Review of ‘I Capture the Castle’ by Dodie Smith

I first read this book 10 years ago. I remember being disappointed but I couldn’t remember why, so I’ve re-read it. I know this is a special book for many readers but I had mixed feelings.

Set in the 1930s, the story is narrated by 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, who is ‘capturing’ her experiences and observations in a diary. She lives in a crumbling castle with her father (a very strange figure who is apparently a genius), bohemian step-mother Topaz, beautiful sister Rose, brother Thomas, servant / friend / admirer Stephen, a cat and a dog. They are in picturesque poverty which seems romantic to outsiders. When they are discovered by Simon and Neil, two handsome brothers from America, the heirs to the estate, everyone’s emotions are plunged into turmoil and Cassandra finds that she’s growing up. It’s a coming-of-age story with influences of Jane Austen, Stella Gibbons and even Thomas Hardy. I would classify it as YA but it could also be enjoyed by adults.

The setting, characters and humour are the strengths of this book. When the story was away from the castle, it wasn’t as interesting. I found the pace rather slow at times and I became impatient when nothing much was happening, particularly around the halfway mark. I think the book is a forerunner of the confessional teen novel and it must have been very influential. In some respects it seems quite modern today, but in others – notably the obsession with the differences between Brits and Americans, the stodgy diet, perspectives on race and social class – it is definitely of a bygone age. I didn’t enjoy Cassandra’s constant fawning over her bull-terrier (although it makes sense, as Dodie Smith wrote The Hundred and One Dalmatians) or how the adults all called her a ‘child’ even though she turns 18. An episode about fur coats was distasteful. Simon and Neil weren’t as appealing to me as Stephen was (I won’t say any more because of spoilers), in fact they were dull.

I am glad to have re-read the book, but I wouldn’t do it again. A ‘film of the book’ post, about the 2003 adaptation, will be forthcoming.

First published in 1948. I read the Vintage Children’s Classics edition, 2012.

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