I Capture the Castle

By Dodie Smith

88,363 ratings - 4* vote

Through six turbulent months of 1934, 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain keeps a journal, filling three notebooks with sharply funny yet poignant entries about her home, a ruined Suffolk castle, and her eccentric and penniless family. By the time the last diary shuts, there have been great changes in the Mortmain household, not the least of which is that Cassandra is deeply, h Through six turbulent months of 1934, 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain keeps a journal, filling three notebooks with

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Book details

Hardcover, 408 pages
March 31st 1998 by Wyatt Book

(first published 1948)

Original Title
I Capture the Castle
ISBN
0312181108 (ISBN13: 9780312181109)
Edition Language
English

Community Reviews

Paul Bryant

My name is Cassandra Mortmain, I know it sounds made up but it’s true. I’m 17 and bright as a button and never been kissed because it’s the 1930s. My family are effortlessly bohemian, we all live in a crumbling castle – oh yes, quite literally! – and we have no money at all and we have only barely heard of the twentieth century. How poor we are since father stopped earning any money. He used to be a genius but now he does crosswords. We eat the occasional potato and scrape plaster off the walls for pudding. We have thought of cooking one of our dogs but that would not do. Also, something you should be aware of, although you will find out pretty soon I believe, is that I suffer from acute logorrhoea, which is a debilitating condition that impels its victim to write a never-ending journal into which is debouched every last possible banal but extremely charming detail of one’s life and that of one’s immediate family, which is, the pulchritudinous Rose, my 21 year old sister, my doughty schoolboy brother, my poor damaged papa who wrote one brilliant book once but has since sunk into a kind of bewilderment, and his nude model youngish wife, the unusual lute-playing nature-communing Topaz whom we love immoderately in spite of her frank farfetchedness, along with various cats and dogs with classically-derived names and a servant boy called Stephen who gauchely is in love with my 17 year old preciousness and whom we do not pay but who contrives to be preternaturally handsome and work for us for free. Anyone might think I have made all this up out of my own coquettish head!

We may live in a literal castle but we haven’t got the price of a loaf of bread. It’s enough to make a cat laugh. Our situation is so wry that fairly broad comedy oozes from its very pores. Rose said only last night that she was quite up to walking the streets to earn a crust if she thought it would do any good, but the quaint rural byways of the Suffolk countryside don’t possess the required type of street. So here I am, as usual, sitting on something odd, it could be a turret, or a tuffet or a large mammal, carefully noting down in my journal everything I hear and see along with the weather at the time and the precise location of the several animals we own, what I am wearing and what my immediate family are wearing, with various passing references to the utter beauty of the crumbling literal castle that we all inhabit over which the moon sheds its downy light and lambent whatnots.

Four months later

Something has actually happened! Yes, new owners of the mansion have taken possession – new neighbours! And it’s just like a fairytale, for they are none other than two handsome American bachelors, with whom I and my sister will fall in love, and they with ourselves, naturellement. But not before many pages of microscopic examination of every trifling occurrence so that a single evening in their company will take 30 pages for me to detail and the sisterly debate about it another ten. And certainly not before much gentle yet sharply observed observations on the romantic yearnings of two beautiful yet penniless girls who get the brothers the wrong way round at first. Now, let me explain how I first met the American brothers. I was in the bath and I had been dying clothes that day, so my entire body was coloured a violent sea-green, and they wandered into the crumbling castle thinking no one could possibly live there. Imagine the scene! They took me for some kind of turtle.

Maggie Stiefvater

What a generous caretaker of a novel.

If I say that this novel didn't require me to do any work, it sounds like a vague insult, as if I'm saying that the story or the characters were slight, and that's not at all what I mean. I mean that the novel, both through format (a very self-aware narrator's journal) and authorial intent (with a firm eye on the sort of story-telling pedigree that brought her there), anticipated my readerly needs and desires with such swiftness that I felt agreeably anticipatory and satisfied at all times. I did not have to tell myself to be patient to wait for one plot line to play out, because the book helpfully plied me with a pleasant drink while I waited. I did not feel done after it had given me a good meal, because right before the last course, it promised dessert.

The summary is accurate and pointless. It is about Cassandra writing about herself in a journal. Their family is penniless. They do live in a castle. She is, as it promises, deeply, hopelessly in love.

But not with any of the men in the book. They're all intriguing in their own way, don't get me wrong, and she does love many of them, in many different ways. The novel takes place in one of my favorite intellectual time periods to read and study, and this book plays across all of its nuances: artists' models and intellectuals, servants' quarters and vicars, romanticism and mysticism, the religion of church and the religion of a well-turned-out drawing room. But all of that is sort of beyond the point. The point is that Cassandra is deeply, hopelessly in love with life, and her utter, wry engagement with the castle she adores is what pulled me through the pages. Her voice is kind and self-deprecating, generous and wondering. The humans she observes — Topaz, her often-nude step-mother; Rose, her selfish and hungry sister; Mortmain, her once-famous father — are all seen through this well-meaning gaze, and even terrible events are colored with love (even when I thought characters could do with a polite punch in the mouth).

