…for a certain kind of reader — mostly women, mostly bookish — it is perfect. Once you read it, you fall in love with it, and from then on you’re part of a secret club, self-selecting and wildly enthusiastic.
I picked up Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle based on this piece from Vox, quoted above, but I am sorry to say that, while I mostly enjoyed the novel, I am not part of the secret club. Set in the 1930s, I Capture the Castle features a delightful narrator in 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain. She is a sensible and sensitive girl who happens to live in a run-down castle with her quirky family. As poverty threatens to wear them all down, fate steps in and plants a perfectly suitable suitor on the Mortmain’s doorstep. Will older sister Rose and/or Cassandra find true love? Will their troubled father find his creative muse? The journey Smith takes us on via Cassandra’s diaries can, indeed, be a fun read, but given modern sensibilities regarding male/female relationships and the male use of force or violence in the name of creativity, I found myself a bit let down by the end.
The Mortmain family are living in poverty in a rented castle located near an idyllic village in England. The father is an author who wrote a best-seller some 15 years ago but has experienced a creative dry spell since his stint in prison. After their mother died, father remarried a bohemian beauty named Topaz, who is very kind but quite strange. Father locks himself away every day in the gatehouse doing who knows what and pretty much ignoring his own children and their welfare. Rose (21) dreams of not being poor, Cassandra (17) has aspirations to become a writer, and Thomas (15) goes to school, while Stephen Colley (18), the son of their former housekeeper, lives with the family and seems to be the only one to contribute toward household expenses by hiring himself out to a local farmer. One cold and rainy night, after a meager supper, Rose makes a wish and before you know it, two rain-soaked Americans are on their doorstep. As it happens, Simon Cotton and his brother Neil have just arrived to lay claim to the ancestral estate, which happens to include the castle. The brothers are handsome and friendly, and Simon is a rich man who takes a fancy to Rose. Mrs. Cotton and Simon are both great fans of Mr. Mortmain’s novel, and their interest in his work seems to spark a new life in the man. Meanwhile, Stephen and Topaz seem jealous of the attentions that the Cottons pay to Cassandra and Mr. Mortmain, respectively. Is this the answer to everyone’s prayers or the beginning of more grief?
Cassandra is a delightful narrator. She is clever enough to see and hear painful truths about her own family, but naive enough not to see other obvious truths before her. Her descriptions of the castle and of her family and neighbors are written with honesty, love and humor. I especially enjoyed Cassandra’s “capturing” (descriptions) of the vicar and Miss Marcy, who seem to see things about Cassandra and her situation that she herself misses. Cassandra and Rose’s relationship will go through some traumatic changes in the course of the novel, and Cassandra records them faithfully, but the reader never questions their love and concern for one another. Smith does a lovely job of showing the growing pains Cassandra experiences as she moves on from childhood to adulthood, and I approve of Cassandra’s choices at the end of the novel.
I do not, however, approve of some of the other relationships in this novel, and most of my disapproval centers on Mr. Mortmain. He is selfish and self-absorbed, which might be humorous, except that he also can be violent and downright cruel, particularly toward Topaz. Near the end of the novel, when Cassandra and Thomas develop a plan to help spur their father’s creativity, their plan is based on some dubious suppositions about force and creativity. I imagine their plan is meant to be funny to the reader but I just thought it was creepy. This plan is preceded by a disturbing scene between Cassandra and her father. Smith’s message about the creative muse vis-a-vis Mr. Mortmain is pretty messed up, in my opinion, and it is at odds with the creativity that Cassandra demonstrates. Is it different for men? Is anything allowed for the male artiste to thrive? No. A thousand times no. For the love of God no.
I Capture the Castle is a mixed bag. On one hand, we have a wonderful narrator whose experiences and feelings would speak to many young readers and whose relationships and choices help her mature into a smart young woman. On the other hand, we have a strange and unhealthy message about creativity and acceptable male behavior. This is simply not the kind of novel I would press into the hands of a young reader today when there are so many better choices out there.