Wednesday 29 May 2013

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Rereading I Capture the Castle means treading very carefully, because I'm treading on my dreams. When I first read this book in my teens, I longed to step into the shoes of its clever heroine, living in the ruins of a castle with a handsome young swain hopelessly in love with me. My heart was beating to the rhythm of the prose, but could my devotion survive the passing of the years?

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (she of 101 Dalmatians fame) is set in 1930s rural Suffolk where seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain and her family are living in genteel yet fascinating poverty. Her father is a famous author who once wrote a very good book but has since been unable to pen another, her stepmother is an artist's model who enjoys communing with nature and her sister Rose is beautiful but bored. Then there's live-in hunk Stephen, who is devoted to Cassandra and keeps dropping lines of poetry into her hands.

The family is surviving by selling their furniture, but everything changes as the local manor house Scoatney Hall is inherited by Simon, a dashing young American who takes up residence, along with his brother Neil. Life is definitely about to get more interesting for the Mortmains...

The novel is written in the form of Cassandra's journal and her voice is as clear and engaging as I'd remembered. Half-child half-woman, she is a narrator who instantly takes you into her confidence, appealingly honest, funny and perceptive about herself and those around her. Her life's ambition is to be a writer and she practices by 'capturing' her characters with vivid and unsparing descriptions. As the story unfolds, it appears the family's poverty can only be alleviated by Rose making a good marriage, unless their father can be coaxed into writing again.

This is a wildly romantic tale and I suppose I was never going to recapture the youthful imagination with which I first read it. One or two things did jar; I began to think the Mortmain family's poverty could not be quite as decorative as it appeared; they were usually hungry and cold and there's nothing much less decorative than that. I was cross that the only way out of their poverty seemed to be through a good marriage - this is the 1930s I know, but weren't Rose and Cassandra capable of doing anything more practical? And I questioned that they seemed to exist in isolation of world events - hadn't Mr Mortmain been caught up in the First World War at all? Wasn't there at least the odd wisp of a storm cloud to foretell the advent of the Second?

But then I'm applying too much realism to a story set in the 1930s and written in 1949, in the aftermath of World War II when escapism was just what was needed. A rather well-written, superior form of escapism is just what is provided by I Capture the Castle, a book you don't so much read as live within.I still enjoyed it second time around - not quite as unequivocally as the first, but the fabric of my dreams is very much intact.

Have you read I Capture the Castle? What did you think of it?

(pictures from film courtesy of


  1. I read this for the first time this year - and I'm 46! I loved it - and didn't see those flaws, I think I just went with the flow and didn't really question the period it was set. I bought it for my 15 year old daughter (a great reader), who cast it aside as a story in which 'nothing happens'.

  2. Going with the flow is definitely the best thing to do - Cassandra is a wonderful narrator! I was applying far too much real life to what is essentially a romantic tale. My daughters have both declined to read this too - I don't think they're that interested in being swept away by a rich man (no doubt a good thing!)

  3. I'm currently reading and enjoying the book and I'm nearly 78 years old! I can't imagine why I never read it before but I'm enjoying it. Yes, some of the poverty is a bit over the top but mainly I'm wondering if the author was perhaps influenced by the ruinous Castle Clare in West Suffolk, or even Hedingham Castle as she lived in nearby Finchingfield, Essex at one stage of her life. I'm a bit into castles, I admit. I come from Colchester though I live in Brisbane, Australia now. A good read though maybe I'm getting into my second childhood now. ☺


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