Books Every Woman Should Read: I Capture The Castle
I only wish I’d read this book when I was 16. Instead, I picked it up in Charlie Byrnes at the age of 23 and instantly fell in love.
I Capture the Castle is the perfect Christmas gift for the teenage sister or cousin in your life. Although first published in 1949 and set in the pre-war era, Cassandra Mortmain is the kind of narrator that speaks to anyone. In her, we see the confusion, boundless potential and upheaval that coming of age brings to us all.
Author Dodie Smith later went on to write the classic A Hundred and One Dalmatians and I Capture the Castle was her first novel. Living in LA, she was homesick for her native England, and throughout there are evocative descriptions of the British countryside.
Cassandra lives in a crumbling old castle home with her family. Her father has suffered from writers’ block since publishing his successful Joycean-style novel a number of years previously. Due to this, and Cassandra’s stepmother’s erratic career as a model, the family are stony broke.
Cassandra and her sister Rose live an isolated life of daydreams. Her sister Rose only wants one thing; a rich man to marry. Cassandra is not so sure, and one of the novel’s strengths is the wry outlook she has on life and her family, especially her sister’s ambitions. “And I regret to say that there were moments when my deep and loving pity for her merged into a desire to kick her fairly hard.”
There’s also her highly intelligent brother Thomas and the family’s sole remaining servant, Stephen, who has a crush on Cassandra. Into the mix come the family’s American landlords, Neil and Simon. The lonely Mortmain girls find themselves becoming attracted to the brothers, but first love rarely runs smooth.
Smith’s prose grabs the reader and takes them into Cassandra’s world. Then there’s Cassandra herself, an unforgettable character and truly special narrator. She’s sometimes naïve, more often perceptive and often the only sane woman in an increasingly mad situation.
The novel’s greatest strength though is effortlessly painting the period of mid to late adolescence. All of us can remember how bewildering that time was; how often we felt scared and thrilled at the same time. How the world looked when everything was so new and our potential truly felt limitless. It’s summed up beautifully by Cassandra when she says, “I am a restlessness inside a stillness inside a restlessness.”
While social values have changed since the 1930s (a young girl like Rose pining for marriage would be very much the exception nowadays) the thrill of being young and in love for the first time has not changed a jot.
Finally, without giving anything away, the novel’s ambiguous ending has divided readers. If you like neat, wrapped-with-a-bow conclusions, I Capture the Castle might frustrate you. For me though, it’s a believable and realistic conclusion to Cassandra’s tale.
A book for all ages, and one for the unsure and dreamer teen in all of us.
Photo c/o bbc.co.uk