I can’t believe I’ve got to the age I am without having read this gorgeous book before. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith is a delight, happy and joyful, funny, clever, thought provoking and entertaining. I could go on and on, because reading this book was an absolute pleasure.
The story is set in England in the 1930’s and is told by 17 year old Cassandra Mortmain. When Cassandra starts telling the story, her family are living in poverty and selling off their furniture in order to eat. The Mortmains have the castle on a 40 year repairing lease, so are responsible for the run-down castle’s upkeep, which they can not afford.
Cassandra’s father is an author, who wrote a single, well received book. She has a sister, Rose and a younger brother, Thomas. They have a beautiful stepmother named Topaz, who is a celebrated artist’s model. Their former maid’s son Stephen, also lives with them as an unpaid man of all work. Stephen is in love with Cassandra, although her father advises her to be “brisk” with Stephen, even though his wages are the only income the family has.
There are quite a few references in I Capture the Castle to Jane Austen’s works, and Cassandra and Rose are equally as desperate for some eligible young men to appear in their neighbourhood as the Bennet sisters were in Pride and Prejudice. Luckily, Simon and Noel Cotton, American brothers who own the castle, soon come to live near the castle.
At their first meeting, the Cottons are charmed by the Mortmain’s exotic way of life. Unfortunately, Rose has had so little practice with men that on their second visit, Rose throws herself at Simon and embarrasses the Cottons, who decide not to continue their friendship with the Mortmains.
The title, I Capture the Castle refers to Cassandra’s capturing of the characters, scenery and events which make up her exotic life in her journal. Some of Cassandra’s retellings are hilarious. I rolled off the couch laughing at her father wielding a cake knife in an argument with her mother. T sum up, a neighbour intervened, the police became involved and the matter went to court. Even though Cassandra’s father explained that he could not possibly have sawed his wife’s head off with a cake knife, he received a three month jail sentence. Cassandra explains that her father was funnier than the judge, so to jail he went.
I laughed until I cried when Cassandra told of Rose, who was wearing an inherited fur coat, being mistaken for a bear which has escaped from a nearby circus. To spare everybody’s feelings, the story is put out that Simon heroically killed the bear with a pitchfork before drowning it (yes, according to the story the bear was killed twice).
Simon falls in love with Rose after the bear incident and Rose accepts his proposal of marriage, although Rose’s love for Simon turns out to be mercenary. Cassandra, who has fallen in love with Simon herself, berates Cassandra, although Cassandra is also guilty of toying with Stephen’s affections when she should not have.
The book ends without a firm resolution of how things are going to turn out for the Mortmains. I was left wondering if some of the romances would endure or not, or if Cassandra’s father would ever write again and what would become of Stephen. He probably ended up in Hollywood, marrying and divorcing a starlet every year, all the while loving the one he couldn’t have. I didn’t have any doubts about Cassandra though. Whatever happened she would make the best of events, and continue to delight her companions.