Classics Club Spin Read: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (1948)

This is actually the very first book I read for my Classics Club challenge. It's delightful to feel that I've gotten started on this project, finally, after 8 months of having no interest in beginning. So it was probably providential that I began with a book I had never read and really had no knowledge about. I not only read the book, but also went out of my way to watch the film adaptation for I Capture the Castle from 2003, so I will also include a write-up about the movie at the end of this post.

For the uninformed, this story is essentially the journal of a young 17-year-old girl named Cassandra Mortmain and takes place sometime in the 1930s. Cassandra has inherited her father's gift for prose, but unlike him, she does not suffer from writer's block. Her family lives in a castle but are actually the poorest of the families in the area, to say nothing of being a bit odd. Her father, a man who goes by his surname, wrote exactly one book in his life, Jacob Wrestling, and it was a monumental success. But after a bout of lost patience with his first wife, and being thrown into prison for 4 months for violent tendencies, he was never able to write again. At the castle, he lives in the gatehouse and reads detective stories, putting forth not a single effort to write.

Cassandra's older sister, Rose, can hardly stand being so poor, so poor that they are fortunate to have enough food on the table, especially when the royalty checks from Mortmain's only novel dry up. Stepmother, Topaz, does the best she can with what she has, but that isn't much considering Mortmain refuses to speak with her on any personal level, and she, as an artist herself and one-time model, stagnates with no one to encourage and no society to attend. Thomas, the youngest child, engrosses himself in his books, and Stephen, their "hired" hand who hasn't been paid in months, loyally does what he can to put food on the table, far more than Mortmain ever does. Stephen even takes his earnings from a second job to assist the Mortmain family, partially out of devotion to the family itself and partially out of his unrequited love for Cassandra.

All of this Cassandra jots down in her journal, her effort to capture the castle and the people living in it. And her journal might have been quite dull had not Neil and Simon Cotton put in an appearance. They have inherited the estate on which the Mortmain's castle resides, Simon being the heir to a vast fortune, and his brother Neil along for the ride from America. Rose, so desperate to escape poverty, is determined to marry Simon, whether she loves him or not, and quite rapidly games of love ensue that have all the characters scrambling, including Cassandra herself who wishes so desperately that she could love Stephen, but simply cannot.

Yes, this is a depressing book. Not all the time, and not for the first half, but it rapidly swivels in that direction once Rose and Simon are engaged. I wish I could have liked it better than I did. It's not that the characters weren't likeable because most of them were, even Topaz with her odd fondness for walking the exterior of the castle nude in the middle of the night. The characters are all unique, with varying personalities, and I am extremely fond of Cassandra herself, even though she wavers between being forthright and romantic. Poor Rose, so desperate for escape, and poor Stephen, whose every compassionate and caring gesture was meant to garner Cassandra's love somehow.

I think part of my befuddlement is that I have no familiarity with romantic love. I see it in movies and read about it in books and hear it in songs, but I have never once been in love myself. So I quirk my head at Rose's insistence that she cannot love Simon and at Cassandra's reticence to return the romantic feelings of her faithful (most of the time) Stephen. Many romantics believe that love is solely a feeling of excitement in the heart alone. I don't believe that. There have been two times in my life where I could have fallen in love, but I shut down the emotion because it was the wrong man. It would have been one of the worst choices of my life to have romantically loved either of these men, and so I walked away emotionally and here I am, completely whole and without having sacrificed by values for something called "romantic" love. I prefer to think of love as being a head/heart decision. The heart cannot simply run away from the head like it does, like most of us simply allow it to do. I think that's one reason why I like the movie The Painted Veil with Edward Norton. The heroine does not love her husband, at all, at the start of the story. She marries him for security, but no romantic attachment. By the end of the story she is deeply in love with him on levels that go beyond mere physical desire. That is true love and that is what I Capture the Castle lacks.

Then there is Mortmain. It is difficult to read the story of a man who refuses to support his family. He is an artist, a writer, and he refuses to be anything else, even to put food on the table. Instead his duties fall on the shoulders of Stephen, a young man not even of his own flesh and blood. It was painful to read, albeit less painful to watch in the movie since they softened him somewhat. Where Mortmain is concerned, I would say Dodie Smith did a fine job of portraying the starving artist. The thing I hated about him is that he forced his family to starve right along with him.

So, while it was very well written, Dodie Smith failed to capture more than the barest hint of love, choosing instead to play with fluffy feelings that are based solely in the heart and not at all in the head. As Tintin would say, "I'm a realist" and so this story with all its ups and downs and misinterpretations of love and no one really having a happily ever after wearied me beyond measure. As if somehow happiness is only brought about by our feelings.

