I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

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!


  1. Layla says:

    I read this about a year ago and absolutely loved it too. It’s a perfect book, and like you, I wish I’d read it as a teenager, I think I would have become completely obsessed by it!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Hi Layla, thanks for reading and commenting! I’m so glad you’re another fan who came to this in adulthood – I am a little sad to think I could have had years of enjoyment of this book if only I’d discovered it earlier!

  2. Teresa says:

    I read this several years ago, not long before the movie came out, and really enjoyed it. My only complaint was that the resolution of one of the storylines (Rose’s perhaps? It’s been a while) seemed to come out of nowhere. The movie improved on that bit by adding some knowing glances and other hints at what was coming, and now I wonder if I was just not being an observant reader. I did hold onto my copy (a rare thing for me to do), and I look forward to revisiting someday.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Yes I see what you mean – having seen the film I did have a vague recollection that she ended up with the other broher and so I did pick up on the unnecessary tension between them while reading it, but still, it is a bit out of the blue. Perhaps because Cassandra was too young to observe their budding relationship?

  3. I’m so glad you liked this! I first read it as a teenager and probably reread it once a year, finding it just as delightful each time. I was so pleased by how faithful the film adaptation was and Romola Garai made a wonderful Cassandra (and Henry Cavill as Stephen was perfect casting).

    1. bookssnob says:

      You’re so lucky having found it as a teenager – I do wish I had! Having read the book I must say I think the film was excellent in how it really captured the spirit of the book – I’ll have to rewatch it now!

  4. Deb says:

    I misread your first sentence and thought you wrote that Romola Garai did an excellent job in the role of Kiera Knightley! I thought you were being sarcastic. A quick re-read and it all made sense.

    This book has been in my tbr for many years. Perhaps now I will bestir myself and get it read!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Ha! Glad it all came together after a moment’s confusion!!

      You MUST – not buying any books for a year and actually making some headway through my TBR pile has shown me how many excellent books I have left for too long unread. Bestir yourself!

  5. Mrs.B says:

    I love this book too. It is perfect. The movie is wonderful too!

    1. bookssnob says:

      So pleased you love this too – and I concur – one of the few books into films that really works in my opinion.

  6. Jenny says:

    I’m glad you liked it! Whenever I start reading it, I get entranced and can’t put it down – which I always think is strange, because there’s not a lot of thrilling action or anything. There’s just something about Cassandra as a narrator that’s utterly delightful. Such a great book.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Exactly – it’s like an enchantment settles on you, and you’re sucked into the world of the castle and the fields and teenage dreamy romanceness. I loved it so much and can’t wait to reread it!

  7. I’m delighted that you didn’t find yourself disappointed, Rachel (not that I would ever have suspected you to be with this); it is a beloved book of mine and I adore the opening line (Verity sent me a lovely postcard last year with the quote on it and it has pride of place above the book on my Virago shelf).

    1. bookssnob says:

      I can imagine you loving it Claire! What a lovely gift from Verity – the opening line just sums up this book perfectly, doesn’t it? Slightly bizarre yet utterly charming and magical.

  8. Rebecca says:

    This sounds absolutely wonderful! You always post such thorough, thoughtful reviews which make me want to rush to the book shop immediately to snap up your recommendations!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks Rebecca! I hope this will be one you do snap up!

  9. Penny says:

    I’ve read a few recommendations of this book recently, so bought a copy for my daughter, thinking it would be just right for her. However, it turns out she already has it, so now I have a lovely new copy of my own! Your review is as beguiling as usual, and I’m putting this on one of my TBR piles (yes, plural piles!)

    1. bookssnob says:

      What a shame – a nice copy all of your own! You must read it soon Penny, don’t leave it to gather dust like I did!

  10. Your review has me tempted to try this. I love your own words telling us about how I Capture the Castle “languished on the dusty outpost known as the TBR pile” and I shall forevermore refer to my books as languishing. Love it!

    1. bookssnob says:

      I’m glad, Penny! Languishing is a favourite word of mine and it does sound better than ‘dumped in a corner’!!!

  11. heather says:

    For some reason when you mentioned you took it along on your trip to Greece I assumed you were rereading it and that it was an old favorite. What a delightful surprise for you! I read it a few years ago for the first time and then immediately reread it. It was time for another reread this summer, and so I started it this week after your blog triggered my memory. I found it every bit as charming and captivating the third time through. Really it does just get better. Even if I know what will happen, Cassandra’s voice is so amusing and witty that I don’t want to put the book down. I’m so glad you took it with you and finally read it and most importantly, enjoyed it!

    1. bookssnob says:

      If only! I’m glad my post triggered a re-read for you – I can’t wait to go back and re-read it for the first time and notice new things I missed the first time around! Cassandra’s voice is what makes it so special, and it made me fleetingly wish I was 17 again! It’s such a pleasure to read how many people love this book – I think it’s perfect for a certain type of person – overly romantic!

  12. I read this book very recently and wondered why I had never read it before. Everyone raved about it so much that I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would, probably because of so much hype and I know I am in the minority.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh that’s a shame! I think over hype can really damage a reading experience – maybe at another point in the future you may read it and see the magic!

  13. Nan says:

    What an absolutely wonderful write-up about the book. Perfect. I also love it!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you Nan! I’m glad to find so many fans!

  14. kiss a cloud says:

    I agree, it’s perfect. I also wish I had read it younger, but even so, I still loved it beyond expectation. I also think it’s the perfect book for you. 🙂

    1. bookssnob says:

      Yet another kindred spirit!! Hehe – it’s funny how easy my personality is to sum up in a book! 😉

  15. sue rosly says:

    One of my all time favourite books. Your hearfelt review not only does it justice, but should encourage a new group of readers. What a treat they have in store…

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you Sue! And thanks for reading and commenting, it’s lovely to see a new face!

  16. Claire says:

    Hi, I read this book last year as part of my mission to read all the books on the BBC’s Big Read list. I loved it! It came as such a surprise as I wasn’t sure it would be my cup of tea. But her characterisation and descriptions are just perfect and really brought the story to life. I love it when you start reading a book and realise how good it is. Your review reminded me of just how much enjoyment it provided, I’ve got to go back and re-read it now!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Did you finish the list?! I’m so glad you loved this, especially as you didn’t expect to – isn’t it lovely when that happens? I look forward to re-reading this in future – it’ll be one of those comfort reading books I long to curl up with!

      1. Claire says:

        I have only 2/3 of a book to go to finish the list! Ulysses by James Joyce – I will finish it, but I keep getting distracted by other books. I wish Ulysses was one I was surprised to love!

    2. bookssnob says:

      Oh I accepted after my fifth attempt to read Ulysses that I was never going to finish it, and I am perfectly fine with that! My A Level English teacher warned me before I went off to do my English degree that I wouldn’t get through university without having to read it, but I managed to neatly sidestep any courses involving it and so happily proved her wrong!

      1. Claire says:

        I’m convinced I’m going to finish it just so I can say I’ve read the list! I wouldn’t normally be this persistent but I’m determined. I also managed to get through my degree without reading it.

  17. I too read it as an adult, not a teenager, and maybe controversially I’m glad. I think I would have placed too much importance to it in my life had my younger self read it. My sisiter and I already lived in a Room with a View daydream and so I’m not sure we could have added I Capture the Castle to it. Great review – it brought it all back to me – and that opening line is wonderful.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Hmmm…perhaps I was better off not reading it as a teenager – I was overly romantic too and imagined myself as a budding Jane Eyre! Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed the review!

  18. chasing bawa says:

    I too watched the film and then bought the book but it’s still on my TBR. Can’t wait to read it. I’m so glad it lived up to your expectations!

    1. bookssnob says:

      You really should read it soon – I’m sorry I left it on the TBR for so long! Now I need to re-watch the film!

  19. Nicola says:

    Oh I’m so glad you loved this book. I remember reading in a biography of Dodie Smith that she wrote and re-wrote this novel many times to make it perfect – and it is!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Yes, I read that in the introduction too – I was surprised as it felt so natural and spontaneous to me. She was a talented woman indeed!

  20. Verity says:

    Ahh one of my favourites – such a shame that Dodie Smith only wrote the one novel for adults. There’s a castle nr Oxford, Broughton Castle, which exactly reminds me of the castle described in the book!

    1. bookssnob says:

      I could have guessed that Verity! It’s just your sort of book! It is a shame indeed but it has made me want to revisit her children’s book! How fun about the castle – I’ll have to send Naomi to check it out!

