I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I found this copy of I Capture the Castle in a second hand Sihanoukville book shop on New Year’s Eve. I was getting dangerously close to finishing The Sooterkin, and was worried I would end up stranded in Kep (our next destination) book-less. Since I realised the novel I’m writing might have a young adult audience I’ve been reading more of the genre, and I Capture the Castle is apparently a YA classic. (Completely coincidentally – I promise! – the main character in Dodie Smith’s novel has the same name as my own protagonist.)

I Capture the Castle’s first person narrator is seventeen year old Cassandra Mortmain. The entire story (which spans about eight months) comes to us through Cassandra’s journals, divided into three books. Cassandra lives in a slightly decrepit old English castle with her father James Mortmain (a once successful author who now spends his time reading mystery novels), her older sister Rose (a beautiful twenty-one year old who worries she will die poor and alone), her younger brother Thomas, her step-mother Topaz, and Stephen Colly (the young and very handsome son of a former servant). Life in the castle is difficult; since James Mortmain stopped writing the family has struggled to make ends meet. But Cassandra’s observations rattle with a humour that keeps things from becoming too bleak. The story really gets started when the Cottons – two eligible bachelors who have inherited a large nearby estate – arrive from America. As the brothers begin to court Rose it looks as if I Capture will turn out to be an Austen-esque romance. But this is not exactly what happens.

Undoubtedly my favourite thing about this novel is Cassandra’s voice. From the very first line (“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink”) I knew I was going to be caught up in this story. Cassandra is funny, very honest, consciously naive, and completely absorbed in each feeling she experiences. Dodie Smith has been quoted as saying “I wrote myself into Cassandra” (so much so that she originally wanted to publish the book with only Cassandra’s name on the title page) and it shows.

I wondered at some points if I Capture the Castle is a little overwritten – the arrival of the Cottons (arguably the beginning of the actual story) doesn’t happen until page 80, and a lot of time is spent describing the locations where Cassandra is writing, what she is eating while she is writing, what the weather is like while she is writing, etc. There is also an odd sequence involving a bear that seems out of place – perhaps Smith’s theatre background coming through (as Chloe Schama writes in the New Republic, “Enter a bear doesn’t work quite so well in fiction.”) But losing these pages would mean losing time with Cassandra. In a book like this – where a great deal of the enjoyment comes from ‘being with’ the main character – perhaps overwritten is okay.

I really liked the ending, which is unusual because conclusions are often where I find myself most critical of books. At first the ending seems ambiguous, but knowing Cassandra’s character (which we do, because Smith has written her so well) it actually isn’t. Cassandra is young, passionate, and full of feeling. She is at the beginning of adventures, discovering what love is (and what it isn’t). For Cassandra (in my opinion), there will be much more to learn and to experience before she ‘settles down.’

Like many of the YA-labelled novels I’ve read recently, I Capture the Castle made me wonder if this really is just for ‘young adults.’ It is certainly accessible to kids as young as eleven or twelve, but is there an age where it becomes uninteresting, or un-relatable?  As a thirty year old I found I Capture the Castle immensely enjoyable – entertaining, funny, complex, and surprising. It’s a coming of age novel – but maybe some of us ‘come of age’ later in life. Or maybe we never completely finish growing up, which is why novels like Dodie Smith’s continue to strike a chord with us long into adulthood.

A film version of I Capture the Castle was released in 2003, directed by Tim Fywell. Dodie Smith is the author of three other novels, including The Hundred and One Dalmatians. Smith died in 1990, at 94 years of age.      


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