Reviewed by Jeanne
When the BBC polled British citizens for their favorite books, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith came in at #82 on a list that included Tolkien, Jane Austen, J.K. Rolling, John Steinbeck, Tolstoy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dickens and Alexander Dumas. This slid right by me at the time, but not long afterwards the book was mentioned again, and then again, on a couple of book lists. Apparently it was one of those books held near and dear to readers, like To Kill A Mockingbird or Catcher in the Rye, and whose fans hold it as a touchstone. When the book was reprinted and the library bought a copy, I decided I should at least give it a try to see what all the fuss was about.
The book is set vaguely in the early 1930s, though an exact date isn’t specified. As the book opens, seventeen year old Cassandra Mortmain is writing in her journal, sitting in a sink. She explains that she’s discovered that the best place to write is somewhere unexpected and different. This fuels creativity, and she is surrounded by creativity. There’s her father, who once wrote an astonishing novel that made him the toast of two continents, and who enjoyed wealth and fame as a consequence. Unfortunately, he has written nothing since and the family is eking out a living in a crumbling castle where they’re months behind on the rent and food is in scant supply. Topaz, her stepmother, has been an artist’s model and still earns most of what money the family has by going to London and modeling. She’s a free spirit, a nudist occasionally, and she lives to be a muse to artists. Rose, Cassandra’s sister, is weary of living in poverty and dead set on finding a way out or, barring that, a way to make it somewhat more endurable by doing things like dying all their old clothes to try to make them look semi-respectable. Rounding out the household are Thomas, the youngest child, who is still going to school and Stephen, whose late mother was a maid to the Mortmain family. Stephen is a teenager and is very much in love with Cassandra but she sees him more as a brother than a suitor.
Enter two American brothers, Simon and Neil Cotton. Their grandfather was a titled landowner, including the castle the Mortmain family rents, and elder brother Simon now inherits it all. Rose decides immediately that here is a way out: she’ll dazzle Simon so that he marries her and she will save her family from destitution.
When I started the book, I noticed its charm but wasn’t immediately enthralled. I harbored suspicions that the Americans might be clumsy, ill-bred folk (they weren’t), that it was going to be too cutesy (it wasn’t) and that I could guess exactly how it would end (boy, was I wrong.) I also thought that perhaps I was reading the book too late—that it was something I’d have loved had I been in my twenties and just never you mind by how many years I was missing that goal. However, I was enjoying it enough that I continued to read and by the time I hit this wonderful scene where the Mortmains are trying to give a dinner party for the Cottons, only the Mortmains are short on food, chairs, silverware, tablecloths and a table, I was hooked. The story enchants mostly because of Cassandra, a girl on the brink of womanhood, still idealistic enough to see the good in people but already more aware than most of life’s troubles. She doesn’t rail at the injustices of their plight, but tries to make the best of a bad situation. I think though that it’s her pleasure and delight at small windfalls that won me over: the luxury of a chocolate bar that Stephen has bought for her, the pleasure at having a journal to write down her thoughts, their books, and her love of family. I think the two words that sum the book up best are “love” and “hope.”
For all that it isn’t a saccharine sort of book. It’s sweet, funny— laugh out loud funny at times—as well as poignant and lively. Early on in the book, Cassandra and Rose discuss whether they’d rather be a heroine in Charlotte Bronte’s books or one from Jane Austen’s and conclude that the appeal of both is that you still want to know what happens to the characters after the book ends. By that criterion, this book succeeds as well as those do: I do want to know what happened afterwards and not just to Rose and Cassandra, but to all the book characters.
Note: If you think the name Dodie Smith sounds familiar, you may be a fan of “A Hundred and One Dalmatians.” Smith, a dog lover, wrote the novel on which the movies have been based, and Pongo the character was inspired by her own Dalmatian dog also named Pongo. I Capture the Castle was her first novel, written in 1946 when she and her husband were living in America and she was feeling homesick for England. Dalmatians was her second novel, written in 1956. She had begun her career as a playwright, producing seven before she ever wrote her first novel. She worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter during the American sojourn.
Disney held the film rights to I Capture the Castle for decades. After Ms. Smith died, her literary executor won the rights back and in 2003 a movie was made at last. Bill Nighy starred as Mr. Mortmain. The movie pleased a number of devoted fans and got good reviews. I saw it on DVD and while I enjoyed it, as with so many movie versions it somehow didn’t have quite the charm of the book. I think I would have liked the movie more had I not read the book—but isn't that true a most movies from books? The book I will remember with fondness; I'm not sure I'll remember the movie very long.