I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (1949)

I Capture the Castle was one of the books on my shelf that I’d been reluctant to begin. I’m not sure why because I enjoyed Dodie Smith’s other well-known novel, 101 Dalmatians. Once I’d started this book my hesitancy quickly disappeared as I discovered that it is such a quirky, fun with patches of seriousness, fairytale-ish story, that captures all the angst of a young woman in love with someone who loves someone else.
The young woman is 17-year-old Cassandra, the narrator of the story, and she describes her unusual poverty-stricken family beautifully. Her father, James Mortmain, a one hit wonder of an author; his second wife, the artistic, ethereal Topaz; her resilient younger brother and her pretty older sister, Rose, who is determined to marry money. (“I could marry the Devil himself if he had some money.”)
Then there is Stephen, their 18-year-old boarder/servant who dotes on Cassandra so much that her father calls him her ‘swain.’

Cassandra keeps a diary and has a literary bent, which is partly why I liked this novel as much as I did.

I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring – I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen-house.

I have just remarked to Rose that our situation is really rather romantic – two girls in this strange and lonely house. She replied that she saw nothing romantic about being shut up in a crumbling ruin surrounded by a sea of mud. I must admit that our home is an unreasonable place to live in. Yet I love it.

The Mortmains had a forty-year lease on their run-down castle. Their landlord, who lived five miles away, always sent them a ham at Christmas whether they paid the rent or not. When he died the previous year they sadly missed the ham…

One day the heir to their landlord’s fortune arrived, along with his brother and the girls’ fortunes are beginning to look up.

Did you think of anything when Miss Marcy said Scoatney Hall was being re-opened? I thought of the beginning of Pride and Prejudice – where Mrs. Bennet says ‘Netherfield Park is let a last.’ And then Mr. Bennet goes over to call on the rich new owner.

Rose believed that having money would solve everything and be the antidote to misery, but her experience belied this. Cassandra thought that there must be a catch about having plenty of money; that perhaps it would eventually take the pleasure out of things.
She had this perceptive comment to make on the ‘climate of richness.’

But most of the time, I just thought. And what I thought about most was luxury. I had never realized before that it is more than just having things; it makes the very air feel different. And I felt different, breathing that air: relaxed, lazy, still sad but with the edge taken off the sadness. Perhaps the effect wears off in time, or perhaps you don’t notice it if you are born to it, but it does seem to me that the climate of richness must always be a little dulling to the senses. Perhaps it takes the edge off joy as well as off sorrow.

Oddly, I have never thought of us as poor people — I mean, I have never been terribly sorry for us, as for the unemployed or beggars; though really we have been rather worse off, being unemployable and with no one to beg from.

Cassandra wrote in her diary:

Sometimes I try to imagine what happens to characters in books – after the books finish, I mean.

I finished the book with this thought because the ending left much up in the air. It’s a ‘coming-of-age’ sort of story so that adds to the unresolved feeling. How many of us know what we really want when we are just on the threshold of adulthood?

14 thoughts on “I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (1949)

  1. I loved this book as a younger Mum/woman but am not sure what I would think if I read it again but coincidentally I just finished reading her memoir until age 14, “Look Back With Love”. Now I can see why she was able to write this story with such incredible detail and understanding. Her own life was quite a different one and she was precocious, spoiled, a loner, imaginative and had all of her experiences to draw upon as a writer. She also read widely and eccentrically and I can see those influences in her writing now that I know.

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  2. Pingback: The Classics Club: A New List | journey & destination

    • It is a unique sort of book. Some people say that they would have appreciated it more if they’d read it when they were younger. I don’t know about that. It’s a ‘coming of age’ of sorts but its appeal is also to the older and wiser, who maybe had those confused feelings when they were younger and can look back and think that there are some great benefits to being older & on the other side of all that!

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  3. This sounds intriguing, and I didn’t know the author also wrote 101 Dalmatians!
    It’s been on my radar for a while… apparently there is a film adaptation with Romola Garai, who is a favorite actress of mine.

    “How many of us know what we really want when we are just on the threshold of adulthood?” – So true!

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