I Capture the Castle
First British edition, published by William Heinemann, 1949
|Illustrator||Ruth Steed, from sketches by the author|
|Country||United Kingdom, United States, Canada|
|Publisher||William Heinemann (United Kingdom); McClelland and Stewart (Canada); Little, Brown (United States)|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
I Capture the Castle is the first novel by English author Dodie Smith, written in the 1940s when she and her husband (also British and a conscientious objector) lived in California during WWII. She longed for England and wrote of a happier time—unspecified in the novel (apart from a reference to living in the 30's) but probably early in that decade — between the wars. Smith was already an established playwright and later became famous for writing the children's classic The Hundred and One Dalmatians.
The novel relates the adventures of an eccentric family, the Mortmains, struggling to live in genteel poverty in a decaying English castle during the 1930s. The first person narrator is Cassandra Mortmain, an intelligent teenager who tells the story via her personal journal—a coming-of-age story in which she is visibly maturing and by the end is no longer a girl but a young woman. In 2003, the novel was listed at number 82 on the BBC's survey The Big Read.
The Mortmain family is poor but exotic. Cassandra's father is a writer suffering from writer's block who has not published anything since his first book, Jacob Wrestling (a reference to Jacob wrestling with the angel), an innovative and "difficult" novel that sold well and made his name, including in America. Ten years before the story begins, he took out a forty-year lease on a dilapidated but beautiful castle, hoping to find either inspiration or isolation there; now, his family is selling off the furniture to buy food.
The widowed Mortmain's second wife, Topaz, is a beautiful artist's model who enjoys communing with nature, sometimes wearing nothing but hip boots. Rose, the elder daughter, is a classic English beauty pining away in the lonely castle, longing for a chance to meet some eligible (and preferably rich) young men; she tells her sister that she wants to live in a Jane Austen novel. Cassandra, the younger daughter and the story's narrator, has literary ambitions and spends a lot of time developing her writing talent by "capturing" everything around her in her journal. Stephen, the handsome, loyal, live-in son of the Mortmain's late cook, and Thomas, the youngest Mortmain child, round out the cast of household characters. Stephen, a "noble soul", is in love with Cassandra, which she finds touching, but a bit awkward; Thomas, a schoolboy, is, like Cassandra, considered "tolerably bright".
Things begin to happen when the Cottons, a wealthy American family, inherit nearby Scoatney Hall and become the Mortmains' new landlords. Cassandra and Rose soon become intrigued by the unmarried brothers, Simon and Neil. The brothers differ considerably in character; Neil, who was raised in California by their father, is a carefree young man who wants to become a rancher in America, while Simon, who grew up in New England with his mother, is scholarly and serious, and loves the English countryside. Simon, the elder brother, is the heir and therefore much wealthier than Neil, so although Rose isn't attracted to him, she decides to marry him if she can, declaring that she'd marry the devil himself to escape the family's poverty.
At their first meeting, the Cottons are amused and interested by the Mortmains; when they pay a call the very next day, however, the inexperienced Rose flirts openly with Simon and makes herself look ridiculous. Both brothers are repelled by this display and, as they walk away, Cassandra overhears them resolving to drop all acquaintance with the Mortmains. After an amusing episode involving a fur coat, however, all is forgiven and the two families become good friends. Rose decides that she really is taken with Simon, and Cassandra and Topaz scheme to get Simon to propose to her. Simon falls in love with Rose and proposes to her, which then sends Rose and Topaz to London with Mrs. Cotton to purchase Rose's wedding trousseau.
One evening, while everyone else is away, Cassandra and Simon spend the evening together, which leads to their kissing, and Cassandra is cast into an emotional tailspin. She becomes obsessed with Simon but suffers feelings of guilt since he is Rose's fiancé. Cassandra now faces many pressures: she must tactfully deflect Stephen's offers of love, and encourage him in his emerging career as a model and movie actor; join forces with Thomas to help their father overcome his writer's block by the drastic (though apparently effective) expedient of imprisoning him in a medieval tower; cope with her own increasing attraction to Simon; and record everything, wittily and winningly, in her journal (as the journal advances, the relationships she depicts become subtler and more problematic).
Meanwhile, unnoticed by anyone but Stephen, Rose and Neil have been falling in love. To conceal their budding romance, they pretend to hate each other. When they eventually elope together, Simon is left heartbroken – Cassandra, hopeful. Before Simon leaves to go back to America, he comes to see Cassandra. In spite of her feelings for him, Cassandra deflects the conversation at a moment when she thinks he may be about to propose to her – feeling that he is still in love with Rose and not willing to settle for being his "second best". The book closes on an ambiguous note, with Cassandra reminding herself that Simon has promised to return, and closing her journal for good by reasserting her love for him.
References and allusions
Novels mentioned include A la recherche du temps perdu by Proust and War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. At one point in the book, Rose and Cassandra begin, but do not finish, a bedtime conversation about whether Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë is "better". (The Vicar describes Cassandra as "Jane Eyre with a touch of Becky Sharp", the latter being the lead character of Vanity Fair.)
Biblical episodes, mainly Jacob's Ladder and Jacob Wrestling, are apparently part of Cassandra's father's successful novel Jacob Wrestling; however the actual subject of that novel is never clearly represented to the reader (Cassandra calls it "a mixture of fiction, philosophy and poetry.") Samson and Delilah also play a small part in the novel, as the narrator once compares Simon and Rose to the Biblical couple. When trying to write a new book, Cassandra's father considers the theme of Noah's Ark, but finally decides not to have a Biblical theme again.
Tales and legends
The works of Ralph Hodgson, Robert Herrick (Whom Stephen tries to emulate in his first attempts at original poetry after plagiarising from numerous poets to seduce Cassandra) and Algernon Charles Swinburne (Cassandra, discovering Stephen's volume of Swinburne, exclaims: "Oh dear, is Stephen taking to Swinburne?") are mentioned, as well as John Keats' La Belle Dame sans Merci (Stephen wonders if she would have lived in a place like Belmotte Tower), G. K. Chesterton's "Song of Quoodle" and Thomas Nashe's "Spring, the Sweet Spring". Stephen quotes lines from Percy Shelley's Love's Philosophy.
At a dinner party guest describe each other in terms of famous artists. Topaz is called a "Blake", meaning William Blake, the English poet and artist who painted many ethereal figures. Rose is said to resemble Emma, Lady Hamilton, the muse of artist George Romney. Simon says Cassandra is like the Joshua Reynolds painting Girl with a mousetrap. Mrs. Fox-Cotton is said to be a Salvador Dalí work, "with snakes coming out of her ears."
Simon introduces Cassandra to the works of Claude Debussy.
A play based on the book appeared in 1954. Heidi Thomas wrote a screen adaptation, which was filmed by Tim Fywell in 2003. A musical based on the book by Teresa Howard and Steve Edis is being workshopped and performed at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in March 2012.
Quotes about the novel
- "I know of few novels—except Pride and Prejudice—that inspire as much fierce lifelong affection in their readers." – Joanna Trollope
- "This book has one of the most charismatic narrators I've ever met." – J. K. Rowling
- "I think it is a book that will be very much lived in by many people; because you can live in it, like Dickens." – Christopher Isherwood
- Cold Comfort Farm (1932) by Stella Gibbons is an earlier comic romance novel about an eccentric English family living on a derelict farm in an unspecified near future. In this novel, which is a parody of the novels of Mary Webb (Precious Bane, Gone to Earth, etc.), various Brontë-esque, Lawrencian and other turgidly romantic literary tropes are exaggerated for comic effect.