Book Review: “I Capture the Castle”

I capture the castleTitle: I Capture the Castle
Author: Dodie Smith
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication Date: Originally, 1948. This edition, 1998.
Paperback: 342 pages
Is There a Pooka in This Book? No. And I wouldn’t change a thing.

Two of my dear friends whom I trust very much recommended this book to me over a year ago. Why did I wait so long before reading it, you ask? For two reasons. 1) I am a horrible, hypocritical brat and though I do a lot of suggesting myself, I rarely read things that are suggested to me. And 2) The book tricked me!

I Capture the Castle is a sneaky, sneaky book. It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing! It’s fresh, current metafiction in stodgy, British, 1940s crinoline!  How was I to know? Though it’s almost a sin to admit it during this wave of anglophile fever (thanks a lot, “Downton Abbey”), I’ve never been one for the Brit Lit. I’ll take Auster over Austen any day. Add to that the fact that the novel’s written in diary-format, and that it was first published in 1948, and you’ve got something I’m pretty much guaranteed to hate. Except I didn’t. I loved it. I loved it so, so much. So if you’re like me and you’ve resisted reading this book, stop resisting. Ignore all of the facts that I’ve written about it already and ignore the brief outline I’m about to write.

I Capture the Castle is a fictional, personal, diary account of a pivotal year in seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain’s life. She lives in a castle – but it’s a crumbling castle and her family has very little. Her father wrote a very literary, very well-received novel over a decade ago but he hasn’t written a word since. Her mother died awhile back and is just a shadow in her mind. In addition to her father, she now lives with her stepmother, Topaz, her older sister, Rose, her younger brother, Thomas, and Stephen, who is sometimes more like their servant and sometimes more like an honorary family member. They pay him no wages but he stays on because he’s head-over-heels in love with Cassandra. The family has no income, their clothes are hopelessly outdated rags, they’ve long since stopped paying rent, and they’ve sold most of their furniture in order to eat. Things are looking pretty dire. Then, the owner of the castle dies, leaving the inheritance to a young, unmarried American boy – Simon – who comes to stay in the main house with his mother and his (conveniently also unmarried) younger brother, Neil. Most of the novel is dedicated to four main questions:

1) Will Mortmain (the father) ever write again?

2) Will Simon fall for Rose’s charms & marry her, thereby saving Cassandra’s family from poverty?

3) Will Simon shave his beard?

4) Will Cassandra end up with Simon’s brother,  the wise-ass but playful Neil (& make a neat & tidy match?), or with Stephen, who is loyal, and hard-working, and earnest and lovely?

There are twists and turns and mix-ups along the way. So, it’s an English story about love & class with a strong-minded, independent heroine. She even likes to go for walks. What’s so fresh about that? (::Cough, cough:: “Pride and Prejudice” ::cough::).

Nothing. And everything.

Because that’s the surface plot – and who cares what a story’s about, really?

Here endeth the part that you can ignore. And the brevity.

What Made The Story Totally Worth Eating:

1) Cassandra:
a) She’s delightfully strange. You need only to read the first line of her journal to see my point. She begins, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink” (3), which, she reasons, is perfectly sound because “sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring” (3). Cassandra lets her freak flag fly – but in a way that is completely unassuming, unpretentious, and natural. She does it without thought – it is only for herself and how she is. She’s not being performative in the slightest (unlike her also delightfully strange stepmother, who acts out her role of “artist” all of the time. As if there are people hanging out in the bushes, waiting to leap out and call her a poseur the second they see her fully-clothed, just calmly eating a slice of toast).

b) She “takes care” – both of people and with her writing. She always makes sure she’s home to feed her father, she’s considerate of others’ feelings, and every word in her journal seems measured and weighted. Though it’s continually pointed out that she’s young (which is a bit confusing because I thought seventeen was a fairly “adult” and “marriageable” age for the early 1900s), she’s neither selfish nor a brat.

