I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (1948)

I capture the castle by Dodie Smith

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith was this British author’s first novel. It’s the story of Rose and Cassandra Mortmain, two sisters who are part of an eccentric family living in genteel poverty in a crumbling castle in the 1930s. This coming of age novel has been beloved by young adults ever since it was published in 1948.

One of the many charms of this book are its many allusions to literature. At the time of its publication, Smith was an established playwright, and would later become even better known for the children’s classic, The 101 Dalmatians (1956). I Capture the Castle was as well received by critics as it was by the public; here is one such review:


Succumbing to the book’s charm

Original review of I Capture the Castle in The Ottawa (Ontario) Journal, Oct. 30, 1948:  Even a book reviewer must succumb to sheer charm. When this illusive commodity is fortified by wisdom and enhanced by a deep love of beauty, as in Dodie Smith’s novel, I Capture the Castle, the encounter is apt to upset judgement and sweep one off one’s feet. But the magic stays.

Although Dodie Smith is perhaps England’s most successful playwright – Autumn Crocus and Dear Octopus are her best known on this side of the water — this is her first novel. “I write with great misery,” she explains in a foreword. It is thus she gives her readers great pleasure.

 

The setting — an old ruined castle in Suffolk

The story takes place in Suffolk in an old ruined castle. If the author had not proved herself so skillful at characterization and dialogue, one might almost say the castle itself is the protagonist.

Built originally, by the Normans and later almost destroyed by Cromwell, a house was added during the reign of Charles II, using the old walls. Not far away on a small mound is Belmotte Tower, the remains of some fortification whose origin is lost in antiquity.

Into this strange and lovely setting comes the Mortmain family, equally strange, and, as far as the women are concerned, equally lovely.

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You might also like: Quotes from I Capture the Castle

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The two sisters, Rose and Cassandra

Rose, the eldest daughter, is the beauty, but Cassandra, just seventeen, whose journal tells this story, has a “neat face,” and looks much younger than she is. The father is one of those preposterous, yet attractive, Englishmen of striking appearance, great individuality and enormous charm.

Before the Mortmains came to the castle the father had written a very unusual book called Jacob Wrestling. It had a great success, particularly in America, where he made a lot of money by lecturing, and he seemed likely to become a very important writer.

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I capture the castle

I Capture the Castle on Amazon

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The strange tale of Mr. Mortmain

But one summer afternoon whilst living in a cottage by the sea, Mr. Mortmain lost his temper as he was cutting the cake for tea. He brandished the cake knife so menacingly that a neighbor jumped the garden fence to intervene, and got himself knocked down. 

The case was brought to court and although Mr. Mortmain was exonerated of trying to murder his wife he proved, during the proceedings, to be wittier than the judge so was sent to jail for three months.

Although he came out, although he seemed the same he was a changed man. He never wrote again. Nor did he ever do anything to earn a penny for the family. When his wife dies — of perfectly natural causes —he marries a beautiful artist’s model with the weird name of Topaz, rents the castle on a 40-year leave, and retired to the gate-house for good.

 

Debts mount up

After making the castle habitable and extremely beautiful, there is nothing left to live on. Debts mount up and in spite of the kindness and good nature of the local tradesmen there comes a time when the Mortmains cannot have more credit. The poverty is awful.

They sell everything of value, which tides them over for awhile. Topaz goes to London and works occasionally as a model, but since hers is not a highly paid profession the family remains destitute.

The young boy, Stephen, who does the chores around the place, finally undertakes to support the entire family by working on a neighboring farm. But his pittance merely keeps them from starvation. The girls have no clothes; they meet no one and the father makes no move whatever to do any work.

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The 101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith

Dodie Smith was also the author of
The Hundred and One Dalmatians

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The arrival of the Americans

Then one beautiful day in May the Americans who own the neighboring estate, Scoatney Manor, arrive. It is like manna from heaven. Their first meeting is unorthodox and highly amusing and Rose the great beauty, who had been most irked by poverty, sets her cap for Simon Cotton, owner of the manor, who is young and handsome as well.

The frantic snipping, stitching, cutting and contriving can scarcely be imagined. The great day eventually arrives when the two Cotton boys are to visit them. 

Both Topaz and Cassandra tacitly agree to play up Rose. She alone can retrieve their fortunes. Next day while Cassandra is watching from the barn the two Cotton boys pass on their way to the village.

She listens to them make fun of Rose and the too obvious attempts to ensnare Simon. “We must drop them,” is the awful verdict she hers from both Neil and Simon! So vanishes their only hope of deliverance from abject poverty!!

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I capture the castle film version 2003

2003 film version of I Capture the Castle

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The sisters are humiliated

In awful humiliation the girls resolve never to speak to them again. But since Simon is their landlord and they already owe several years’ rent they dare not be as arrogant as they would like. Trying to avoid them one night at the railway station Rose, wrapped in a hideous fur coat, is mistaken for a bear crouching being the trunks and as she scurries away on all four the entire village gives chase.

As Neil Cotton is about to plunge a pitchfork into the now terrified Rose, she screams just in time to save her life. This absurd incident puts their acquaintance on a new footing, and Rose is given her second chance. This time there will be no mistake.

A compelling story, a commentary on life and love

Whatever her feelings are for Neil, Simon is the one with the money. It is Simon who must be victimized, and thanks to her beauty and the utterly unselfish help she has from both Topaz and Cassandra she succeeds. But the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry, and the book does not turn out this way at all.

Finding out what happens makes rewarding reading. This is a captivating — an enchanting story, bit it is also shrewd commentary on life and art and the complexity of the human heart.

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More about I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

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