I Capture the Castle (1948)

by Dodie Smith

One of the most beloved novels in Britain, I Capture the Castle is not well known on this side of the pond. Americans, if they know of author Dodie Smith, are more likely to identify her as the writer of The Hundred and One Dalmatians.

That's too bad, because this is a charming novel.

Seventeen-year-old narrator Cassandra Mortmain wants to be a writer and is developing her skills in a journal, where she intends "to capture all our characters and put in conversations." Her family lives in a ramshackle rented castle. Her father, James, once wrote an influential book and is now suffering from a severe case of writer's block. Her bohemian stepmother, Topaz, is an artist's model. Her older sister, Rose, is beautiful but disheartened by poverty and the lack of prospects. There are also two younger men in the household: Thomas, Cassandra and Rose's brother, and Stephen, whose late mother had been the family maid when they could still afford one. As James spends his time reading detective novels, his impoverished family is barely surviving, having even to sell much of the furniture.

Into the picture arrive two American brothers, Simon and Neil Cotton, whose recently departed British father had owned the castle. That makes Simon, the heir, the Mortmains' new landlord, and Rose unsubtly pursues him to escape from poverty. Cassandra's feelings, romantic and otherwise, bounce between younger and older brother and Stephen, who adores her. While Rose's romantic life is resolved surprisingly, Cassandra realizes she needs more wisdom before she can say "I do." But she and Thomas prove themselves wise in understanding the psychology of their father, executing a plan to reignite his creative spark.

Cassandra is an endearing narrator — candid, perceptive beyond her years, and charming. She makes  I Capture the Castle appealing to everyone from teenagers on up.


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