In 2003, the British public voted I Capture The Castle one of the best loved novels of all time. At number 82 in the list of 200 novels chosen for The Big Read, Dodie Smith’s debut work ranked higher than Dracula, Jude the Obscure and The Handmaid’s Tale.
A few years earlier the BBC commissioned a panel of six writers and critics to choose 100 English language novels “that have had an impact on their lives”, I Capture The Castle was listed in the “family and friendship” category alongside George Eliot’s Middlemarch and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte.
Many readers seemingly found Smith’s novel of two sisters and their crumbling castle home an endearingly charming tale but I’m not one of them.
I Capture The Castle depicts eight months in the lives of the eccentric Mortmain family as seen by the youngest daughter, 17-year-old Cassandra. Through her journals, she “captures” the people around her as practice for the novel she aspires to write.
So we get to know her father who once enjoyed international fame as the author of an experimental novel. James Mortmain used the proceeds to rent the castle but since he hasn’t written anything for the last twelve years, the coffers are empty. He spends all his time in the gatehouse reading detective stories while his second wife Topaz and two daughters deal with real world like creating meals from next to nothing.
As a former artist’s model, Topaz brings a touch of the exotic to the castle, often to be seen communing with nature by wandering about the grounds dressed in nothing more than gum boots. She does have a practical side however, particularly adept at re-purposing her glamorous dresses into garments for her step daughters.
Then there’s Cassandra’s elder sister Rose who longs for an Austen-like romance and younger brother Thomas who is a bright lad. The remaining member of the household is Stephen, orphaned son of the Mortmain’s former maid whom the family have taken under their wing.
Life in the castle is miserable until the Cottons, a wealthy American family, inherit nearby Scoatney Hall and become the Mortmains’ new landlords. Friendships ensue and love blossoms, bringing sweeping changes in the fortunes of the Mortmains.
I Capture The Castle is a simple coming of age story that has a quirky opening:
I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy. I can’t say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left. And I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring – I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen-house.
There are some amusing scenes — especially one farcical episode where the two girls hide in a train luggage carriage and are mistaken for wild animals. But the comic tone lost its novelty value the further into the narrative we got, and actually became quite tiresome.
Even more irritating was Cassandra’s tendency to document every emotion, every conversation and every episode in meticulous detail. Nothing escapes her attention and she feels the need to document it all in her journals in microscopic detail.
I believe it is customary to get one’s washing over first in baths and bask afterwards; personally, I bask first. I have discovered that the first few minutes are the best and not to be wasted– my brain always seethes with ideas and life suddenly looks much better than did.
The exact location where she’s sitting to write the latest entry in the journal,; the whereabouts of the various family pet; what she’s wearing, what she’s just eaten and how she feels at that precise moment. All in such meticulous detail that one episode can easily take up 20 pages or so. The relief when I got to the end of each entry was swiftly followed by dismay that the next section was just more of the same.
If I Capture The Castle was so lacking in entertainment value, why did I keep reading to the end? A question I asked myself multiple times. Really it was because I kept believing that at some point the “this happened, then that happened” steady pace of the narrative would erupt and we’d get into something far more interesting. It did pick up in tension in the final quarter and with the kind of ambiguous ending that I enjoy.
But a memorable opening and a strong ending were not enough to make up for the mush in the middle.
Would I have found it more engaging if I’d read it when I was closer in age to Cassandra? Maybe. Her spirit of adventure would certainly have made her a fun friend to have around on the odd occasion (though I wouldn’t have cared as much as she did for cherry brandy). She’s essentially a girl trying to make sense of her feelings and working out where her future lies, issues that many of us went through in our teen years. But I still think my 17-year-old self would have found her propensity for introspection irritating.
I Capture The Castle by Dodi Smith: Footnotes
Dorothy (known as Dodi) Smith spent her childhood in Manchester, England, moving to London when her widowed mother remarried. She studied at at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, hoping to make a career as an actress. Unable to get roles, she got a job as a toy buyer for a furniture store and began writing plays. She married a work colleague, moving with him to the US during World War II to avoid legal difficulties because of his stance as a conscientious objector. She wrote her first novel I Capture The Castle in 1948 out of spirit of nostalgia and homesickness for England.
She enjoyed greater success with her children’s bookThe Hundred and One Dalmatians, published in 1956. She died in England in 1990, three years after her husband.