On the Shelf: Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle

captureI hope it’s true  I’m not the only book fiend who hadn’t yet read Dodie Smith’s beloved novel I Capture the Castle and hope that if you haven’t already gulped it down, you’ll do so right away. As The Weekly Standard quipped upon its reissue fifty years after its release, the novel is “much more fun than the reader has any right to expect.”I call it the sort of novel which goes down like a warm cup of tea and plump slice of butter cream cake. In short, Cassandra Mortmain’s journal entries which sharply and freshly chronicle her eccentric family’s curious life and unexpected adventures are a delightful indulgence.

My first experience with the novel took place when I was seventeen. My older sister had moved to British Columbia for school and returned innately more fascinating and worldly.  She had brought the movie with her and curled up in the basement with our family’s dachshunds, I met Cassandra played by the brilliant Romola Garai and her classically beautiful sister, Rose (Rose Byrne). My naïve, culpable self instantly related to Cassandra’s keen observations about love and relationships and finally reading the novel this past month felt like returning to my formative years; to the days before boyfriends, college and marriage when the future was a deliciously clean canvas.

Before I gush about the sparkling writing, I’ll briefly mention the clever, instantly engaging story-line which follows the Mortmain Family’s comically sad life. Living in an old English castle, the family somehow subsides off stale biscuits and tea until the unexpected appearance of two brothers, one of which whom owns the castle the Mortmains call home. The brothers, Neil and Simon, are opposites much like Cassandra and Rose, and as the sisters and Topaz, their colorful stepmother, attempt to conceal their poverty, Neil and Simon are amused. The action which follows is satisfying, unpredictable and ever witty.

Smith’s lush yet specific language makes the story float right along and this is the first book since Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic which made me belly-laugh. Cassandra’s antidotes and descriptions of everyday life are dry and always on the mark. During a dinner party with the Fox-Cottons, Cassandra asks Neil how he likes Rose’s dress. His reply:

“Not very much, if you want the honest truth—it’s too fussy for me. But she looks very pretty in it. Knows it, too, doesn’t she?”

There was a twinkle in his eye which took off the rudeness. And I must admit that Rose was knowing it all over the place.

When the Mortmains, to their glee, receive a gift of ham from the Fox-Cottons, Cassandra describes it as “a meal of glory.” After hearing the cistern bubble and remembering it is her night to bathe, Cassandra’s romantic logic continues: “Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cure for depression.”

Another beautifully captured scene is Cassandra’s desperate swim with Neil in the mote in which she recalls:

I felt like with the moonlight, the music, the scent of the stocks and having swum round a six-hundred-year-old-mote, romance was really getting a splendid leg up and it seemed an awful waste that we weren’t in love with each other…

If you find yourself with time before bed tonight or a few spare hours this weekend, find a copy of I Capture the Castle and prepare to have your cake and eat it too.

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4 thoughts on “On the Shelf: Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle

  1. One of my all-time favorites. The movie’s good too, but nothing can equal the magic of the book. As you say, best consumed with a slice of Victoria sponge and a cup of Darjeeling.

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