The Classics Reclamation Project is my personal challenge to read and enjoy the classics. Each Wednesday, I post about the classic I’m reading at the moment.
Oh my. It’s finding books like this one that make this project totally worth it.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith had me from the first sentence. Sometimes that happens, but as the book goes along, it sort of loses you. Not so with this lovely novel.
As I mentioned last week, the book is about 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain and her family: her father, her stepmother (Topaz), her sister (Rose), her brother (Thomas), a family friend (Stephen), a cat (Ab), a dog (Hel), and a dressmaker’s mannequin (Miss Blossom). The whole lot of them live together in a glorious old house that’s built into the ruins of an ancient, crumbling castle. They had money once, but ever since Mr. Mortmain published his hit debut novel, he hasn’t written a word, and the family has sunken into poverty. Thankfully, the old man who’s leasing the castle to the Mortmains never demands the rent; on the contrary, he sends over a ham each Christmas. Stephen, whose mother worked for the Mortmains and who grew up with the Mortmain children, helps around the house in every way he can. It’s about at this point that we first meet Cassandra and her family.
Cassandra is an aspiring writer, and I Capture the Castle is her journal. She’s learned to speed write and spends long hours hidden away in the barn, in the attic, or up near the old tower, recording the doings of the family as well as her personal thoughts. The book is even divided into three parts to show where each of her notebooks finishes and the next begins.
Jenny from Jenny’s Books has a “Snuggly Sparkle Hearts” category, which she explains (in part) thusly: “Sometimes I read a book, and I have a response of overwhelming joy, but the joy is coming from a place in my heart that is unrelated to my critical faculties.” That’s how I feel about I Capture the Castle. I’m not sure it’s the paragon of what a book should be, but my goodness, I loved it. Let me try and count the ways.
First, there is Cassandra herself. She’s darling. On the front of my edition is a gigantic blurb from J.K. Rowling stating “This book has one of the most charismatic narrators I’ve ever met,” and I wholeheartedly agree. Cassandra says the most delightful things. Some examples:
“When I read a book, I put in all the imagination I can, so that it is almost like writing the book as well as reading it–or rather, it is like living it. It makes reading so much more exciting, but I don’t suppose many people try to do it.” (p. 26)
“Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.” (p. 38)
“Walking down Belmotte was the oddest sensation–every step took us deeper into the mist until at last it closed over our heads. It was like being drowned in the ghost of water.” (p. 216)
She does come across as young, but I don’t think overly so; she’s still a teenager, after all, and she does grow throughout the book. She kind of struck me as the (much, much improved) female version of Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, if Holden were loveable, good-natured, happy, and capable of maturing. There was, for me, that same sense of a young person on the edge growing up. But where Holden simply won a little of my intellectual appreciation, Cassandra one hundred percent captured my heart.
So often in books formatted as diaries, the story, at some point, begins to feel contrived. I cease to believe that events are happening in the ordinary course of the narrator’s life; instead, I begin to suspect the author is gently (or not too gently, as the case may be) pulling the story in the direction s/he intends. I did not ever get that sense while reading I Capture the Castle. It always felt like Cassandra’s life. Even the way she’d mention that she wrote a section over three days but didn’t mark the breaks so it would seem like one story, or how she’d mark places where she’d gone away and come back, felt so real to me. I can’t think of a better novel in journal form I’ve read recently.
I liked, too, that the book only spanned eight months, from March to October. So often as of late the books I’ve read have been sweeping in scope, examining full lifetimes or more. Not that I mind; I didn’t even notice until I read I Capture the Castle, with its 300+ pages dedicated to less a year. I liked the detail with which Cassandra related the events of those months and never felt bored or lost.
I’ll admit, I started to get worried as the ending approached. I wasn’t sure I was going to believe it. But then, when it arrived, I did. It couldn’t have ended any other way. I love when you can trust an author to take a book along just the path it requires. I’m curious, for those of you who’ve read the book: did the ending sit well with you?
I’m trying to think of any complaints, even minor ones, I had about I Capture the Castle, and I’m coming up empty. I’m not sure everyone will love it as much as I do (hence the “Sparkly Snuggle Hearts” warning), but I do think it’s a wonderful book that deserves a chance from everyone, teen to adult. I don’t reread much, but I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith is one I know I will revisit.