c) She lies to herself about the things that I lie to myself about – but she makes herself face the truth in the next breath. There are a lot of girls my age (the equivalent of late 20s in Pooka years), who pretend that they are casual and cool and content in their relationships with the status quo. Then, they secretly plan their weddings on Pinterest and cross their fingers hoping for a proposal. Not me. I’m ready, and waiting, and Boyfriend knows it. I’m not going to pretend to be embarrassed about it – I don’t see why I should. (At the same time, I try to be understanding and not force the issue. It’s not a decision that should be taken lightly, and there are a lot of practical concerns that I don’t really think about because I’m a fairy and I prefer to live with my pooka head in the clouds and just think dreamily about things like “love”. I’ll let him be practical – and if that means I’ve got to wait a bit ’til things make “sense”, then okay. Sense, sense, who needs sense?). Here’s the lie Cassandra & I sometimes tell ourselves: “Perhaps it would be rather dull to be married and settled for life” (342). And here’s the truth directly following: “Liar! It would be heaven” (342).

d) She’s funny – sometimes in a big way and sometimes in small observations. For instance, I laughed aloud when I read her description of a singular piece of furniture. She describes a chest of drawers as being “painted to look like marble, but looking more like bacon” (12). She’s funny even when she’s sad, noting from out her black cloud, “the weight on my heart was the worst I had ever known… it was so bad that I found myself going ’round and leaning against walls – I can’t think why misery makes me lean against walls, but it does” (238). Damned if I haven’t pathetically leaned against a wall or two…

e) She’s open to everything. A lot of people are closed, but not Cassandra. She’s open to beauty and sunshine and rain and nudity and literature and paganism and atheism and Catholicism and England and America, and, and, and… There’s nothing she won’t give a fighting chance.
It’s said of her father that he “has iron in his soul.” But not her. Her manner can be misinterpreted as “consciously naive,” but she’s neither hard nor critical and I think it’s a beautiful way to aspire to be.

Enough prattling about Cassandra.

2) It’s metafiction in disguise!
There are various books within the book. There are Cassandra’s journals (3 of them), the mysteries Mortmain reads, Mortmain’s first novel Jacob Wrestling (an allusion to a story within another book – The Bible), his potentially forthcoming writing, the writing Cassandra used to do (poetry and stories), and a novel that Rose reads. All comments upon literature are comments upon I Capture the Castle itself! Rose drops her book because it’s “too pretty to be bearable” (24), letting readers know Dodie Smith will strive not to make the same mistake. Cassandra also complains about “novel[s] with a brick-wall happy ending… the kind of ending when you never think any more about the characters”(197). This is a clue that I Capture the Castle won’t have that type of ending – though of course we want the ending to be happy! And finally, there’s Mortmain’s review of Cassandra’s earlier writing as “a combination of stateliness with a desperate effort to be funny” (4), which, you can tell, is what Dodie Smith worries her writing is. (She needn’t have worried). There’s also endless musing on the ability of the written word to adequately capture feelings and images, and a whole discussion on what it means to “create” – and how a reader can “create” along with a writer, actively participating in a story (337).

3) The vicar’s thoughts about religion as art.
So, sometimes the vicar falls into the traps that make me not like religion so much. He talks about sacrifice and finding the Lord in times of sadness and despair. But – he also says some really smart things that I wholeheartedly agree with. See, in college, I majored in Literature and Religious Studies (not because I’m pious or devout or sure about anything –  but because it’s interesting). So this whole discussion that Cassandra and the vicar had made me so excited! Eeeeeeee! Okay. There’s no way I can paraphrase. I’d be doing Dodie Smith a disservice. This deserves to be read in all  – or at least most -of its lengthy glory. Following is the chat the two share while drinking by the fire:

” ‘Religion has a chance of a look-in whenever the mind craves solace in music or poetry — in any form of art at all. Personally, I think it is an art, the greatest one; an extension of the communion all other arts attempt.’
‘I suppose you mean communion with God.’
He [the vicar] gave such a snort of laughter that his madeira went the wrong way.
‘What on earth did I say that was funny?’ I asked, while he was mopping his eyes.
“It was the utter blankness of your tone. God might have been a long, wet week – which He’s certainly treating us to.’ He glanced at the window. The rain had started again, so heavily that the garden beyond the streaming panes was just a blur of green. ‘ How the intelligent young do fight shy the mention of God! It makes them feel both bored and superior.’
I tried to explain: ‘ Well, once you stop believing in an old gentleman with a beard… It’s only the word ‘God’, you know – it makes such a conventional noise.’
‘It’s merely shorthand for where we come from, where we’re going, and what it’s all about.’
‘ And do religious people find out what it’s all about? Do they really get the answer to the riddle?’
‘They get a whiff of an answer sometimes.’