Now that you know my opinions of the book, let me say that the film version of I Capture the Castle was fairly accurate. It was done in 2003 and starred Romola Garai (Cassandra) and Bill Nighy (Mortmain) as well as a very young Henry Cavill as Stephen. They tried to stick as close to the original story as possible, which was both good and bad since I had my own issues with the original. I will say that the moments I had wanted the movie to expound on from the book were either too short or skipped entirely. Also, I was never entirely sold on Romola's performance as Cassandra, which is probably not her fault just a fault in the casting. Rose Byrne was exquisite as Rose, and Tara Fitzgerald fit my imaginings of Topaz perfectly.

Yes, the film is R rated for topless female nudity. Remember, Topaz is a nudist sometimes, and we do see Cassandra sunbathing alone on I'm assuming one of the castle ramparts or parapets or whatever you would call them. Mortmain is more relatable to me in the film, probably because he is Bill Nighy and I happen to love him. He's suffering from guilt and shame and the loss of his first wife and had nowhere to put those emotions for so long. By the end of the story he's a much improved man. But my personal favorite was Marc Blucas as Neil Cotton. Don't ask me why I like him, but I always have, even during his season on Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.

So, if you want a movie like the book, than this film does a pretty stellar job. It has all the same romantic flaws as the book, and I wanted to smack several people upside the head numerous times, not the least of which being Cassandra herself. It was pretty, and adequately cast, but not one I would watch again, or even a book that I would probably ever read again.

There you have it. I finished my first read for the Classics Club Spin. Yeah for me!


  1. I remember... objecting to the morality presented, but I did have a sweet fascination for the film for awhile. :)

    1. They were teenagers in love, most of them, so I tried not to be too harsh. But it's been so long since I was a teenager that I've forgotten how irrational we can sometimes be in our crushes!

  2. I watched the Painted Veil today. Wow, what a movie! I was disappointed that they didn't get their happy ending though.

    1. Ahhhh, The Painted Veil is such a glorious movie. I think I'll watch it tonight, actually. But I hate, hate, hate that ending so I usually stop 20 minutes from the end. I'm notorious for that, and for stopping Romeo + Juliet before the story goes awry. I much prefer happy endings to tragedies!

    2. Yes indeed. I used to stop "The Sound of Music" right after they get married. Not that the ending is tragic, but I just enjoyed it more that way.

    3. It is funny how that works sometimes with movies, and even with some books. Like . . . any of Nicholas Sparks' novels. I stopped reading them several years ago because I absolutely hated how he got me to cry on key when I bloody well knew what was coming!

  3. It's funny that you post this review just when I watched the movie last weekend! I largely agree with your opinion on the story, however I did think Romola Garai was quite good as Cassandra in the adaptation (but then I haven't read the book, so I don't know how she compares to the written Cassandra) But overall I thought this just a little too weird and depressing to really enjoy, despite all the good acting present

    1. Depressing is a really good word to describe this story. I mean, it was really well-written and I enjoyed Dodie's style immensely. I just wish it hadn't ended with so many love triangles and relationships not working out. I'm not sure why I didn't care for Romola as Cassandra. It was strange because I usually like her a great deal. I loved her as Emma and she was marvelous in Amazing Grace so I'm not sure why it just didn't click for me here. I can say this is one book and movie that I will probably never read/see again. Once was plenty.

  4. I believe this is a book often first read and loved by those in their teens - which could explain the simple ideas about love and romance. I also feel that way about Wuthering Heights - the epitome of teenage views about love!!

    You say you're not a romantic, but perhaps secretly you are!
    Your love of happy endings is a very romantic notion :-)

    It's what I love about human nature - the complexities & contradictions within each of us (I'm a hopeless romantic but love a realistic &/or tragic ending!!)

    1. The majority of my friends would agree with you about me, so you're probably right, I am a romantic. I just like more to my stories than teenage angst. I read sooooo much of it in my teens that I'm sort of beyond it now, which in some ways is sad, I suppose. I want happy endings, but I want them to be realistic happy endings.

      I think Wuthering Heights is on my list to be read sometime in the next 5 years so we'll see what I think. The film version I saw was back in the 30s and, to be my knowledge, only covers the first half of the book. I like the Brontes, but them sometimes I don't. I never did finish reading Jane Eyre despite my best efforts, but I love the miniseries from 2004!

      Again with the contradictions! Thanks for reading my review, btw. :)


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