Dodie Smith, “I Capture the Castle”

I Capture the Castle is a Sacred Text for me, a book I read over and over again as a teenager and still revisit every few years. Each time, I am enchanted despite knowing the plot and characters intimately, and I think it’s because of a few key attributes.

First, there’s the voice. Narrator Cassandra Mortmain is a bookish seventeen-year-old who has been reared in very peculiar circumstances. Her father, a once-successful author, moved his family into a tumbledown rural castle when Cassandra and her elder sister Rose were small, and her brother Thomas tiny. Though the children are well-educated, they are very isolated, leaving Cassandra literate yet unworldly. And, to keep us reading, she has to be charming. The pretext is that we are reading Cassandra’s journal as she attempts to “capture” her relatives and her world.

Opening lines of the book, on a UK shopping bag

Next, Cassandra’s world is pretty unusual. Take the household alone: the elusive author father, who spends his days reading detective novels in the gate house. Add his second wife, former artist’s model Topaz, whose good heart is offset by her artistic pretensions. Elder daughter Rose is a discontented beauty, Thomas is a schoolboy, and there’s also Stephen Colly, the all-purpose help, handsome as a Greek god and in love with Cassandra. The family, moreover, is really, really poor. Poor enough to be generally cold and hungry, and to have only the skimpiest of wardrobes. Cassandra describes all of this with good humor but it’s clearly a dismal way of life with no prospect of improvement.

Into this situation Dodie Smith tosses, naturally, a rich attractive man, the owner of the nearby Big House and actually, owner of the castle. Simon Cotton and his brother Neil — and soon, their energetic mother, the model of the American club-woman of the 1930s — change everything for the Mortmain family. Romantic and cultural complications ensue, some of them hilarious.

I can’t expect to pin down the magic in this book, which has meant a lot to a lot of women. But I think I can point to a few contributive points aside from the sheer exuberant appeal of Dodie Smith’s prose. (For instance, Cassandra on Stephen: “He is eighteen now, very fair and noble-looking but his expression is just a fraction daft.”) One is the setting, the castle itself and the surrounding country. Smith is lyrical both about the beauty of the landscape and the weirdness of the castle. Another element is the way Smith refers to English-major favorites, notably Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë. It’s both knowing and respectful, and draws the reader further into the story.

One of my working definitions of charm is the ability to take responsibility for another person’s social comfort. The charmer is the one who asks questions, includes you, makes you feel clever and funny and desirable. That doesn’t really help me define literary charm, but I know it when I see it, and I Capture the Castle is its very embodiment.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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15 Responses to Dodie Smith, “I Capture the Castle”

  1. Carla Berry says:

    This is one of my favorite books of all time and one which I enjoy reading time and again. In fact, your entry is propelling me to the bookcase right now!

    • carolwallace says:

      It really is fabulous summer reading. I read on Wikipedia that Smith wrote it after she moved to the US — Doylestown PA to be exact — which I think explains some of that lyricism about the landscape, the weather, and especially the village.

  2. Chelsea says:

    I’ve had this on my Kindle for ages, and have been tempted to start it a few times, but after such a fantastic review (of what sounds like a wonderful story!) I can’t wait to get started!

  3. carolwallace says:

    Oh, Chelsea, I think you’re going to love it.I would even say — don’t start unless you’ve got a free hour or two in front of you! It’s one of those whisk-you-away reads, where you put the book (or Kindle!) down, blinking a little, because you’ve been somewhere else entirely.

  4. Chelsea says:

    Ooh, now THAT’S what I’m talking about when I mean a positive review! And, to be honest, I already started it…and got in trouble at work for taking an extra twenty minutes on my lunch break because, as you said, I totally forgot where I even was!

  5. Marie-Therese says:

    I read this over and over as a teenager and just loved it. I haven’t read it as an adult — do you think I would be disappointed?

    • carolwallace says:

      Oh, no, Marie-Therese, that’s part of what makes it so good. Because while the narrator is seventeen, the emotional stuff is all genuine, and plays for any age. Go back to it! You will be really pleased, I think!

  6. Ya! It was a pretty good read!

  7. Nathalie Foy says:

    I just found this in a Folio edition and I don’t think my hands have ever moved so quickly in a bookstore. Hands down one of the best opening lines in literature, and, yes, charming is exactly the right word for this book because it warms the cockles of one’s heart, and anything that can give a reader that bone-deep sense of joy is charming.

  8. carolwallace says:

    Book serendipity, Nathalie! Which in itself is heart-warming!

  9. Barry Homan says:

    It’s interesting you mention reading it over and over, because in the early 70s, it was Dodie Smith whom I read over and over again – her book 101 Dalmations!

    I could never really say what it was about the story that gripped me so much – it was just so much like a good friend. I’d seen the Disney cartoon, but the film didn’t charm me half as much as the book. Between the ages of 10 and 13, I must have read it over 25 times.

    It might have been what I assume to be the book’s original illustrations, or the stalwart character of Pongo the dog, the story’s central figure – but no, it was maybe just something in the way Dodie Smith presented the tale.

    No other book from my childhood was closer to my heart than 101 Dalmations.

    I always sorta wanted to meet Dodie Smith in person.

    • carolwallace says:

      Yes, I know what you mean, Barry. I only read the Dalmatians once or twice: I think it was a little too piercing emotionally for me. Animals. They get you every time. But we should also give Dodie Smith credit for really terrific writing, because that’s what sucked us in, don’t you think? Also, it was verbal magic, not visual, that got to us.
      I bet she was just lovely.

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