Then, there’s an elaborate metaphor of faith as a slot machine that isn’t worth mentioning, after which the vicar advises Cassandra:

‘Try sitting in an empty church.’
‘And listening for a whiff?’
We both laughed and then he said that it was just as reasonable to talk of smelling or tasting God as of seeing or hearing Him. ‘If one ever has any luck, one will know with all one’s senses — and none of them.’ ” (234-235).

The whole thing is perfect. So many things are touched upon. Not only religion as art, but the infuriating stance that most of my generation takes toward religion: bored and superior. As if the dismissal of an elderly man in the sky who judges you and makes your football team win or lose is equivalent with a dismissal of religion and spirituality itself. It makes me crazy. What the priest says is so much how I feel. God, religion – “it’s merely shorthand for where we come from, where we’re going, and what it’s all about” – and that’s not something that should be so easily dismissed. Religion, at its best, is creativity and an expression of ideas – sometimes ugly and sometimes beautiful. For me, being spiritual isn’t going to church or praying (which I actually don’t do very much); it’s an exercise in aestheticism, not asceticism. As Cassandra says, “Certainly I’ve never felt any sense of communion with God while praying — the only flicker of that I ever had was during those few minutes I wandered round King’s Crypt cathedral at sunset” (236). The few minutes she’s referring to are recorded earlier in her diary: “It was a queer sort of night. The full moon was hidden by clouds but had turned them silver so that the sky was quite light… Once I really looked at the sky, I wanted to go on looking; it seemed to draw me towards it and make me listen hard, though there was nothing to listen to, not so much as a twig stirring. When Stephen came back I was still gazing upwards” (22). My experience with “feelings of communion” is quite the same. I’ve felt them only while standing in the ocean during a rainstorm, while observing each individual leaf on a tree blowing in the wind and then stepping back and watching the whole tree dance, while catching a flock of birds descend upon a different tree, as if its core were infused with a special bird-magnet. I’ve felt “God” only while using “all of my senses and none of them.” But I digress…

4) The part with the “bear.” I’ll just leave that vague to entice you… Who doesn’t like bears? They’re so furry and fierce.

What I Spit Back Out:

Nothing. Seriously. Not a thing. I ate it up. I love it as much as I love raisins. As much as I love making mischief. As much as I love bananas. As much as I love hay. More, even. I never knew I could love anything more than hay. Even a thousand-year-old fey can learn something new about herself by reading a damned good novel. Which is exactly what “I Capture the Castle” is.

… Oh, and did I mention that the author is the same woman who wrote 101 Dalmatians? Mind blown.

Pooka Rating: 5 out of 5 Nibbles.

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About pookapicks

I'm a 20-something gal working in Children's Library Services. My likes include googly eyes, coffee, magical realism, leading Story Hours, and forcing my taste in books down people's throats. I have a pet rabbit named Moxie Crimefighter.
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5 Responses to Book Review: “I Capture the Castle”

  1. megann31 says:

    This is probably the only time that we are going to agree on both liking the same book, as I tend to enjoy the British literature that you so clearly do not. It’s been a while since I have read this, and so will probably have to read it again and look for all of the things that you saw. Such as the bear (although you did just explain that to me), and her ability to leave her freak flag flying.

    I hope the movie lives up to your expectations! 🙂

  2. Pingback: Pooka Quick Pick #2: “Bitter Blood” | The Pooka Picks

  3. Arianne says:

    As I was reading this post it seemed very familiar. Turns out they made a movie based on this book and since I love period dramas and watch every one I can get my hands on, I’ve seen it. I doubt the movie is as magical as the book was to you, because it focuses much more on the love story than the metafiction and religious reflection. Here it is on IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0300015/

    • pookapicks says:

      I borrowed it from the library the other day & it’s actually sitting on my coffee table waiting to be watched. I’ve been told it’s actually pretty good. And weirdly, Riley (from Buffy) is in it.

  4. Pingback: Book Review #20: Kill Me Softly | The Pooka Picks

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