Aug 16 2008 3:53pm

Just Irresistible: Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle

I Capture the Castle is one of the best books about how people form relationships I’ve ever read, and it has one of the best first person voices in the history of the universe. I have read it too many times to count and I love it almost too much to be coherent about it.

Cassandra Mortmain is seventeen and lives in a rented crumbling castle in 1930’s England. She lives there with her eccentric writer father, her lute-playing naturist stepmother Topaz, her beautiful but discontented sister Rose, her younger brother Thomas and the beautiful Stephen, who is the son of a deceased servant. They’re living on next to no money and are frequently hungry. Then the Cotton family arrive at Scroatney Hall and enter their lives, turning everything upside down.

The thing that makes the book truly charming is Cassandra simultaneously taking the oddest things for granted and consciously examining everything. I’ve called the voice “first person headlong,” it’s written in the form of a journal where she knows within each chapter what she’s describing, but doesn’t have any longer perspective on it than that.

What happens, the events of the book, is normal enough: dinner parties, falling in love, dancing, starting to write a book. What makes it worth reading and reading and re-reading is the close up intimate view of the universe. Cassandra’s voice is both adult and child, sophisticated and naive, observant but unaware, simultaneously taking herself very seriously and laughing at herself.

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it. The rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy. I can’t say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left. And I have found that sitting in a place where you haven’t sat before can be very inspiring. I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen house. Though even that isn’t a very good poem. I have decided my poetry is so bad I mustn’t write any more of it.

That’s how it begins. It isn’t really a romance, in any sense of the word, it’s an internal voyage of discovery. It’s also wonderfully funny.

It really is agony to talk to her about books. When I was longing for a calm discussion of Tolstoy’s War and Peace she said “Ah, it’s the overlapping dimensions that are so wonderful. I tried to paint it once on a circular canvas”—and then she couldn’t remember who Natasha was.

The book it is most like is, I suppose, Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, which is set at about the same date in the English countryside and has a female first person narrator. I can’t help liking it much better. I think it’s because it takes its own level of reality much more seriously. That’s probably why it works much less well as a film—CCF is a satire and made a pretty good film, but the fairly recent film of I Capture the Castle was shallow and consciously naive. There are things one can accept entirely from within the filter of perception that become silly when you’re supposed to sit and watch them from outside. There are books that just shouldn’t be made into films, and this is one of them.

Oh, and it isn’t SF. But I originally read I Capture the Castle more than thirty years ago now, because I’d enjoyed her SF. A Hundred and One Dalmatians is a talking-animal book, but the sequel, The Starlight Barking is definitely and unquestionable SF, with aliens and everything.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden
1. pnh
I Capture the Castle is one of the best novels I have ever read in my life, and anyone who turns their nose up at it because it's YA, or girly, or old and English, is an idiot who deserves to miss one of the greatest reading experiences ever.

And I agree with Jo: Cold Comfort Farm is a peculiar and interesting novel (and technically SF!) which made for a 1995 film that's actually one of the funnier things I've ever seen. (Worth it just for Ian McKellen intoning "There'll be no butter in HELL!", if nothing else.) Whereas I have absolutely no desire to see the movie of I Capture the Castle. It is too thoroughly, exhilaratingly, perfectly a novel.

I'm hard-pressed to think of a book that does a better job of showing the inner life of a smart teenager. Maybe that's why SF people keep rediscovering it, and being blown away by it.
Elise Matthesen
2. LionessElise
Ah, God. I need to go reread BOTH of those. Those two (along with Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived In The Castle, but that's another story) helped me make a lot of sense out of a lot of crazy growing-up stuff.

They really are amazing books.
Bruce Arthurs
3. bruce-arthurs
Rather surprisingly, the film version of ICTC is not available on Netflix. From the reviews there, tho', it seems the rule that people who read the novel first are very disappointed in the film, but those who haven't read the book have a much higher opinion of the film version.
Tex Anne
4. TexAnne
Bruce, that's true for me. I rented the movie years ago (one-word review: "Awwwww"). Then I forgot all about it, even unto the author's name. Then I found the book at a library sale, read the first paragraph, and went, "Have I read this? I haven't read this. Oh, this is that movie I liked!" The movie is surprisingly faithful--it's not worth seeking out, but if you haven't read the book, it's a pleasant way to spend an evening.
Clifton Royston
6. CliftonR
I liked the film quite a bit; maybe now I should go read the novel and stop liking the film, if the book is that much better.

I like novels that put you behind someone's eyes, except when the viewpoint gets too painful to read. Some of Ruth Rendell's novels were just too uncomfortable for me to finish due to the character whose eyes we're seeing through.
7. Scraps
This is going to be brief, because I'm in a dark bar. I Capture the Castle is one of the most vivid and charming books I've ever read. These are complimentary words, but they are inadequate. It feels like a true account. And the thing you didn't say, which I think is fair warning, is that it is heartbreaking. There's hope in it, but it is terribly sad.

I have induced at least a half dozen people to read it by telling them to just read the opening -- up to "I've decided my poetry is very bad and I mustn't write any more of it" (appx.) -- and saying they could stop at that point if they wanted.
Samantha Brandt
8. Talia
OK, I'm convinced. Bookmarked for future investigation once I get through my current mountain of books.
9. trifles
I used to read this every spring, just so I could get to the end and read the last line. An utterly perfect book.

An additional angle is that it is a startlingly accurate picture of what it is to be the child of a not-particularly-well-off author, when the entire family's income comes from writing. The personal pride that doesn't allow any sort of pity from outsiders for things that are normal for them / not normal for society at large (such as the amount of food available), the need to deal with difficult parental figures who should be providing / aren't providing / too prideful to admit they're not providing, etc. I've come across people who've read this book and thought it was a peculiarity of the story narrative itself, but I rather wonder at Dotie Smith's accuracy at portraying something that does, indeed, occur in the real world.
10. trifles

You know, there are all these "preview comment" things about, and I still manage to misspell the author's name...
11. Lesley Hall
Cold Comfort Farm, the book, is written in third person - I was going to say omniscient, but it's mostly Robert Poste's child's pov, with some shifts to Seth, Reuben, and Aunt Ada Doom (as I recall - oh yes, and Claude wotsis that Flora invites as a partner for the dance, and isn't there some stream-of-consciousy Adam Lambsbreath?), plus the asterisked passages of purple descriptions of nature. The film, however, turned it into a book that might have been written by Flora, with her doing voice-overs of Lawrentian/Hardyesque descriptions of nature (which I thought missed the point a bit).

With I Capture the Castle, might another influence have been Delafield's Diary of a Provincial Lady?

Oh yes, ICC is lovely and I haven't read it in far too long.
12. Rivka
This book is one of a long line of wonderful things I know about because of Jo. It really does have an amazing narrative voice, and is simultaneously so funny and sad.

I lent out my copy years ago and never got it returned, but I was delighted to find it on a used book rack while I was on vacation this summer. Now I can read it again!
Velma deSelby-Bowen
13. VelmadSB
Scraps introduced me to I Capture the Castle early in our relationship; I have bought four copies since then (having found a place a few years ago that had copies for sale), and given three away to coworkers in the same way others have: "Read the first paragraph...".

Scraps is right. It's a heartbreaking book, in many ways, but with hope as well.
Rich Rennicks
14. RichR
I Capture the Castle is awesome, just awesome. It's what I instantly recommend when somebody tells me they haven't read anything good for ages.
15. Jeffrey D. Smith
Jo says: "one of the best first person voices in the history of the universe."

And that is so true.
Andrea Leistra
16. aleistra
Jo, you're doing terrible things to my LibraryThing wishlist. Thanks.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment