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.
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.