Have you ever been confused by how you felt about a book as you were reading it? Maybe you were attracted to certain qualities, while others left you feeling confused. I suppose you could say our relationships with books are quite like how they are with people. This is a novel that is considered a modern day classic by many, so I was intrigued to finally get around to checking it out for myself. Originally published in 1948, I Capture the Castle was the first novel from Dodie Smith who would go on to write the beloved children’s classic The One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Overall, I found this novel to be quite an enchanting period piece while still holding some extremely relevant themes.
This is the story of the Mortmain family who live in an old dilapidated castle off of the British coast. Our narrator is seventeen-year-old Cassandra, and the novel is told in the form of her diary. My copy of the book has an endorsement from J.K. Rowling stating “This book has one of the most charismatic narrators I’ve ever met.” I’m not sure if I agree wholeheartedly with this statement, as I found Cassandra likable at times while annoying at others. The other members of the Mortmain family are an interesting group. Cassandra’s father once wrote a famous book and hasn’t written anything since. He now uses his time reading detective novels and being all-around irritable. The rest of the household consists of Cassandra’s bohemian stepmother, beautiful older sister Rose, and younger brother Thomas. Living in an old castle is not all that it’s cracked up to be as the family is practically living in poverty. All that is about to change with the arrival of a wealthy American family with two eligible bachelor brothers.
Obviously, this is a book that has been inspired by the works of Jane Austen. In fact, Cassandra and Rose reference Ms. Austen quite a lot. With the arrival of the two brothers, Rose sets her sights on the oldest one as he is the one with the money. Similar to reading a work like Pride and Prejudice, this is a book that moves at a slow pace and should be read a such. The joy in reading I Capture the Castle is to fully immerse yourself into the setting and the excellent writing. While much of this book owes a tribute to Jane Austen, this is a novel that is so much more than just a period romance.
I didn’t expect the book to make me laugh as much as it did. There are some great comedic moments, some subtle while others had me laughing out loud. I love the members of the Mortmain family, particularly the father who I pictured being played by Jim Broadbent. I’ve always been a huge fan of British dramas, particularly as this one is peppered with lots of humor. I thought Cassandra definitely grew as a person throughout the novel with her struggles between naivety and self-awareness.
There were times when the second half of the book slowed down for me. I would much rather continue to experience life inside the run-down castle than in the big city. However, I can see the purpose of structuring the book in such a way. This is a novel of contrasts, such as the exploration of class differences or between British customs with those of Americans. Also, I got a little tired of Cassandra constantly explaining her feelings. It just felt too repetitive at times.
Without spoiling too much for those that haven’t read this, I was uncertain about the ending at first. At the heart of this novel is a love story, or rather, two love stories. Smith intentionally leaves the ending ambiguous rather than taking the safe “happy ending” approach. Upon reflection, I think this was quite a brilliant move which is what ultimately separates I Capture the Castle from a retelling of an Austen novel. Love is a complicated business, and often we are left unsure about what we want. I think I’m creating the character of Cassandra, Smith captured the difficulties of growing up.