“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.” –I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
I Capture the Castle is the kind of book that feels like it has been a part of my life for so long that I cannot remember where I first found it. I know I was in high school at the time. I loved it so much that I gushed about it to my friends and received a gorgeous used Folio edition of the book from them for my birthday complete with illustrations and case. It is one of the only books of which I own multiple editions, each as beloved as the other and from which I refuse to part.
From the first sentence, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink”, I was drawn in and felt a comradeship with the narrator, Cassandra. It is a devastatingly easy looking sentence, the sort that one thinks one could write if only one tried, but anyone who has written a novel with serious intentions knows how difficult that sort of beginning really is.
Cassandra Mortmain and her family occupy an old, run-down castle, which sounds romantic but in actuality it is drafty and cold and uncomfortable. Most of the good furniture has been sold and there are few luxuries in the way of food. Her father is an author who wrote one good book, went to jail after a misunderstanding involving a cake knife, and, as far as the family knows, never wrote another thing since. Her stepmother Topaz is an artist’s model who enjoys communing with nature, yet is extremely practical and takes care of the family. Her brother Thomas is still in school, buried in books, and her sister Rose is the beauty of the family who will do almost anything to escape. Also living with them is Stephen, whose mother worked for the family before she died. Stephen is a Greek god of a youth who is pretty much the only one in the household capable of bringing in a steady income.
I love this novel because of the characters. They are all completely impractical in terms of employability. In a scene early in the novel, they make a list of how much each of them could potentially earn. They struggle to think of anything for Rose and end up making her a nil, to which Rose responds that if she is a nil then their father should be a double nil. They feel real because they have faults and are not simply perfect beings existing in a Romantic setting. The fulcrum of change comes with the arrival of the Cottons, who inherit the castle and the nearby manor house. The two brothers and their mother completely overturn the monotony of life and poverty that had been the standard in the Mortmain house.
I will not give away any further details, but this is a charming book which is not as well known as it should be. The ending sometimes makes me sigh in frustration, and if you have read it, you will know what I mean. Like in life, things do not end neatly. I like to wonder what could have happened to the characters after the novel is over. In the end, a good book allows the reader to make the characters his or her own, and a good ending does not close the doors to possibilities.