I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

One of the things I have learnt the value of from book club is rereading. I first read I Capture the Castle at the age of 17/18 and I have reread, or listened to it, for the second time 40 years later. And it is true! You understand the book so very differently after all those years of living and reading.

The first time I read the book I understood it to be a coming-of-age story but also a book about romance and love and it is but I had completely missed the writing element of the story.

The book takes the form of a journal written by Cassandra Mortmain, middle child of an eccentric, poverty stricken family. She lives with her father, Step-mother Topaz, older sister Rose, younger brother Thomas and Stephen the son of a cook who has since died. They are a quirky set of characters who live in a crumbling castle with no money and most items of any value sold. If you lived with this family, little access to a wider range of other people, no radio and only books for company, you too would probably develop some quirky views of people and the world.

There are laugh out loud moments in the book, moments of tragedy and the constant threat of financial ruin. There are Jane Austen elements, allusions to Virginia Woolf’s writing and sometimes some slapstick comedy.

Cassandra wants to be a writer and so sets out to record the important events in her life, reflecting on her feelings and including notes and letters from others. Paper is in short supply so she has a very cheap notebook and uses her speed writing which she has recently learnt and no one else can read. As she moves through the year, her notebooks become more and more expensive reflecting her development as a writer. She does have one of the best first lines in a book.

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

Audiobook so no page numbers

There are other writers in the household, namely her father who wrote a very famous book ‘Jacob Wrestling’ but has been unable to write a second book. He works in the Gatehouse of the castle, disappearing there every day but only to read detective novels and complete crossword puzzles. His writer’s block is enormous and he has become monstrous with anger and frustration, even being imprisoned for three months after attacking his wife with a knife – or waving a knife that he happened to have in his hand at the time of an argument depending on whose point of view you believe. A significant theme in the book is of the impact that a creative genius can have on a family who are waiting and waiting for this genius to strike up again.

Into the family’s life come two young American men, Neil and Simon Cotton along with their mother. They are the new landlords, having bought the castle and come to visit the family only to be entranced by their eccentricities and by the place. Of course, marriage to them would mean an end to their financial problems – an Austen moment – and Rose sets out manipulate the men in order that she marry one of them because she does not ‘do’ poverty particularly well.

Simon is a writer of critical essays and would like to write about Mortmain and Jacob Wrestling but can’t write the ending and his mother is a talkative, challenging woman who Mortmain enjoys a verbal tussle with and who is a kind benefactor and collector of famous people. Names are significant in the book and mort main could be read as dead hand.

When I first read the book I was slightly puzzled by the title. I could see how Cassandra was capturing the castle in terms of her writing. She sets out at the start of her journal that she wants to capture her father in words and the castle, both of which she does very well. But she captures the castle in more ways than this which is linked to the coming -of-age not just as a woman but also as a writer.

Mortmain’s room for working is in the Gatehouse – the physical entrance to the castle and towards the end of the book Cassandra could be accused of invading the Gatehouse three times. The first time she enters, she sees comic strips pinned up everywhere and lists of things strewn around the room. The second time she goes in with Thomas and the comic strips are still there but all the lists and paperwork has been removed and locked up in a drawer suggesting that her father knows she has been in there. Eventually she sets up camp in the Gatehouse, in her father’s study claiming it as her own and capturing the castle.

Smith has played around with gender stereotypes. The characters who are logical, pragmatic, determined, manipulative and sexually exploitative are the women with the men being romantic, film-stars, submissive and child-like in having their needs met by others. Written in the 1940s it probably mirrors the changes in society during and after the war when women stepped out of the home into the world of work. Unlike Austen, Cassandra doesn’t marry one of the rich Americans but sets out to become an author and solve her financial problems herself.

The real strength of the book is Cassandra’s voice. She is not generally an unreliable narrator and as we move through the book she becomes more and more accurate in ‘reading’ other people and understanding herself and her emotions. At the very end she is offered the chance to go to college and she replies ‘I only want to write. And there’s no college for that except life.’ She has come to understand that she need not only write about herself but if she wants to tell stories needs to write about others as well.

There is so much else in this book. There is the symbolism of the tower on the mount, the tension between the traditional in the form of the castle and the modern in the form of Mortmain’s writing and the idea of a room of one’s own to write in. There is also the quality of Smith’s writing. All present for future readings.

I am totally captured by this book.

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