Dec 10, 2008

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I Capture the Castle is narrated by seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, who's keeping a diary over a period of a little over a year. In it, she describes how she and her eccentric family live in a half ruined castle in the English countryside. The members of the household are Cassandra’s father, a once famous writer who hasn’t written a line in years; her younger brother Thomas, who is in school; her stepmother Topaz, once an artist’s model in London; her older sister Rose; and finally Stephen, the son of their late housekeeper, who is completely devoted to Cassandra.

Cassandra and her family live in poverty – poverty of the what-are-we-going-to-eat-tomorrow kind. When two American young men, the heir to Scoatney Hall and his brother, make their acquaintance, Rose Mortmain sees this as a possible way out of their poverty. And if by now you’re reminded of Pride and Prejudice, worry not. The sisters are reminded of it as well.

I loved this book so much. Though living in the kind of poverty the Mortmain family experiences must be no fun (and the book does show the hard and ugly side of it), I Capture the Castle is by no means a depressing book. It's humorous and insightful, and charming and touching, and beautiful in all sorts of ways. The characters are all eccentric, but still completely full-fleshed. I loved them all, but most of all Cassandra herself.

Cassandra’s voice is probably my favourite thing about the book (but trust me, it’s hard to pick). She’s so funny, so open and honest, so vulnerable, so contemplative, so…real. I loved having the chance of seeing the world through her eyes. She most certainly does manage to capture the castle, as well as everyone in it – the way she portrays people’s personalities, their relationships, the little silences and the spaces between them, the things they do not say – is absolutely perfect.

Cassandra’s thoughts and feelings are a great part of what the book is about – thoughts and feelings about growing up and trying to find your place in life, falling in love for the first time, facing change in relationships and in one’s circumstances, her doubts and the things she wonders about, etc. But please don’t take this to mean there isn’t much of a plot. There are love triangles, surprises and changes, and all sorts of funny episodes. There's even a small mystery of sorts.

Also, Cassandra wants to be a writer and she loves books, and late one night she and her sister discuss whether they prefer Charlotte Brontë or Jane Austen (and conclude that the ideal would be either one of them with just a little bit of the other). How can one not love her?

I Capture the Castle is such a lovely book. On top of everything there’s the writing, which is beautiful enough to make me want to read everything Dodie Smith has ever written. Also, though the book was first published in 1948, and is set even earlier if I’m not mistaken, it feels surprisingly modern. Or maybe timeless is a better word.

One last thing: I just loved the ending. It leaves a few things unresolved, but I thought that was fitting, and it’s both hopeful and bittersweet.

A few favourite passages:
He sounded faintly sad. Perhaps he finds beauty saddening – I do myself sometimes. Once when I was quite little I asked father why this was and he explained that it was due to our knowledge of beauty’s evanescence, which reminds us that we ourselves shall die. Then he said I was probably too young to understand him; but I understood perfectly.

But words are very inadequate – anyway, my words are. Could any one reading them picture our kitchen by firelight, or Belmotte Tower rising towards the moon-silvered clouds, or Stephen managing to look both noble and humble? When I read a book, I put in all the imagination I can, so that it is almost like writing the book as well as reading it – or rather, it is like living it. It makes reading so much more exciting, but I don’t suppose many people try to do it.

Other Blog Reviews:
A Striped Armchair
Framed and Booked
Chain Reading
Bending Bookshelf

(Let me know if I missed yours.)


  1. That book sounds wonderful!

  2. I LOVE this book. I had my book club read it a couple of years ago, though, and they didn't so much. Anyway, I agree with you about Cassandra - she was the best part. Also, the sheer Pride and Prejudice-ness of it is delightful.

  3. This sounds lovely. I like the title. I'll add it to my list right now.

  4. I love this book too. In fact, I may have to re-read it. I agree with your review. Humorous and insightful.

  5. I have owned this book for quite a while but just haven't got up the gumption to read it. Your review really makes me want to! Thanks.

