2016 Classics Challenge: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

“I’ve not started my classics challenge for April yet” I said to my colleague on Friday. “Which one of these will I be able to read by the end of the month?”

Ann perused the list I had thrust before her. “Read I Capture the Castle,” she said, “you’ll get through that one fast.” 

And thus the decision was made. I’ve mentioned before on this blog how much longer it takes me to read classics than contemporary novels. But 4 days on from that conversation I’m more than halfway through this book. And it is my favourite of all the books I’ve read for the challenge so far.

For a start, the opening line is brilliant: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink,” declares Cassandra Mortmain, the seventeen year-old girl who narrates the story through her journal. Cassandra and her family – younger brother Thomas; beautiful elder sister Rose; “unsociable” one-time-writer father; and model stepmother Topaz – live in an old country castle in a state of disrepair. The family are penniless and rely on their lodger Stephen, a young man who has lived with them since he was a boy, to bring in any money at all.

The lives of the family grow more interesting with the arrival of the Cotton brothers, who inherit the nearby Manor House, Scoatney Hall. Despite a bit of an inauspicious start in which Cassandra overhears them describe Rose as “so darned obvious” and herself as “consciously naive,” the two families quickly become friends and it looks as though an engagement between Rose and Simon Cotton could be on the cards. 

Whilst building up her hopes for Simon and Rose, Cassandra also starts to explore her own feelings towards the men in her life. She mentions early on that Stephen is “rather devoted” to her and starts to imagine what it would be like if he were to declare his love. In the same vein, when Rose makes an off-the-cuff remark that Cassandra “can have Neil,” she lets herself “imagine the idea” and fantasises about him proposing.

I haven’t got far enough yet to see which, if any, of these men Cassandra and Rose end up with. But, for me, that’s not what really matters. What I’m enjoying most about this book is seeing the world through Cassandra’s eyes. Her optimism and teenage hopefulness dance across the page – she sees possibility and intrigue in everything and her observations and insights are both humorous and endearing. Through Cassandra, Smith evokes a sense of nostalgia – although Cassandra’s circumstances are far different from my own teenage years, the sense of hopefulness and feeling that ‘something’ is about to happen – without really knowing what that something actually is – is a feeling I remember very well.

I’m glad Ann suggested I read this book this month – not only am I thoroughly enjoying it but the tone of it perfectly matches the Spring season, where possibility and joie de vivre are everywhere.


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