Review: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I Capture the Castle is one of those books that sat on my shelf for ages, futilely attempting to draw me in with its awesome sixties cover art and reputation as a classic. Yet, for some reason or another, I never found myself in the right mood to tackle it. Thankfully, that finally changed a few weeks ago, as the last cool wisps of spring were giving way to summer and I was desperately trying to take advantage of my remaining vacation days. Feeling thoroughly in the mood to indulge in all things beautiful, whimsical, and fanciful, I thought the time had finally come to see what magic I Capture the Castle contained. The drafty corriders of a dilapidated English castle might not be an exact corrollary to fading spring weather, but it somehow seemed to fit perfectly into that moment in my life nonetheless.

Above all, I Capture the Castleis an accomplishment in utilizing the narrative

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

structure itself to convey the story’s meaning. I love epistolary-type stories, whether told through letters or diary entries, so Cassandra’s journal account of her family’s various quirky and troubling ways immediately drew me in. Though I usually despair at unending descriptions of scenery and such, Smith’s writing has an ease and poignance that made these early passages some of the most compelling of the whole novel. I luxuriated in the depictions of daily life at the Mortmain home, imagining that I, too, was sitting in a chilly bedroom or dying my garments green or attempting to reach the gargoyle up by the ceiling in the kitchen. Cassandra’s descriptions of her co-inhabitants were slightly more difficult to connect to, as her youthful perceptions paint the secondary characters as rather two-dimensional stand-ins replete with flaws. Still, Cassandra herself was a delightful narrator whose musings were easy to relate to.

As the novel progressed and we met Simon and Neil, I began to sense the story losing some of its effervescent beauty. The plot was somewhat typical, and I despaired at the fact that Smith seemed to be leading us astray from what had promised to be a lighthearted and unique account of an idiosyncratic family. Yet, as the book neared the end, I realized the subtle brilliance of Smith’s intent. She conveys her message not through the novel’s events, which play out much as you would expect at times and, at others, with surprises that do little to endear you further to the characters involved. No, Smith sets about telling her story of loss of innocence and maturation of temperament through the narrative itself; the underlying events are ultimately of little importance. It’s Cassandra’s reaction to them that makes all the difference, as the eager, romantic narrator of the early chapters is nowhere to be seen by novel’s end. Instead, she has been replaced by a sober young woman keen to the fact that, often, that which we steel ourselves to find amusing or exciting is merely disappointing and flawed. Our attempts to romanticize things can blind us to our own unwillingness or incapability to change for the better. While I was dismayed to find Cassandra so changed, to see the happy girl she was lost to the cynicism of adulthood, it was a necessary avenue for Smith to take if she wished to elevate her tale above a superficial child’s story to one that has endured through generations.

Ultimately, I can’t say that I wouldn’t have rathered for the story to retain the inconsequential exuberance of its first half. I was delighted by the beautiful disarray of Cassandra’s life, and would have liked to read more accounts from the view of Cassandra as a young woman not yet wizened to the inadequacies of her own life. Yet, I can’t deny Smith’s success in telling the tale she clearly wished to convey.

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