there's something so genuine and organic about Cassandra recording the events of her life through journal entries. Or taking a bath of boiled water in the kitchen. Or learning to entertain oneself through books, music, dinner parties that involve dancing, and the like. I know that I couldn't live without the modern conveniences of today, but I do like being able to experience what things would have been like in ages past through books. And the image of a crumbling castle holding such a vibrant but destitute family really stuck with me.

Cassandra is a wonderful protagonist. She perfectly balances the line between the innocence of youth and the weighed-down burdens of adulthood. It was simply fascinating to read Cassandra relate the details of her unconventional existence to her readers. Despite dealing with a lack of finances, friendship, or much knowledge of the world, Cassandra retains a strong sense of optimism. I Capture the Castle is definitely a bildungsroman, or a coming of age tale, which I also love. When she first meets Simon Cotton near the beginning of the novel, he refers to her as a child. The same cannot be said for the Cassandra who writes the final entry. It was a delight to watch Cassandra mature as she struggles with the common teenage issues of first love, sibling rivalry, finding a sense of self, in addition to some not-so-common ones.

Against the oft-dreary background of the crumbling castle is a vibrant cast of secondary characters. There's Topaz, the model-artist who left London to marry Cassandra's father, Rose, the older sister who just wants a few nice things in her life and the life of her family, Thomas, the younger brother whose school acts as a means of escape from repetitive castle life, and Stephen, the son of the Mortmain's late housekeeper who remains with the family and harbors amorous feelings for Cassandra. I also enjoyed reading about Simon and Neil Cotton, the American heirs of the estate who really do propel the novel forward. They provided an interesting dichotemy with the Mortmain family: American vs British, wealthy vs poor, and also a different example of family bonds. While the majority of the characters are incredibly likable, I found myself experiencing degrees of disgust and disapproval towards the father. I understand that his life was tough his wife died, he was temporarily incarcerated, he feels as though he has lost all literary inspiration. None very good. I get that. But, in the immortal words of Robert Frost, Mortmain ignores one of the basic tenets of life: "it goes on." He's content to let his family live in poverty while he wastes his time reading crime novels from the village library. I don't think that there's a better example of a neglectful father.

The romantic portion of the plot is reminiscent of Jane Austen's stories, and many more I've read from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British novels. The romance is fraught with dilemmas and misunderstanding. In some ways, one could describe the romance in the story as a love pentagon, but it really is a number of frustrated young adults trying to use love and relationships to solve their problems. I really enjoyed how Rose and Simon's relationship starts out in such a traditional fashion, but then Smith twists it into something completely unexpected. There were aspects of the romance that felt contrived to me as a twenty-first century reader, but they all made perfect sense to me within the context of the story itself.

Ultimately the story is not about any of the adults; it's about Cassandra and the younger generation. It's about their trials and tribulations as they seek ways to turn their lives around. The overall message of the novel is a bit nostalgic, but there's a sense of hopeful yearning for a better future, one that's just beyond reach. I definitely recommend this book for young adult and adult readers alike.
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. I read this book earlier this was so sweet! :)

  2. Amanda, I LOVE your in-depth analysis of this book! I can tell you loved it by how thoughtful and detailed this review is!

    Like the authors you mentioned, Austen and the Bronte sisters, I think I Capture the Castle is timeless. Yes, it does read as a reflection of time Smith wrote it, but as a true coming of age story, it is a book that can be read across generations and not lose it's magic.

    I LOVE books about books and writers. I love that Cassandra is a writer and her father is as well, though the two are miles apart.

    And yes, she is a wonderful protagonist, and watching her grow up through the course of the book is AWESOME. I laughed and cringed at some of her experiences.

    And I love this from your review:

    "She perfectly balances the line between the innocence of youth and the weighed-down burdens of adulthood."

    YES. I read this book as an adult, and afterwards, I walked away with this wistful feeling about the whole process of growing up. Like you said, leaving innocence and childhood behind for the adult world which can be exciting but also scary, and sometimes a bit disappointing. But Cassandra seems like one of those lucky souls that will always retain some of her innocence. I like to think Cassandra will never be jaded and cynical:)

    LOVE this review. It made me want to read the book all over again:)

    1. Me neither! Cassandra will always retain a youthful optimism but not necessarily in a way that makes her seem naive. She's such a wonderful protagonist and I would have loved to befriend her.

      And you know, I never really made the connection between Cassandra and her father. They both are writers, but I guess I was too fixated on the fact that he's been published and all. How fascinating! I love always having new ways to read and interpret books!

      Thank you so much, Heather! I am glad that you enjoyed reading my review! I hope that you do get the chance to reread I Capture the Castle at some point! I know I'll need to return to it some time down the road. But for now I know my mom wants to read it, so I'll be happy sharing it with another person. :)


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