This book took very good care of me. It goes onto my comfortable re-read shelf immediately.

Martine

This is going to be the shortest review I've written on this site in a while. The reason I'm going to keep it short is because no description could possibly do justice to this quintessentially English coming-of-age story which ranks among the most pleasant surprises I've had, book-wise. A summary would make it sound slight, trite and predictable, all of which it is, and would not reflect the fact that it's also funny as hell, charismatic, deliciously eccentric, Austenesque and so utterly charming that I quite literally had sore cheeks after reading it because I couldn't stop smiling at the delightful nonsense the incomparable Cassandra Mortmain spilled out on the pages. I'm not exaggerating here -- this book will charm the pants off you, especially if you happen to have two X chromosomes and a bad case of Anglophilia. It's what would happen if an early-twentieth-century Jane Austen were to grow up in a dilapidated castle and get into financial trouble, and that's all I'm going say about it, except that I want to be Cassandra Mortmain when I grow down. Only I think I'll write my book on a computer rather than sitting in the kitchen sink, because it would be so much more comfortable, thank you very much.

Elliott

That's right. I really liked it. And I'm not ashamed to admit it. Now, would you please excuse me while I go read Hemingway and then kill something with my bare hands.

Tadiana ✩Night Owl☽

4+ stars. Recommended if you like historical coming-of-age fiction.

I had never heard of I Capture the Castle until a friend gave it an extremely strong recommendation. Dodie Smith is the author of The 101 Dalmatians (the original basis for the Disney movie, and the only reason I was familiar with her name), which I read many years ago and really enjoyed.

This 1948 novel is about an intelligent 17 year old girl, Cassandra Mortmain, who lives in semi-genteel but crushing poverty in mid-1930s England, in a dilapidated castle. Cassandra has ambitions of becoming an author like her father. Her story is told in the form of her journal entries, as she practices her writing skills to try to learn to “capture” the castle, as well as the people in her life, in her writing.

Cassandra skillfully describes her father’s distance and failure to do anything to provide for the family, her stepmother’s charm and eccentricity, and her older sister Rose’s despair at their isolation and poverty. But what broke my heart was her matter-of-fact descriptions of how their poverty affects their lives every day: the too-small, worn-out clothing the girls have to wear; her gratitude for having eggs along with bread and margarine for their evening meal; the way the girls trade off sleeping in the one comfortable bed in their room (which hasn’t been sold only because it’s in such bad shape). Rose, the more beautiful sister, is grimly determined to escape from poverty, even if she has to marry a man she doesn't love. When two young American brothers move into town (the older son, Simon, is the family’s new and wealthy landlord), the Mortmains’ lives are all turned topsy-turvy, with love, romance and secrets.

Cassandra’s insights into own and others’ personalities and motivations are sharp and witty, and occasionally even a little prophetic; I think the symbolism of her name from Greek mythology is deliberate, although she misses at least one major secret that a member of her own family is hiding. The characters are believable and human, sometimes frustratingly so with their flaws. I particularly wanted to smack Cassandra's father upside the head: he's a well-known author with one famous book to his credit, but for the last ten years he's been struggling with a massive case of writer's block, hiding away in his home office reading detective novels and working on crosswords, while his family sells the furniture to survive.

I thought there were just a few missteps in the story: the chain of unrequited love interests was pushing the boundaries of believability (woman wants boy, who loves girl, who loves another guy, who loves another girl, who loves…). I guessed one big reveal at the end fairly early in the story. Cassandra spends a chapter or two examining her views on religion and talking to the local vicar, and then never mentions it again, which made me wonder why it was included in the first place.

But these are minor flaws. Cassandra is an enchanting character and a fantastic narrator, surrounded by some unforgettable characters. This is a lovely, bittersweet novel that doesn't go for the easy resolution.

Laurie

With many of my favorite books I can still remember the person who put a copy in my hands. Matilda was given to me for my 8th birthday by my stepdad, the title Pride and Prejudice scribbled on a piece of paper and handed to me by my young (must've been straight out of college) 7th grade English teacher-- she gave me the paper and sent me to the library to find it, and I still remember sitting in that classroom taking in the opening page with grand delight ....

I hadn't ever heard of I Capture the Castle until Stephanie handed me a yellowed beaten up well loved copy. To keep! (At least, I think it was for keeps-- was it Stephanie?! I still have it if you need it back!) I was about to leave for France. I saved the book for the trip, started it in Bretagne in a little loft bedroom and couldn't put it down. Read it late at night when everyone else was sleeping, sometimes suck outside and read it with a pack of Camel oranges. The story is lovely, haunting, hilarious. One of the great poor-girls-coming-of-age stories.... And any girl who has a tendency to romanticize the world in bizarre ways will find a kindred spirit in Cassandra. I know I did.

mark monday

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Dear I Capture the Castle,

What to say, what to say? Hard to put down all the feelings. To put it simply: you did everything right. The characterization like flowers slowly blooming. The story like seasons changing, invisibly but inevitably. The romance made both heartfelt and utterly, often infuriatingly real. The details, oh the details! I was put right into this world and right into Cassandra's head. And the charm! You are such a charming book - so amusing and so sweet-tempered yet with a certain saltiness as well, and a sharp tang. Head in the clouds; feet firmly planted on earth. You are a love letter to the past and to writing and to what makes a home and to young people with all of their future ahead of them and older people who have all of their future ahead of them. You are a love letter to love! I fell in love with you in turn. I would change nothing about you.

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DEAR HATERS,

NO THIS IS NOT SUPPOSED TO BE A "YOUNG ADULT" BOOK! IT IS A BOOK ABOUT YOUNG ADULTS. SOMETIMES THERE IS A DIFFERENCE.

NO THIS BOOK IS NOT LIKE "POND SCUM" AND USING THAT DESCRIPTION FOR IT SAYS MORE ABOUT YOU THAN IT DOES ABOUT THE BOOK.

NO THE FATHER IS NEITHER SEXIST NOR ABUSIVE FOR CHRISSAKES.

YES ALL OF THE NUMEROUS AND OFTEN QUIRKY DETAILS ARE THERE FOR A REASON. THEY ARE THERE TO PUT THE READER IN CASSANDRA'S MIND AND INTO THE WORLD OF THE BOOK. I'M SORRY YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND THAT. PLEASE STOP READING BOOKS LIKE THIS.

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Dear Friends,

It is so very nice that we have this book in common! I congratulate us on our mutual good taste! Our ability to enter into a new world and experience new things and new people with patience and an open heart are all hallmarks of our exquisitely nuanced, tender, and subtle sensibilities, as well as our sublime and near-saintly powers of empathy! People like us are, as they say, "Simply The Best"! Now let's have a nice cup of tea together, shall we?


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emma

The first half of this was like Jane Austen herself descended from the heavens (godlike) and delivered me, personally, a gift.

The second half of this is like Jane Austen removed the mask and revealed she was just Some Romance Writer - not to be confused with a good romance writer, of which there are many - and then she also punched me in the stomach.

In other words, I suffered unimaginably.

Everyone goes ON and ON about this protagonist, Cassandra. “She is the most charming creature in the history of the world,” says JK Rowling. “She is a hero,” says a heroic person. “She is me reincarnated,” says God.

And yeah, at first she’s pretty cool. Very cool, even.

But then she sucks.

Basically everyone was great at first, and then everyone sucks, and also the book was great at first and then sucks. (Don’t make this into some grand metaphor about life - I suffered!!!!)

This is not even my sometimes-bias against romance showing. (Except okay maybe it is a little bit.) But in this book we go from a quirky ragtag family living in a dilapidated CASTLE in the English COUNTRYSIDE to...unrequited love. And sisterly hate. And family separation. And heartbreak and betrayal and sorrow and a whole lot of other things.

Things that are my least favorite things.

In conclusion: #JusticeforStephen2020.

Bottom line: This may have been designed as a torture device for me, specifically, using a complicated series of time machines and nightmare infiltration.

-------------
pre-review

too much lovey-dovey stuff, not enough practical instruction on the day-to-day of castle acquisition.

review to come / 3ish stars

Alyson

i found this book to alternate between delightful and infuriating.

here is the delightful:  
-images of the english countryside and the crumbling, fantastic castle
-cassandra's optimism and intelligence (pre-simon)
-perfect descriptions of peaceful, contemplative moments

and here is the infuriating:
-cassandra's father. a supposed genius but in reality a sexist, abusive, loathsome, distant fellow. he appears sporadically to ignore his children, leave his wife lonely, make everyone question his sanity and demand his supper from the ladies of the house. the frustrating part of this character is that his terrible behavior is overlooked and often glorified when he should be taken to task. i spent a good part of this book longing for someone to throw him into the moat.

-cassandra's personality meltdown after "falling in love". the optimistic, intelligent, loving, happy girl turns at once into a mean-spirited, self centered fool. she begins to hate her sister and engage in other sorts of petty, miserable behavior. not only is her change of heart unbelievable in how quickly and totally she becomes a different (mean, angry, self-centered) person, but  somehow the author seems to insinuate that this very change of heart (for the worst!) is in itself the act of growing up. what a sad commentary on aging cassandra's behavior is!

the back of the book declares, "by the time she (cassandra) pens her final entry, she has captured the castle. . ."
i do not believe that cassandra "captures the castle" by the end of this book. i think she loses the castle. she has lost her optimism and her ability to write without a certain bitterness. her words are tainted by her own anger/sadness/jealousy about her troublesome "love". i feel that capturing the castle would have meant cassandra maintaining  her original good nature, selflessness and happiness despite her failure in love. it would have been rectifying (in person) her horrid behavior towards her sister and most certainly standing up to her father.

Carol She's So Novel꧁꧂

This novel was darn near perfect.

Cassandra & her family inhabit a castle in conditions of extreme poverty. Cassandra captures both her family's character & their eccentric life style beautifully in her journals (a very rare example of a diary narration working) . Different styles & depths of love are explored. I will never be persuaded that Cassandra's father is a likeable (or even admirable) character, but genius is often uncomfortable to be around.

A chance to enter a long vanished world that should not be missed.

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