I saw the film of I Capture the Castle years ago, with the lovely Romola Garai, who did such a brilliant (in my opinion) job at portraying Emma Knightley in the BBC’s latest version of Emma broadcast last year, and I was enchanted by the story and the setting and the characters. I kept meaning to buy a copy of the book and read it after seeing the film, but I never got around to it. Eventually about a year ago I came across a lovely Folio edition for 50p in my local old lady charity shop and snapped it up, and it has languished on the dusty outpost known as the TBR pile ever since, as I have been too afraid to read it. Why afraid? Well, because everyone kept telling me how fantastic it was, that it was the perfect book for me, and that I would just absolutely love it and it would become a new favourite of mine. Such praise raised my expectations to proportions so high that I began to feel no book could truly live up to the brilliance I had been led to believe lay within its pages. I didn’t want to be disappointed; instead, I rather liked the idea that a book of supposed complete and utter delight lay undiscovered on my shelves. I wanted to keep that feeling of suspense and potential excitement, like saving a Christmas present to be opened in July, rather than reading it and finding it to be less than I had hoped.
I decided to take it on holiday with me on a whim, however, and after being immersed in the comforting world of pre war England in Miss Buncle’s Book, I didn’t want that feeling of old fashioned cosiness to end. I Capture the Castle seemed the perfect book for the occassion, and so, with trepidation, I began. From the first line: ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink’, I was entranced, and I could barely put it down. Cassandra Mortmain, a ‘consciously naive’ teenager of 17, lives in a tumbledown castle in the beautiful Sussex countryside with her eccentric novelist father, James, who published a one hit wonder, ‘Jacob Wrestling’, the first ‘modernist’ novel, and has written nothing since, her stunningly beautiful artist’s muse stepmother, Topaz, her frustrated, overly romantic 20 year old sister, Rose, her schoolboy brother Thomas, and Stephen, the live-in help who is in love with Cassandra, writes poetry, and has the good looks of a Greek statue. They all live together in the sparsely furnished and freezing castle, with barely enough money for food and none at all for clothes. While their father locks himself away from his family, Topaz and the girls have to keep everything going, and with few prospects and no nice things, life is becoming almost unbearably frustrating for the now adult Rose, who is desperate for pretty clothes and a romantic liason. However, with no opportunity to make any money and no friends to speak of, the family are isolated in their castle, with little to vary their days. Cassandra witnesses it all, and with her own plans to become an author, decides to ‘capture’ their life within the pages of her notebook.
Soon after she begins her journal, life begins to look exceedingly more exciting for the Mortmains. Rose has heard that the neighbouring manor house, the owner of which also owns the castle, has been inherited and newly inhabited by two Americans. Dreamy Rose is reminded of when ‘Netherfield is let at last’ in Pride and Prejudice, and declares that something wonderful is about to happen. Her premonition is soon proved to be right; the Americans duly turn up at their door, and happen to be young, good looking, and stinkingly rich to boot. Rose decides that this is her way out of poverty, and sets about using her considerable beauty to snare the elder brother, Simon, much to the dislike of the younger brother, Neil. Cassandra observes all this from a distance, while also dealing with the unwanted advances of poor Stephen, who is soon snapped up by one of Simon and Neil’s London ‘set’ to become a photographic model.
The appearance of the Americans changes all of their lives, and moves them out of the confines of the castle and into the glamorous and hedonistic world of 1930’s London, where women are clothed in silks and furs and there is something to see and do every evening. However, despite Rose’s engagement to Simon, and the wealth the Americans can offer the Mortmains to improve their lives, no one really seems to be particularly happy with their new lots, and Cassandra begins to wonder whether they were better off as they were. Before they know it, everything begins to spiral out of control, and Cassandra is rapidly catapulted out of her naive view of the world and into the harsh light of day, though she never quite loses her belief that everything will come up roses in the end.
Much more than this happens, and there are many terrific characters, but I’d be spoiling the delight of the book if I laid everything bare for you in this review. What I loved the most about it was how perfectly Dodie Smith captures the heart and voice of a seventeen year old girl; Cassandra’s outlook on life, the way she speaks, her romantic naivety, are all so convincingly portrayed on the page that you’d struggle to believe that Dodie Smith was in her forties when she wrote this. I loved Cassandra as a character; I loved how real she was, how full of hope and joy and romance she was, how strongly she believed that all would be well, and how loving yet also how callous she could be. She was perfect, and very much reminded me of Emma Knightley, as it happens. I also thought the way Dodie Smith describes everything was wonderful; the castle comes effortlessly to life through her careful choice of words, and the dialogue of the characters and the brilliant one liners Cassandra comes out with are sparkling, witty, and absolutely superb. You can tell that Smith was a playwright before she was a novelist; it’s the attention to the small details that help the reader to really understand the characters and imagine their surroundings that make this book the truly remarkable classic it is.
I can’t praise I Capture the Castle enough. It was perfect, in every way. Magnificently written, with marvellous characters, an unique and uncliched plot, and the most wonderful, engaging and enchanting narrator to guide you through the ups and downs of the Mortmain family that you could ever dare to wish for. In short, it’s an absolute dream of a book. My only caveat is that I wished I had read it for the first time when I was a teenager, like Cassandra. What a wonderful role model she would have been for me then, as I too emerged from the naive chrysalis of youth into the bright lights of the rather more harsh adult world. If you haven’t read this already, you must!