Friday reads: I Capture the Castle

Writing Friday Reviews is hard work, and sometime I run out of things to review.  Besides, they can’t be that interesting for those of you who don’t live in NZ and can’t visit the stores I blog about.

So, I’m going to break things up by doing book reviews/recommendations/musings on Friday.  Not the usual book reviews, but reviews of old, historical, and often quite obscure books.

This weeks book isn’t so obscure: it made a list of the 100 most beloved English books, but it is historical, and is well worth reading.

I Capture the Castle is (as I like to say in my brightest schoolmarm voice) “a bittersweet coming of age tale about a young woman discovering the joys and pitfalls of love and life.”

Please don’t hold that against it!

It’s also a beautifully detailed snapshot of English rural life in the 1930’s, and of the peculiar lines that were drawn between the classes in an age when social status was all about your family, and when even the upper class could be destitute.

Most of all, it is a book about fascinating people, so vividly described that you can imagine them rising from the pages of the novel, and become convinced that Dodie Smith must have known the Mortmains, the Cottons, and the other characters who fill the pages and whose loves and aspirations become hopelessly entangles.

You can see Cassandra, the narrator, who is “Jane Eyre with a touch of Becky Sharp”, and looks just like Romney’s ‘Girl with a Mousetrap’, except that instead of feeding the mouse to the hungry cat she would “let the mouse out of the trap and find a nice dead sardine for the cat”.

Girl with a Mousetrap by a follower of Joshua Reynolds, circa 1784

There is also her sister Rose, the frustrated beauty longing for luxury, old fashioned enough to wear a crinoline to a dinner party, and desperately calculating enough to marry for money (or is she?).  Rose is a Romney, quite a bit like Lady Hamilton.

Emma Hart, later Lady Hamilton, in a straw hat by George Romney

Weaving through the story (occasionally wearing nothing more than wellington boots) are a host of other characters.  Their stepmother Topaz is attempting to live up to her strikingly dramatic and unworldly looks, posing well, painting badly, and trying to hide her surprisingly practical nature, a Blake without enough flesh on her bones.

Oberon, Titania and Puck with the fairies dancing, William Blake, ca. 1785

There is also the greasy-haired photographer Leda Fitz-Cotton, a Dali “with snakes coming out of her ears” who pursues Stephen (who longs for Cassandra who loves Simon who adores Rose who really wants…)

Leda Atomica, Salvador Dali

And Stephen himself, the simple, noble farm boy in the guise of a Greek god.

Hiding in the gatehouse is father Mortmain, the failed author, grabbing at herring bones and children’s puzzles as odd inspirations.

Most of all there are the American Cottons, Simon and Neil, shaking up the entire village and the lives of the Mortmains forever.

Finally, there is the castle itself “a crumbling ruin in a sea of mud” or the romantically strange and lonely abode of a Bronte heroine, or just home.

Around the castle are set a series of scenes both fantastically preposterous (Cassandra with green hands, the escaped circus bear, Rose wishing on the devilish angel, midnight swims in the moat, and midsummer rites on the mound) and totally ordinary, so that you see both the possibilities of inventiveness, and the poignantly pragmatic details of poverty in the 1930s.


  1. I heart I Capture the Castle! The movie is good too, although I still like the book better.

    Looking forward to more book reviews! I enjoy the shop reviews too, even if I can’t shop there.

    • Agreed that the movie was good, but also that the book was soooooo much better! Also, there is one scene that differs so much from the book that it drives me crazy! It completely changes the characters intentions. And I love Tara Fitzgerald but she was no Topaz!

  2. I **love** that book! I’m so glad that you have recommended it!

  3. Emily C. says

    Yes! This is one of my favorite books. Cassandra grows so much over the course of the story, and I love the wry humor throughout, the way they make fun of, but also admire, Topaz’s 1930s Arts and Crafts pretensions. And, of course, the way dresses and dress play an integral role in the plot throughout.

    Have you seen the movie version of this? So well done.

  4. Elise says

    No way! I love–love love love this book! I gave it to all of my bridesmaids to read on the plane way home. In fact, I give it to everyone I have a reason to give a book to, and everyone who has never read it before, and everyone just loves it to pieces! As a bonus, the film stars the delicous Henry Cavill.

    Why keep secret Dodie Smith’s more famous book?

    • Best bridesmaid gift EVER!

      I guess I didn’t mention it because I read I Capture the Castle before realising what else she had written, and I think it allowed me to judge it on its own merits. Also, she wrote ICtC first, so the original readers wouldn’t have known either!

      • Elise says

        Fair enough–I actually read the other book, first, and was very happy to find her name in a used book store with ICtC. Thanks so much for the book recommendation! I hope this brings other people to the fun. And although it’s neat to get a peek at the creative sewing life of New Zealand, it’s also fun to have a Dreamstress thumbs up on things non-kiwis can do. What would someone in the Mainland be? An apple? A cranberry? Would the Canadians get jealous?

        • LOL – it took me a while to figure out what you were talking about with fruit! Kiwi’s are named after the bird, not the fruit! Here we call them ‘kiwifruit’ because they are round and brown and fuzzy just like the birds. The fruits original name was chinese gooseberry.

  5. Slight non seqitur but don’t you think the picture of pre Lady Hamilton looks like Shell??

  6. It is a very interesting book and film, as well. I wasn’t taken with it when I first found it. However, the story line has grown on me as I get older.

  7. We read that for book club a couple of years ago! I enjoyed the way it was written, and being American, it was fun to read all the little asides like, “They call it doing the dishes.”

    • That’s one of my favourite things about the book – seeing how both British & American cultures and their perceptions of each other have changed.

  8. Just read the book, thanks to this post, and absolutely loooooooooooooooooved it. Thanks for the recommendation! Now I’m going to have to re-watch the film.

Comments are closed.