I Capture the Castle, published in 1949, is the tale of an eccentric poverty-stricken family living in a decrepit, crumbling yet picturesque castle: seventeen-year-old Cassandra aims to practice her writing skills since she no longer attends school by speedwriting in her notebook. Cassandra records day-to-day anecdotes about living with her older sister Rose, who is desperate to marry rich; her reclusive father, and once famous author, Mortmain, who now spends most of his time reading detective novels in the attic; and Topaz, his much younger lutenist wife. The Mortmain household is depressive, stagnant and extremely poor until two Americans arrive at the village to claim their inheritance.
I Capture the Castle is very much a character-driven novel. Cassandra reminded me a lot of one of my other favourite fictional heroines from classic literature – Anne in Anne of Green Gables. Cassandra is witty, intelligent and imaginative, and has a talent for closely watching and understanding other people. She can be quite blunt to the point of rudeness, and the diary-like narrative only serves to make it even more enjoyable: ‘Stephen is coming across the courtyard… He is eighteen now, very fair and noble-looking but his expression is just a fraction daft’ and then a few pages later ‘It was most unfair of me to say he looks a fraction daft‘.
Each person, for they jump out of the page too much to be called characters, in I Capture the Castle adds a little more colour to the already dazzling story, from Neil and Simon, our American visitors, to the family they bring with them. It’s easy to tell who Cassandra is talking about even without her mentioning them by name because they all have distinctive traits, and the reader gets to greet each person Cassandra meets. After all, what else is there to do in a run-down castle, but talk with other people? Speaking of which, the castle itself almost becomes a character; I came to know it quite well. I’d know which way to turn and which stairwells to avoid due to years of deterioration. I Capture the Castle does not simply tell you about 1930s English countryside, it draws you completely in.
I Capture the Castle is an insightful, veritable snapshot of the lives of at times the very ordinary, and other times very extraordinary, Mortmain family, from March to October of the same year. I loved watching each character develop throughout the story, as the seasons change, when their new neighbours alter their lives forever, and in a way that isn’t very black and white. I Capture the Castle is an underrated children’s classic, overshadowed by 101 Dalmatians, also by Dodie Smith, that needs to be read by anybody looking for something more.
If you have been convinced to read I Capture the Castle, I would suggest the beautiful Vintage Children’s Classics edition, which includes discussion questions, a quiz, and a who’s who guide at the end.
Published: 2012, originally 1949
Publisher: Vintage Children’s Classics