You may recognize the name Dodie Smith thanks to the popularity of The Hundred and One Dalmatians. She was already established as a stable playwright, but her first novel before The Hundred and One Dalmatians was I Capture the Castle, which appeared in 1948, written while Smith was living with her husband in California. She was missing England and happier times, and thus wrote about it. Critics think that the storyline time period, while unspecified, is between WWI and WWII. The beautifully written novel is told in the first person narrator form coming from the personal journal of seventeen year old Cassandra Mortmain, an extremely intelligent teenager who writes about her family’s struggle with life while living in genteel poverty while living in a decaying English castle.
While I felt strongly that there would be a castle in the novel, I couldn’t imagine what the storyline would be exactly. I pictured knights, or, in the very least, boys playing, but I was very wrong. The diary tells of an extraordinary family and their home inside a crumbling Suffolk castle. Cassandra’s father was once a famous writer, but now he mainly reads detective novels while his family slides into genteel poverty. Her sister Rose is bored and beautiful, and desperate to marry riches in order to rescue herself and her family from its penniless rut. Their step-mother Topaz has a habit of striding through the countryside wearing only her wellington boots. But all their lives are transformed by the arrival of new neighbors from America, and the rest would be considered a spoiler.
I Capture the Castle is a melodrama, and a comedy rolled up in one book. The dialogue rolls freely as we are given a mental image of the castle and its surrounding countryside. As the layers of the story are peeled away, and exposed to the reader, we learn that Cassandra’s perceptions of life and her family change, and we witness her wondering if she really ever knew her family as intimately as she thought. Through her eyes, we see how her perceptions and opinion changes as she matures, and this is what I feel the book is mostly about. It was an easy read, and devoured in just 2 days. Cassandra’s diary entries do not ramble, and yet, they contain enough descriptions to give you a taste of everyone involved, although limited to just what she perceives or knows. While a likeable character, I cannot help but wonder if this limited Smith in just what could be shared in the story. I honestly feel that I can say Dodie Smith has created a modern version of Jane Austin. An outstanding accomplishment, indeed.
I question if the book is truly for “young adults”, as it is brimming with emotional and erotic subtlety, but perhaps that is okay for today’s youths. Unrequited love, games of “second best”, and failing to win true love is a huge component of this novel, a theme which has propelled it forth into other entertainment forms. The first play based on this book appeared in 1954. The screen adaption was written by Heidi Thomas and filmed by Tim Frywell in 2003. The movie featured Romola Garai as Cassandra and Henry Cavill as Stephen. Teresa Howard and Steve Edis collaborated on a musical based on the book. It was performed at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 2012.
#82 BBC Big Read 2003
#82 BBC Top 100 Books List of 2011
The Guardian’s Definitive List Everyone Must Read