How do you put into words the anguish and ecstasy of first love? Dodie Smith managed that and much more in her 1948 novel, I Capture the Castle, a YA (young adult) novel of the first rate, written long before the term was coined.
It’s 1930’s England. Teenaged Cassandra Mortmain lives with her impoverished though genteel family in a run-down castle. They have a 40-year lease on the place, though they haven’t paid rent in years. Thank goodness the landlord doesn’t ask for payment, because the Mortmains rarely have more than potatoes to eat.
Cassandra’s father, whom everyone calls Mortmain (I note this means “dead hand” in French), once wrote a great novel called Jacob Wrestling. Everyone’s waiting for the next book, but Jacob Wrestling has crippled him. The book was a groundbreaker, great and famous, but it’s been years now and still Mortmain cannot bring himself to write more. In an era when it was unseemly in a proper family for the females to work, Mortmain sits in his study in the gatehouse reading mystery novels and solving crossword puzzles, unable to support his family.
Cassandra, on the other hand, writes all the time, not caring if what she writes is good. She cares only to write what’s in her heart. I Capture the Castle is her journal.
After the death of his first wife, Mortmain has married a beautiful artist’s model named Topaz, who loves Mortmain even more than she loves “communing with nature” in the altogether. Cassandra’s younger brother Thomas is bright and does well in school. A young man, Stephen, who has grown up with the Mortmains, continues to serve them faithfully since they cared for him after the death of his mother, their one-time maid. In fact it’s thanks to Stephen that they have any money at all. A few irregular bits trickle in from Mortmain’s book sales, but Stephen works extra hours for a nearby farmer and, out of loyalty and his love for Cassandra, shares his earnings with the Mortmains in the form of gifts and food.
Cassandra’s older sister, Rose, is of marriageable age and has ambitions in that arena. At first there’s no local young man for her to set her sights on, but then along come two rich American brothers, the Cottons. They inherit the manor house and the grounds on which the old castle stands. The new landlords are both young and handsome, and Rose wants desperately to impress them. It doesn’t matter which one. There are some fun and excruciating missteps, but eventually she manages to snag a marriage proposal.
The Mortmains’ poverty makes it difficult to impress the Cottons. At one point, in order to give her sister some time alone with one of the brothers, Cassandra takes a swim in the castle moat with the other.
“’…you’re beginning to shiver—so am I.’ He took his arm from my shoulders. ‘Come on, where do we find towels?’
Never has such an innocent question so kicked me in the solar plexus. Towels! We have so few that on wash-days we just have to shake ourselves.”
The Cottons, however, are genuinely good people who are impressed with Mortmain’s literary achievement. The free rent continues, and other kindnesses begin, some so lavish that Stephen’s contributions are painfully overshadowed.
The story’s drama comes from several directions. The contrast between Cassandra’s innocent romanticism and Rose’s more calculating moves makes for intensity, and, to be expected in a story set in the 1930’s, the characters rarely dare to speak their true needs. Cassandra writes her innermost feelings in her journal, but she can’t express them to those around her, nor can her loved ones express themselves to her. Smith’s talent in showing emotion through action demonstrates each character’s motivations, fears and pain.
Cassandra complains to Simon Cotton of this inability to speak openly.
“’…oh, Simon, I feel so resentful! Why should father make things so difficult? Why can’t he say what he means plainly?’
‘Because there is so much that just can’t be said plainly. Try describing what beauty is—plainly—and you’ll see what I mean.’”
Beauty, or first love.
Between Simon, Neil, and young Stephen, Cassandra perhaps makes the wrong choice. But it doesn’t matter. She’s in love. She spends a lot of time crying about it and writing about it in her journal. In other words, she’s normal. If I remember correctly.
“Wakings are the worst times—almost before my eyes are open a great weight seems to roll on to my heart. I can usually roll it off a bit during the day—for one thing, food helps quite a lot, unromantic as that sounds. I have grown more and more ravenous as I have grown more and more miserable. Sleep is wonderful, too…”
Some novels move slowly because, although there are a lot of words, nothing’s going on. And some novels, like this one, move slowly because so much is going on and there’s so much to show and say, that you want to gobble up the story like your favorite comfort food. I Capture the Castle is not a fast-paced novel of non-stop action. This is a lavish, sweet story that I could not put down. Through Smith’s words in Cassandra’s voice, a girl matures to womanhood as she writes of a village, a manor home, a ruined castle, a moat, a Midsummer night’s pagan fire, and first love.
Dodie Smith’s first novel, I Capture the Castle, was published in 1948 and was made into a film in 2003. It’s available for purchase online and at Pasadena and Glendale libraries. Smith is best known for her 1956 novel, The One Hundred and One Dalmatians.
Petrea Burchard is a Pasadena photographer, blogger, voice-over talent and author. Her story “Portraits” is included in Literary Pasadena (Prospect Park Books, 2013). She contributes book reviews to Hometown Pasadena, for which we and our readers are very grateful. Find more Petrea doings, writings, and photography at PetreaBurchard.com and LivingVicuriously.
Petrea’s novel, Camelot & Vine, can be bought locally at the Pasadena Museum of History, Hoopla! in Altadena and the Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse. The ebook version is available on Amazon.com.
Photo, top right, Robin Hall [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Photo, Brockholes Wood, John Fielding [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Photo, still from I Capture the Castle (2003), directed by Tim Fywell.
Photo, Horsford Woods, by Evelyn Simak [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.