I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

This is a book I feel I should have read long before now, but for one reason or another I just never got round to it. So when Iris suggested a readalong in January I decided it was time I finally read it! And yes, I loved it, and really wished I hadn’t waited so long.

I Capture the Castle has one of those famous opening lines you may have heard of even without having read the book: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink”. ‘This’ being the diary of seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, written first in a ‘sixpenny book’ then a ‘shilling book’ and finally a ‘two-guinea book’.

Cassandra lives in a crumbling castle in the English countryside with her eccentric novelist father, her glamorous stepmother Topaz who works as an artist’s model, her beautiful older sister Rose and younger brother Thomas – and Stephen, the son of one of the Mortmains’ old servants, who has become almost part of the family. Cassandra’s father wrote one very successful book, Jacob Wrestling, many years earlier but has been suffering from writer’s block ever since and the family are struggling financially. But when they meet the two rich American brothers, Simon and Neil Cotton, who have inherited the estate of which the castle is part, everything begins to change for the Mortmains.

This novel was published in the 1940s but the feelings and emotions Cassandra describes in her journal are timeless. Cassandra is having the usual problems and concerns that any teenager might have: coming to terms with growing up, falling in love, a changing relationship with her sister and other family members, and wondering what the future might hold. There are many novels with teenage narrators that deal with the same issues, but there are two things that really set this one apart: one is the unusual setting – the castle and its eccentric inhabitants – and the other is the voice of Cassandra herself.

Cassandra is such an engaging narrator, it would be difficult not to like her. Although she is very observant and perceptive, she also has an endearing innocence and vulnerability that leads one character to describe her (unfairly) as ‘consciously naïve’. Of all the things I liked about this book, it was Cassandra’s voice and personality that I loved the most. Through the pages of her journal she really does succeed in ‘capturing’ the castle and everyone who lives there. Some of the stories she shares with us are very funny, for example there’s a hilarious scene involving Rose and a big black fur coat, but along with the humour there are also some moments of sadness and poignancy. I was quite happy with the way the book ended too – not all of the loose ends are tied up, but I liked the fact that Dodie Smith chose a slightly unexpected way to finish the story.