I Capture The Castle [Dodie Smith]

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When I was at school, I dismissed ‘I Capture The Castle’ because I made the snap judgement, based on its title, that it was going to be about war – and thus it would be boring (with the exception of a very few, I don’t like stories featuring wars at all. But that’s for another post.) Eventually, many years down the line, I took a second to read the blurb on a copy of the book, and I realised I’d been a bit of an idiot.

I Capture The Castle is the story of the Mortmain family, who are completely broke but live romantically impoverished lives in a ramshackle old moated castle. Then one day their little bubble is rocked (mixed metaphors, naughty naughty) by the Cottons – a wealthy American family who inherit the huge country pile around the corner and at the same time become the Mortmains’ new landlords. It has such a fairy tale feel to it, but without the predictability or the saccharine sweetness.

The middle child, Cassandra, is our protagonist and narrator who tells the story through a series of journal entries, and – without wanting to give too much away – the plot is driven by a network of tangled love-lines. Cassandra is 17, but I was a bit shocked when to discover that fact; she definitely reads more like a precocious 13 or 14 year old to me. Perhaps this is just to highlight her trait of being “consciously naive”, which is how she is described by one of the two eligible Cotton hunks. This would help to explain why her elder sister Rose is the one they both drool over – because I mean, granted Rose is supposed to be a bit of a babe, but she is also pretty self-absorbed and whiny in comparison with Cassandra, and if I was a bloke she would do my head in.

In spite of this naiveté, Cassandra is a charismatic and sweet narrator, and I’m sure that so many girls will be able to see themselves in her. She holds a major torch for Simon Cotton, but he’s only got eyes for Rose – and I definitely went through that emotional mill when I was at school. And, aside from the romance, she’s also a daydreamer and a ponderer, with an artistic outlook on the world.

And even if you don’t project onto any of the characters like I have such a strong tendency to do, there is so much more to be enraptured by in this book. The descriptions of a tumbledown castle in the English countryside are dreamy, and the characters are quirky and intriguing. None more so than Topaz, the bohemian stepmother to the Mortmain children, who is the antithesis of the father’s-evil-new-wife character. She is caring and warm-hearted, with a penchant for occasional naturism to boot. She’s also a strikingly beautiful artist’s model, and is devoted to the genius she believes still burns somewhere inside of her one-hit-wonder author husband. She is one of the most interesting and individual characters I have come across in a book for a long time, and was definitely one of the things about ‘I Capture The Castle’ that really had me sold.

While this book doesn’t occupy the place in my heart that is uniquely filled by the books I read in my childhood years (in the way I know it does for so many people), I feel almost as though it has adopted me at the ripe old age of 23 and was completely forgiving of the fact that I’m older than its target demographic. Instead of feeling as though I’d missed the boat and could no longer properly appreciate a story which I would have wholeheartedly adored ten years ago, it was like Dodie Smith and I cracked open a bottle of wine together and contemplated the emotional ups and downs of my teenage years retrospectively through the story of a girl named “Cassandra”. And she showed me that the all-consuming passions, the unrequited love, the jealousy of the peers who have more than you do… well, it all comes out in the wash.

Would recommend to:

If you are in high school at the moment, I’d urge you to check out ‘I Capture The Castle’ as I believe it would have been truly valuable to me if I had discovered it sooner. As I’m a girl myself, I feel more qualified to say that I think my fellow ladies will take much from the book, but I wouldn’t want to say anything that would discourage guys from having a read of it, too.

Would also recommend to dreamers, idealists, and anyone who has ever driven past the ruins of a castle and thought “That’d do up nicely…”.

I’ve finished this and want something similar:

Aimed at a similar age group is one of my very favourite books of all time (which I seem to be saying a lot in these recommendations…), ‘Goodnight Mr. Tom’ by Michelle Magorian. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful to read, and has a very similar ‘feel’ to ‘I Capture The Castle’, in part due to the fact that they are set in a similar epoch. I know I said I don’t like to read war books but the caveat to this is that I adore ‘Goodnight Mr. Tom’. I guess it’s the exception that proves the rule?

I was also put in mind of Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’, which I did enjoy – but I’d rank ‘I Capture The Castle’ a rung higher on the ladder. Nonetheless, ‘Little Women’ is still worth taking a look at, if you’ve never read it.

What do you think?

Was this book one of your favourites when you were at school? Were you a fan of Rose, or did you find her petulant and irritating? And which couples were you “shipping” (I really hope I’m using that term properly. I’ve only ever really seen it used on Gossip Girl forums! I shipped Dan and Serena, FYI).

Artwork credit: Leonid Afremov http://afremov.com/index.php?

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