  21. bookgazing says:

    Of course that’s who Emma is! Love the film (Bill Nighy’s best I think). Yay another covert to I Capture the Castle – not sure I’ve met anyone yet who dilikes this.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Yes! I think it would be difficult to find someone who wasn’t charmed by it!

  22. Val says:

    I just found your blog via Under the Gables. I also read My Porch and A Dress a Day, as you do, according to your sidebar. I am very intrigued by the books that you’ve reviewed recently. Though an American, I love British lit dearly. As most of my favorite authors (C. Bronte, Dickens, du Maurier, Austen, Dostoevsky – obviously not British!) are dead, and their work is finite, I am always looking for new-to-me authors that write in a similar vein. I just added the film of this book to my netflix queue, and plan on looking for a copy of a couple of the books that you’ve mentioned here soon.

    I must say that I am intrigued that you work for a London museum. My educational background is in historic preservation, and I work at a National Historic Landmark building in America’s Midwest. I’ve done some exhibit design work for a local museum in the past, and dearly love it. Long live history!

    If you have a moment, do stop by my blog. It is a bit eccentric, but it celebrates history and historic living – or at least that is my intent!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Hi Val, thanks so much for coming by and commenting! It’s always lovely to see a new face and I look forward to visiting your blof!

      I hope you enjoy the film of I Capture the Castle, it really is excellent! I love all of the authors you mention, and I read of a lot of mid century British literature by female authors, so you should find something to whet your appetite amongst my reviews!

      Yes I work at the Victoria and Albert Museum, sadly not amongst the collections, but as a fundraiser. It’s been a great opportunity for me to learn more about history and how culture and art reflect historical periods, and I’m so grateful that I have been given the chance to work in such an amazing place. I adore museums so working in one is wonderful – I get to see behind the scenes too which has really opened my eyes up to how museums work!

      I look forward to exploring your blog!

  23. Josette says:

    Hi there, you wrote a wonderful review of the book! Reading it has made me remember my experience when reading I Capture the Castle and it was only last month that I finished it.

    I also enjoyed the movie, watched it online and hope to get my hands on a copy of the DVD one day!

    Well, I did like Romola Garai in the Castle movie though I didn’t like her Emma version. I didn’t like it because Emma burst into tears when she realised that she couldn’t leave her father alone by marrying Knightley. :/

    Anyway, I’ll be reading more of your reviews on your blog since I loved this one so much! Here is my review of I Capture the Castle. Thanks!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks Josette! Thank you for reading and commenting, it’s lovely to see a new face!

      The movie is fantastic, isn’t it? I must get it on DVD too as I’d love to watch it again now I’ve read the book.

      Oh no! I thought that bit was perfect – it showed how devoted Emma is to her father!

      Thank you I’m glad you’ll be back! I’ll be off to check you out now!

  24. Simon T says:

    Knew you’d love it 😉 I read this when I was *just* still a teenager (18) and must revisit, because I loved it so much – I’ve seen the film loads of times, it’s one of my absolute favourites too.

    1. bookssnob says:

      I am clearly an open book (ha ha ha) when it comes to my reading preferences!! I bet you loved it – this is just your sort of book! I really want to watch the film again – from memory it’s a very good adaptation, which is rare for me to admit!

  25. Daniel says:

    My first Atwood book was Robber Bride, which I found entertaining but not thrilling. This was my second and it really blew me away! How absurd yet how clearly possible the situation could be for us was what disturbed me the most.

    1. Daniel says:

      woops….that was supposed to be for the Handmaids Tale review! Apologies for disrupting the flow!

      1. bookssnob says:

        I gathered as such! Not a problem at all! I’m glad you enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale – disturbing is indeed the word and definitely one of those books that gives you food for thought!

  26. Danielle says:

    I read the book when I was 15, and I’ve never read anything quite like it. The story made me laugh and cry in equal measures; I wept for Cassandra’s unrequited love. I still think of Cassandra as a friend from long ago – I wonder what happened to her! I’m scared of seeing the movie in case it doesn’t match up to the melancholy beauty of the novel, and the image I have in my head of Cassandra is nothing like the actress in the film. How could anyone capture the castle quite like the author? I shall never forget this beautiful novel!

    1. bookssnob says:

      I’m so glad that this has been a favourite of yours for so long! I do think the film captures the book very well and is well worth watching – do give it a go!

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