  6. this sounds so good, Cassandra sounds like a great character.

    wonderful review :)

  7. Is this the same Dodie Smith that wrote the original One Hundred and One Dalmations?

  8. This book is one of my favorites. At some point I really much re-read it. Your review made me realize I've forgotten so much!

  9. Bermudaonion: it really is :D

    Jessica: sheer Pride and Prejudice-ness! I love how you put it :)

    Charley, considering what I know of your taste I really think you'll enjoy it!

    Debbie: The combination was perfect, wasn't it?

    Heatherlo: I look forward to hearing about what you think of it!

    Naida: She's very, very likeable!

    Jeane: It is! I actually didn't know at first. Needless to say, I want to read it now :P

    Tricia: This is a book I can see myself returning to many times too :)

  10. This is a favorite of mine too--but I do wish we could know what happened next!

    I've tried Dodie Smith's other books for adults, but none of them come close...(and, of course, I've read and re-read 101 Dalmations and the Midnight Barking1)

  11. I've been curious about this book for years, but never read it. It sounds like something I'd love!

  12. I read it a couple of years ago, and I loved it. It really was an enchanting book. I can hardly wait to give it to my daughter to read! And I think too, the book captures that essential quality of feeling different from everyone else, and that our family is more odd than anyone else's, and still, it all comes right in the end. I loved that about the book too, even though as you say the ending is fleshed out, I have fun imagining her life after. My dearest Nymeth, a wonderful review once more that makes me want to run out and read the book all over again1 Except I seem to have misplaced my copy.....

  13. sorry, meant to say the ending is not fleshed out!!

  14. I loved this one also! Lovely is the perfect word to describe it. This was the first book I reviewed on my blog :-). Here's a link to my review if you're interested:
    I Capture the Castle review

  15. I read this one a few years ago, and it took me a really long time to get into it. I'm usually one to power through books, but I picked this one up, read the first page, put it down, read something else, picked it up again, read the first three pages, put it down, read something else, etc. I think it took four tries before I finally got hooked into the story. But once I did, I really enjoyed it - thoroughly lovely!

  16. Hi Nymeth, I have a feeling I'm going to like this a lot so I'm putting it into my wish list. Thanks for the great review!

  17. I really liked this book except for the ending. It's been a while so I can't even remember what it was that was so unsatisfactory. But I agree that Cassandra is a wonderful character.

  18. Cassandra's family sounds like an interesting read, Nymeth! Thanks so much for recommending this book. And I love it that you always share the passages with us. :)

  19. sounds brilliant. It's been on the wishlist for a while now!
    But I heard her 101 dalmatians feels very old-fashioned, in terms of gender roles. I wonder if she has written anything else...going to check now...

  20. So glad you enjoyed this one! It really is a lovely book.

  21. While I've obviously heard of this book before, I had no earthly idea what it was about. Your review, as always, was lovely! And those quotes, oh my, they would have sold me if nothing else had.

  22. Oh you made me remember that I wanted to read this book. Thanks! I think way back I saw the movie.

  23. I've read nothing but good things about this book. It sounds wonderful! I'm adding it to my wishlist right now! Thanks for the great review.

  24. Definitely one of my favorite books of all time. Also, I'm sorry to say, the best thing she's written. But The New Moon and the Old is quite charming too. :)

  25. I actually have the book right now. It was given to me as a birthday by another blogger I met in Dubai. I will definitely need to read it soon.

  26. Charlotte: Part of me wanted to know, but another part thinks it's really fitting we don't get to. The happy resolution we were all hoping for would actually have felt too sudden, I think, too picture-perfect. But a hopeless ending would have been so sad too. Which is why I loved it the way it was.

    Robin, I really think you would!

    Susan: Like I was telling Charlotte, I really think the ending is perfect the way it is. I like that some things are left unresolved, for us to wonder about.

    Chain Reader: Thanks for the link! I'm glad you loved it as much as I did :D

    Fyrefly: I'm glad you did manage to get into it at last!

    Alice: I think you will too :)

    Framed: The problem with the ending is that we don't get to know what we were hoping to know, but like I was saying above, to me it felt right.

