Dodie Smith’s novel is just like any other charming British novel set in the countryside in the 1930s: the landscape is glorious, the cupboard is bare, and the characters eccentric. I Capture the Castle opens with the wonderful line “I am sitting in the kitchen sink as I write this.” The “I” is Cassandra Mortmain, the 17-year old narrator of the novel (which is, in fact, her journal). She is keeping vigil over her stepmother, Topaz, and her elder sister, Rose, as they attempt to rejuvenate their ragtag wardrobes with a healthy dose of green dye. Unfortunately, this lends both their clothes and their skin an interesting virescence – a state that is much lamented when their new, handsome, wealthy American neighbors come calling. This episode is just one of the many very human portraits that Cassandra draws, wittily and honestly, with her stub of a pencil. And just like humanity, I Capture the Castle manages to be funny and sad at the same time.
The castle in question, where the Mortmains reside, is magnificent but dilapidated. This state of affairs seemed romantic to the family once, but now it is simply mournful. No member of Cassandra’s family escapes her keen sense of observation, and she certainly has no shortage of material. The characters are already caricatures of themselves, even without Cassandra’s commentary. Her father is a brilliant author with one highly lauded book, whose inspiration has vanished since Cassandra’s mother died when the girls were young. When he does on occasion become inspired, he smashes pottery and stores day-old kippers in his briefcase. Rose, Cassandra’s older sister and the classic beauty of the family, is hell-bent on finding a rich husband to save her family from the castle’s gloom. Simon and Neil Cotton, the two handsome Americans, become the main targets of her affection.
The youngest Mortmain is Thomas, an extremely intelligent child who gets a bit lost in the shuffle of his family’s larger-than-life personalities. The largest personality of all is the children’s stepmother Topaz (“not an evil one,” Cassandra hastens to assure us when she is introduced). Topaz was a muse for the great artists of London before she married James Mortmain, and she suffers woefully if she does not think she’s inspiring a great man, so James’s lack of creative output is very hard on her. And finally, there is Stephen – a young man in love with Cassandra, who has been the jack-of-all trades for the Mortmains for years, and who (according to Topaz) looks like “all the Greek gods rolled into one.”
Cassandra Mortmain is a paradigm of a writer – a literary Rumplestiltskin, who turns her world into narrative gold. The plot is warm, amusing and thoroughly delightful, but that isn’t the source of the book’s magic. The source is Cassandra’s narrative voice. Cassandra “captures the castle” with prose that is inquisitive, solemn, witty, and piercingly perceptive by turns. A book written in the voice of a young girl runs the risk of seeming consciously naïve, but Dodie Smith and Cassandra avoid this peril altogether. Instead, her writing is very wise and very young – wistfulness and cynicism engage in hand-to-hand combat almost daily.
To whom does one give credit for such a resilient voice? Once in a great while one stumbles upon a narrator who is so flesh-and-blood that giving credit wholly to the author seems unfair. Surely Cassandra simply walked into Dodie Smith’s mind, fully formed, out of her dank castle and across the English countryside.
I’ll leave you with a souvenir from the ever-marvelous Amazon, where I found a comment from a reader who had written a letter of admiration to Dodie Smith herself in the 1980’s. The reader was generous enough to share Smith’s reply on Amazon. The section below shows that the characters remained as alive for Smith as they will remain for all of her readers.
“I don’t even like to think of the future of the characters because I don’t want them to grow older. I’ve been asked again and again to say whom Cassandra marries but I’ve no idea. I like to think of her just hopeful for the future and I shall let myself think you and I share this idea. I am now 89 and sometimes (but only sometimes) almost feel it, but not when I think about Cassandra. Thank you again for your letter which has given me great pleasure. And I like to think that in some mysterious realm of the imagination, the characters in my book are pleased too and send you their love – with mine.”