Dodie Smith “I Capture the Castle” – book review

It took me more 10 years to finally read this book, which I bought with reward-money I had for an English competition. It is somehow emblematic that it was my Dad who recommended it to me. In a show of passive resistance, I bought it and then kept it on my bookshelf.

The iconic first sentence “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink”, didn’t entice me. It rather made me think that she must be terribly uncomfortable, and slightly pretentious, and I was supposed to think her charming.

Then I needed something relaxing to read on a holiday, and this book became the natural choice. Though the plot is set in the 1930s, it has the air of a 19th-century novel.

17-year old Cassandra Mortmain lives in a ruined castle with her brother, sister, father and step-mother. Her father is a famous novelist who can’t make himself write anything new.

They also have a servant, Stephen, who is in love with Cassandra and has basically been supporting the family with his work and wages.

The family is desperately poor, and Cassandra’s elder sister, Rose, despairs that no-one will ever want to marry one of them. Ever so conveniently, two rich young neighbours from America move in: Simon, and his younger brother Neil.

The plot of the novel reminds me or Midsummer Night’s Dream – and I think it is supposed to, as one of the major plot twists occurs on Midsummer Night.

Everyone seems to be in love with the wrong person. Stephen loves Cassandra. Cassandra loves Simon. Simon is in love with Rose. Rose has determined to marry Simon, even though she doesn’t really care for him that much. And Neil? Well, you will need to read to the end to find out who he fancies, even though he does flirt with Cassandra quite a bit.

But the plot is not the highlight of the novel. Rather,  the beauty of this book was the spirit of lustful vacillation that so often overtakes a child on her way to becoming a woman. Cassandra imagines her future with three different men in turn. What would it feel like to kiss someone? Who is that she really fancies? She feels she is on the cusp of something new, balancing on the line between her own feelings and what she feels they ought to be.

Perhaps the most amusing bit of the novel concerns Cassandra’s father, his wife and his writer’s block. At one point, his children end up locking him in a tower in an attempt to get him rid of his writer’s block.

It’s a sunny book, light as a feather, and very entertaining too. It’s hard not to feel frustrated with the heroine and her treatment of Stephen, but then it is a teenager’s prerogative to be a bit silly…

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