Set in a castle past its prime in Suffolk, England during the year 1934, Dodie Smith’s enduring novel I Capture the Castle tells the story of a poverty-stricken family struggling to make it by. The novel is narrated by seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, a budding writer who chronicles her life in several witty, entertaining journals. Everything changes one fateful day when two American brothers arrive at the castle and inevitably fall in love with Cassandra and her sister, Rose. Straddling issues of class, gender, and cultural differences, I Capture the Castle is an engrossing tale that will capture you from the very first page.
I read this entire novel between the hours of six and ten in the morning while waiting for and boarding my plane from Oxford to my home in the States. It was a gift from a few friends (thanks, friends!) so I was eager to read it on their recommendation. Usually while waiting around I have a tendency to just listen to music instead of actually focusing on reading; however, I was completely captivated by I Capture the Castle right from the start. I ended up reading all four hundred pages before I was even a third of the way through my flight (it’s a good thing I brought a second book with me just in case!).
I credit this novel’s ability to grab and hold the reader’s attention to the clear, witty, genuine narrative voice through which this story is told. It’s difficult not to trust and root for Cassandra, whose first person narration of events is written with charm, humor, and often painful honesty. Cassandra writes about the horrifying details of the Mortmain’s family’s poverty as though it is but a trifle of a burden to bear, emphasizing her courage and strength as a teenage girl growing up in such conditions. Rather than complain about their lack of food, supplies, work, and family support, she emphasizes how much joy writing gives her as well as the few opportunities she does have to travel and explore beyond the walls of the castle. This novel is yet more proof that sometimes a narrative voice oozing with strong personality can make all the difference in how a story is perceived by the reader.
One interesting aspect of I Capture the Castle is the incorporation of many references to Victorian literature. Cassandra often thinks of her own life in terms of Victorian literature, once saying: “How I wish I lived in a Jane Austen novel!” She even denounces Victorian heroines such as the Bennett sisters, saying: “But some characters in books are really real–Jane Austen’s are; and I know those five Bennets at the opening of Pride and Prejudice, simply waiting to raven the young men at Netherfield Park, are not giving one thought to the real facts of marriage.” At one point a Mortmain sister is described as being “the insidious type–Jane Eyre with of touch of Becky Sharp. A thoroughly dangerous girl.” These references were so striking to me because in many ways they are exactly what we’re expecting from this novel as readers: we seek Victorian heroines who are swept off their feet by dashing wealthy suitors, yet this is not exactly what we get by the end of the story. Even the style of the narrative resembles that of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre due to the first person perspective; however, the similarities end with the endings.
Speaking of the ending, the last scene cleverly goes against everything we expect might happen from a typical Victorian novel. There is no happy ending for each and every character and not everyone ends up engaged or married; rather, it is bittersweet in its ambiguity. The vague ending is reinforced by the fact that this is a first person narration, meaning that Cassandra’s journal ends abruptly with no hope of being continued. Cassandra is left wondering whether or not she has truly “captured” the castle through her writing— though I feel as though it is safe to say that in this regard she has certainly been successful.
Overall, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle is a heartwarming, heartbreaking, thought-provoking novel that is apparently perfect for reading in an airport or on a plane. I’m so grateful that my friends recommended this fantastic novel, so I’ll carry on the tradition by recommending it to you all as well!
What are your thoughts on this novel? Any recommendations for what I should read next? Let me know in the comments section below!