    Melody: They more definitely are interesting! And I'm glad you like it :) I like giving people a taste of the tone of the book.

  27. Valentina: That's too bad! I know that's a common problem with books written in this period, but I was hoping it wouldn't be because one of the things I loved about I Capture the Castle was how modern it felt in that sense. Cassandra, her stepmother and her sister have a lot of freedom. And the book is ironic about the whole idea of marriage as a woman's career in the same sort of way Pride & Prejudice is.

    Jenclair: It is indeed!

    Debi: Aren't they beautiful?

    Amanda: I hope you enjoy it!

    Lisa, you're most welcome :)

    Jenny: It's too bad the others don't live up to this one. But I'll still check them out, especially the one you recommended.

    Dark Orpheus: I really hope you enjoy it!

  28. Oh this is such a good book... has one of the most memorable opening scenes too!

  29. Man, now I REALLY want to reread this! So many books, too little time.

  30. What a wonderful review Nymeth. Sounds like a good read. I love the quote on beauty...

  31. I really need to get around to reading this book! I started it, and in true me fashion, never finished it... I have terrible reading habits. lol Great review, though!

  32. The ending of I Capture The Castle is one of my favorites in books, period. Nymeth is right - it is slightly hopeful, but completely unresolved, and that to me is what made it great. It's realistic, and oh-so-appropriate to the winsome story. I think if Smith had tacked a happily-ever-after on the book, I would have been satisfied but not nearly so enamored. The ending, I think, is what makes this book Great.

  33. Can I just repeat Charley's comment? Ok, I'll just repeat Charley's comment :)

    Lovely, lovely review as always. Gosh, another one of those "I don't even know where she gets these books but I'm sure to pick them out sometime soon!" thing. With you it's almost always that way :P

  34. Are you going to watch the movie now?

  35. Iliana: It does!

    Memory: I know the feeling very well.

    Dar: It's a great one, isn't it?

    Kailana: I hope you enjoy it whenever you get to it.

    Kate: Exactly. I don't think I'd have loved it as much if we had been given an ending that resolved everything.

    Michelle, I can see why :)

    Lightheaded: I have no doubt you'll really enjoy this one! I actually can't remember where I first heard of it, but Eva's review encouraged me to pick it up at last.

    Ladytink: I'm curious about it. I wonder how the story would work as a movie. It's hard for me to imagine, because so much of what I love about it depends on Cassandra's narration.

  36. Nymeth and Ladytink - I really enjoyed the movie myself, and I think I saw it before I read the book so I came into it with no preconceived notions. Bill Nighy and Tara Fitzgerald were lovely, and the two ladies who played Cassandra and Rose were excellent. I did think both of the Cotton brothers were a little stiff. That say, though, I really enjoyed it - I even own it on dvd!

  37. I read this several years ago but really should read it again. I remember watching the movie too but not much more about it. Maybe I'll have to find the movie to watch again too. :)

  38. I read I Capture the Castle several years ago; I found it perfectly enchanting.

  39. Kate, thanks for the info! I'm very glad to read the movie's well made.

    Tanabata: I hope you enjoy it the second time around :)

    Jena: Glad we agree :D

  40. I remember reading this years ago too, and meant to read it again when the film came out, but still haven't gotten around to it. Such a nice the true meaning of nice. Great review!

  41. Your review makes me want to read this right now!

    Diary of an Eccentric

  42. This is one of my favourite books. I love the inconclusive ending. Cassandra says somewhere in the book that she likes stories that don't have neat endings, so that you're always wondering about the characters afterward; I missed that hint the first time I read it but it describes this one perfectly. I actually liked the movie too, though I agree that the Cotton brothers were a bit iffy. (the costuming etc. was fantastic though)

  43. And I finally read this book! I don't know why I waited this long to read it, it's written in the most exquisite way. I love Cassandra's observations and the way she describes things. It's really fun to imagine while reading this book. :)

    Here is my review of it!


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