I Capture the Castle is a coming-of-age story by Dodie Smith, published in 1948, which focuses on the lives of the Mortmain family. The household consists of Mortmain, the father and eccentric writer of the family who has been struggling from writer’s block ever since the success of his first novel. Then there is his second wife Topaz, the eldest daughter Rose, the youngest sibling Thomas, and the live-in son, Stephen. Finally, there is Cassandra, who is our protagonist and through whose witty and honest diary entries this story is told. The Mortmains are a poor and bohemian family who live in a decaying but ever-romantic castle in England. The story follows the characters’ difficulties in romance, family life and growing up in the 1930s. 

The main catalyst for the events of the novel is the arrival of an American family, specifically the two unmarried sons, Simon and Neil. Rose decides she wants to marry Simon, who is the eldest, which launches the Mortmain girls into a life of romance, glamour and new relationships. The fact that the only way for the Mortmain girls to escape poverty is to marry wealthy men is a sad insight into the lives of women in the 1930s. However, both girls possess autonomy and ambition and use their intelligence to get what they want. Whether that is Rose who ruthlessly schemes and seduces Simon, or Cassandra who pursues her dream of becoming a writer and seeks an education, both show complexity and heart. 

As a teenager, this was one of my favourite novels. I fell in love with the beautiful setting of a castle in the English countryside, the ever optimistic lead heroine and the very honest portrayal of first love. This is a novel I would re-read every summer, and every time I would take away something different from it. Whilst this is indeed a story about love, I found most of the true romance was instead the romantic lens through which our heroine views life and relationships. When I first read this I was 14 and had yet to experience much of life and love. I thought the love-interests and heartache was something to aspire and look forward to. It was every bit the romantic novel. Now that I am older and (slightly) wiser, it becomes a very different reading experience. Instead, this makes for a beautifully nostalgic interpretation of youth, infatuation and the painful love that comes with it. It shows how dangerous it is to tell young girls that all they can and should aspire to is romance and marriage. It can all crumble in a heartbeat and blind you in the process. Indeed, the strongest and most enduring relationship and portrayal of love in the novel is the one between the two sisters. It shows no matter what they go through, they ultimately support and love each other, which is a positive message to send to young girls about female friendships and family.

As a novel, this is a wonderful insight into girlhood and how warped ideas of romance and beauty are so pushed onto young girls that it can confuse what is real, healthy love and what is merely the idea of it. Cassandra is a character I deeply related to in my teenage years. She desires to escape from her isolated life, and is clearly ready for the next adventure, but also possesses a deep fear of losing her childhood and growing up and away from her family. 

Dodie Smith pieces together a beautiful tapestry of what it means to come-of-age, and all the emotions and difficulties that come with it, which still resonates 70 years after its publication.

-Harriet Kent
Junior GIrl
Girl Museum Inc.

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