I Capture the Castle

by Dodie Smith

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Publisher: St. Martin's
Copyright: 1948
Printing: April 1998
ISBN: 0-312-18110-8
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 343

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I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

So begins what I suspect is Dodie Smith's best book, although her fame today (if known at all) is for The Hundred and One Dalmatians. It and it's sequel are children's books, and to me at least came off as a bit simplistic and trite. I Capture the Castle is none of those things. It's partly a snapshot of genteel poverty in the 1930s and partly a romance novel in the style of Jane Austen, but with a far quirkier cast and setting. And it's exceptionally well-written and well-characterized, and not at all simplistic.

I Capture the Castle is told as journal entries written by Cassandra Mortmain. She is one of three children of the author James Mortmain, who wrote one book that was extremely well-received by the literary establishment, particularly in the United States, and has had writer's block ever since. The family, along with her father's second wife and the son of a long-time family servant, lives in England in a huge house in the country built against the ruins of a castle. This, the castle of the title, is as much a character of the novel as any of the family.

Smith's cast is a quirky and varied delight. The book is mostly concerned with Cassandra and her sister Rose, who are very close. Their younger brother is still in school and doesn't play much of a part. Their father is a strange and mostly absent figure, whose reactions and quiet desperation become a significant component of the plot, but who struggles to interact with the rest of his family. Topaz, Cassandra's step-mother, is a hippie transplanted into the 1930s: an occasional model, an aspiring muse, a periodic nudist, and a full-fledged drama queen. She's a character who could very easily be overplayed, but Smith strikes just the right balance of impractical and loving, giving her rare bursts of useful competency and helping the reader appreciate a strange but surprisingly functional family arrangement.

Above all else, though, this is a book about poverty. Admittedly, this is a very upper-class (and class-conscious poverty), one where the family retains certain high-class privileges and expectations no matter what. But it doesn't gloss over the practical impact of the father's inability to earn a living. They still have the house only because they're not paying rent, but are afraid that their landlord will realize and demand it at any time. They only don't starve because the servant boy, who has become a painfully loyal semi-adopted family member (class lines are very sharp here), goes to work in a neighboring farm to get enough money for food. Cassandra mentions the furniture that's been sold to keep the family going, their inability to entertain even when that's socially expected due to the lack of any rooms suitable for it, and the constant lack of decent clothing (and food). She does so in a quietly matter-of-fact way that strikes a perfect balance between letting the reader enjoy the story and driving home the all-consuming impact of being poor. It's remarkably well-done, even if one still wonders why none of the women in the family ever discuss getting practical employment (as opposed to uncertain modeling jobs).

There is, of course, a romance, and for that (given the sort of book this is), there must be men. These arrive in the form of the Cottons, brothers who have inherited the larger estate of which the Mortmain's house is a part. Having them think well of the family is immediately important, since they could call for the rent, and then Rose becomes determined to marry one of them as a way for both her and the rest of the family to escape poverty. This leads to some of the places any Austen reader would expect, but also to places I did not expect at all.

I do have to say that the characters in this book experience kissing in a way that is completely foreign to me. This is a fairly common trope, but it always throws me. I have never found it possible to believe in this much emotional impact and world-changing sensation from a kiss, particularly in a book that's rather more frank about sex than Austen and hence doesn't have to use kisses as a proxy for other things. But, despite that, and despite some related sensations of love that are a bit more sudden, complete, and persistent than I could quite believe, the romance is not as traditional as I expected it to be. I Capture the Castle moves into some tricky areas of ethics, friendship, and sisterhood, and then goes in a direction I did not see coming. While it's a more emotionally difficult story than the typical romance, I found it more satisfying as well.

The highlight of the book is Cassandra's voice. She is an excellent first-person protagonist, and the journal entry format works beautifully. It provides just enough foreshadowing to add emotional depth and to warn the reader of dark patches ahead, and the process of Cassandra learning how to express herself is delightful to watch. Her love and understanding of her family shines through, which lets characters who could have fallen into irrelevant slapstick or frustrated incompetence instead walk the fine line between the two. The family is gloriously dysfunctional, but they're also deeply loving in their own ways. Smith keeps the quirks as a bright thread of humor and occasional exasperation, and doesn't let them take over the story.

If you like people stories, or adventures in crumbling English castles, seek this one out. It's a worthy story in the Austen tradition and will appeal even to people who aren't that fond of romances (although you do have to suspend disbelief through some of the falling in love bits). While one is occasionally reminded that it's a book of it's era — landing a man through marriage is the only vocation that seems acceptable, for example — there is a lot of female agency and strong female perspective here. It's the women who solve most of the problems in the book. And, despite not quite believing Cassandra's motives for the last part of the book, I found the journey delightful.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-02-26

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21