I don’t make a habit of reading teenage fiction, I think there are enough books for adults out there to entertain me (note I didn’t say “adult books” – I am a 50 Shades abstainer!). I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith is classed in some quarters as teenage fiction. However, a good friend whose reading habits I respect (except that phase she went through of reading the True Blood series, we shall say no more on the matter..) had nothing but good things to say about this book so I bought it last time I was at the second-hand book shop. The cover of my version is the one pictured – shocking. If one thing puts me off books it is movie-tie-in covers, but as the old adage goes, don’t judge a book and all that. I Capture the Castle begins to deliver as soon as you open that cover with a first line to match other classic memorable first lines “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” The voice belongs to 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain and her journal forms the book. Cassandra and her bohemian family (sister Rose, brother Thomas, step-mother Topaz, father known as Mortmain and family friend Steven) live in respectable poverty inhabiting a dilapidated castle in the Norfolk countryside. The arrival of two American brothers, one of whom has inherited the neighbouring stately home, changes their lives and brings upheaval to the family.
Cassandra wants to be a writer, so writing her journal is a means of practising her art. Her observations are naively perceptive, understandable for one so worldly unwise, yet touching, sometimes acutely accurate and often reminiscent of the musings many teenage girls have at that age; where do you belong in the hierarchy, what should you do when you are older, does God really exist, why are men interested in some girls and not others? It is an honest confessional and at times highly amusing. There are some lovely one-liners that really made me smile, a couple of my favourites (and there are many) are:
“And no bathroom on earth will make up for marrying a bearded man you hate.”
“It was a wonderful dinner with real champagne (lovely, rather like very good
ginger ale without the ginger)”
This is a book where things happen to characters so their lives can move on to the next chapter. Almost every character goes through some sort of rites of passage, revelation or epiphany, all of it beautifully observed by Cassandra, one of the most memorable first person narrators I have read in a long time. I enjoyed inhabiting the shabby, tumbledown world of the Mortmain household. Although she sees the benefits a rich London life can offer, Cassandra realises the castle has a poetic hold over her despite its impracticality and its damp and cold in winter.
Dodie Smith wrote this at a time when she was desperate to be at home in England, but the war prevented her. You can almost feel the yearning for the English countryside and Englishness in general. It is an incredibly romantic book in every sense and meaning and in the words of Martha and the Muffins “I know it’s out of fashion, and a trifle uncool. But I can’t help it, I’m a romantic fool”