I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Review by Hannah Luppe

Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1948

400 pages. Hardcover. CAN $26.99. ISBN: 9781250146694

Ages 13-18

Romance, Fiction

“There is only one page left to write on. I will fill it with words of only one syllable. I love. I have loved. I will love.”

You’ve heard this story before: a fair maiden waits, trapped in her ivory tower for her happily ever after to arrive on horseback in the form of a charming prince. In many ways, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle feels plucked from the same sort of fairy tale: Cassandra, our fair maiden, lives with her impoverished family in a crumbling castle until two dashing Americans, our charming princes, arrive. It’s a tale as old as time, really, but Smith does not allow Cassandra’s problems to be solved by a magic wand or a kiss on the lips. Told through a series of journal entries, I Capture the Castle is much more than a simple fairy tale—it is a heartfelt coming-of-age novel about a young girl grappling with both a castle and a society that attempt to trap her within the strict confines of womanhood.

Set in 1930s Britain, the Mortmain family is full of eccentric characters from Cassandra’s sister, Rose, who seems plucked from a Jane Austen novel to their stepmother, Topaz, who dabbles in public nudity. They all live in a castle that Mr. Mortmain bought in the hopes of overcoming his writer’s block, but alas, he has still failed to write a single word since his bestselling debut was published ten years prior. With virtually no income, the family is destitute with little hope of their situation improving. That is until the Cotton brothers—Neil and Simon—move into town. Desperate to provide for herself and her family, Rose latches onto Simon and hopes that once he shaves his beard, she will be able to love him. This, dear reader, ends exactly how you might expect: poorly. Sprinkle in a few ghastly fur coats, medieval dungeons, and loads of infidelity and you have a delightfully fun chronicle of two sisters trying to understand not only themselves and each other, but also how they fit into the society beyond the castle walls.

I Capture the Castle is, at its heart, a love story, but not in the way I expected it to be. Yes, there are plenty of heart flutters and first kisses, but as I mentioned above, this is not your ordinary fairy tale, and not every character gets that famed happily ever after—at least, not in the traditional sense. Romance certainly has its place here, but I found the relationships between the women in this novel to be the most genuine depictions of love. With a mostly absent father and the rare chat with her little brother, Cassandra’s frequent interactions are with Rose and Topaz. In fact, much of the book revolves around Cassandra building, breaking, and healing the complicated relationship she has with her sister. The interactions between these three women—none of whom quite fit into socially acceptable molds of womanhood—are ultimately what set this novel apart. I Capture the Castle allows women to have flaws, to make mistakes, and to grow from those mistakes, a message I believe is still incredibly relevant for young readers today.

As Cassandra ends her journal, she contemplates if she has indeed captured the castle, and it is up to the reader to decide whether she has succeeded. Fairy tales so often assert the idea that women are either wicked witches or fair maidens, but Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle offers a different kind of fairy tale—one that allows womanhood to be an expansive and freeing process instead of a confining and controlling one. For many readers including myself, Cassandra captures much more than the castle—she captures the nuances of girlhood, the complexities of female relationships, and, ultimately, herself.

Hannah Luppe is currently completing her MA in Children’s Literature at UBC. She is the managing editor of Young Adulting Review.

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