Published by Vintage on 2004 (originally 1949)
Genres: Historical Fiction, Romance, Young Adult
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Cassandra Mortmain lives with her bohemian and impoverished family in a crumbling castle in the middle of nowhere. Her journal records her life with her beautiful, bored sister, Rose, her fadingly glamorous stepmother, Topaz, her little brother Thomas and her eccentric novelist father who suffers from a financially crippling writer's block.
However, all their lives are turned upside down when the American heirs to the castle arrive and Cassandra finds herself falling in love for the first time.
It’s no secret that I love castles of all sorts. For Aussies, castles only exist as fairytale places for us until we are lucky enough to travel overseas to see a real one. When I finally got to, I turned into rabid castle addict and wide-eyed child despite being in my twenties, and dragged my poor husband around to see as many as possible! When I saw that this book was about a family living in a ruined castle I made sure to keep an eye out for a copy, and I’m so glad I did!
In the 1930s, the Mortmain family live in an old manor house next to a ruined castle in Sussex – seventeen year old Cassandra, her eccentric author father, her bohemian step-mother Topaz, her older sister Rose and younger brother Thomas. Cassandra’s father had great success with one book, but a rather traumatic experience landed him in a three-month jail term, and since his release he hasn’t been able to write a thing. I Capture the Castle is the story of the family and their struggles to make ends meet, plus the events that unfold when two young (and eligible) American gentlemen come to stay as their landlords.
Cassandra is the narrator of the story as she writes about the events in her journals – at first a cheap sixpenny exercise book but gradually filling up more and more books with the tale. She is a whimsical and fanciful storyteller – full of life and observations about her world and people around her. It starts out as a young girl describing the English countryside in gorgeous prose as the seasons turn, but then as Neil and Simon Cotton, the half-American heirs to the castle arrive, a new element is introduced to the tale as the girls vie for their attention. As the story progresses it becomes less of the whimsical tale I enjoyed so much at the beginning, and it all changes into a bit of a maudlin mess. Thankfully I thought the ending redeemed itself.
With the girls trying to catch the two gentlemen as eligible husbands, fans of Pride and Prejudice should enjoy this story – in fact Jane Austen and others such as the Brontes are mentioned a few times.
The characters pop off the page. Each character is so unique and captured perfectly, but the English countryside is almost a character in its own right – described in loving detail the feel of each season, of the quality of long twilights, dark cold nights and misty mornings – reading this book made me very homesick for England as my second home (it’s been five years this year since we left!).
I first heard about this book when it was mentioned as being a favourite of JK Rowling. If you’re not a HP fan don’t let that put you off – this is a completely different style of book, but I can understand why anyone would count this book among their favourites. It has an amazing vibrancy that I wouldn’t have thought typical of a story told in journal form.
Incidentally, Dodie Smith was a successful West End playwright but was also known for another of her children’s books – The Hundred and One Dalmatians. She wrote I Capture the Castle while living in America in 1945 – perhaps where the slightly homesick feelings are coming from!
– A delightful romance perfect for Austen fans and Anglophiles.