As promised in my previous post, today I wanted to share with you my review of the book I chose for Penguin’s Read the Year Challenge. The focus for the month of September was: dive into a coming of age story you haven’t read before. I have to confess that I Capture the Castle wasn’t my first choice for this month. The first book I chose was Black Swan Green by David Mitchell but I found it really difficult to get into. So after the first couple of chapters I gave up. However, my second choice was much more fruitful. I’d heard of Dodie Smith as a little girl because I loved the story The Hundred and One Dalmatians. I really enjoyed the opportunity to read something else by this fascinating, (arguably) lesser known novelist. This coming of age story has everything, love, jealousy, frustration, upset and complete joy.
What’s it all about?
I Capture the Castle tells the adventures of the Mortmains family, struggling to life in genteel poverty in a crumbling castle during the 1930s. The novel is told through the eyes of Cassandra Mortmain, an intelligent teenager who writes everything in shorthand in her journal.
Cassandra’s father is a writer suffering from writer’s block. He hasn’t written anything since his first book, Jacob Wrestling, was published. The novel, a reference to Jacob wrestling with the angel, is an innovative and challenging modernist novel that was hugely popular. This book made Mortmain’s name huge, especially in the United States.
Ten years before the novel begins, Mortmain takes out a forty year lease on a dilapidated but beautiful castle. This is the seed of inspiration for him, or isolation! However, as Cassandra tells the story, they are having to sell the furniture to survive and buy food.
“Walking down Belmotte was the oddest sensation– every step took us deeper into the mist until at last it closed over our heads. It was like being drowned in the ghost of water.“
Topaz, Mortmain’s second wife, is a beautiful artist’s model who enjoys being with nature, often naked in its presence. Rose, the eldest daughter, is a classic English beauty. Her focus is to meet a wealthy young man to settle with. She tells Cassandra, who tells us, that she wants to live in a Jane Austen novel.
Cassandra has literary ambitions and spends her time writing and capturing everything around her in her beloved journal. The final characters in the household are Stephen, the handsome and loyal live in son of the late maid and Thomas, the youngest Mortmain child who is just as intelligent as Cassandra. Stephen is very much in love with Cassandra but she doesn’t really notice.
“While I have been writing I have lived in the past, the light of it has been all around me…”
The novel changes pace when the Cottons, a wealthy American family, inherit the nearby Scoatney Hall and become the Mortmains’ new landlords. The girls are intrigued by the two handsome, unmarried brothers, Simon and Neil Cotton. These new men give the girls something new to focus on and to investigate further. Neil was raised in California by their English father. He’s very carefree and wants to become a rancher one day.
Whereas, Simon is scholarly and serious, with a passion for the English countryside. As the eldest, Simon is the heir and is already much wealthier than Neil. Although Rose isn’t attracted to him, she decides to pursue him into marriage if she can. Rose admits she’d marry the devil if it meant she could escape poverty.
When the two families first meet, each are as intrigued as the other about them. When the Cottons visit the following day, Rose openly flirts with Simon. However, she ends up humiliating himself due to her inexperience. Both brothers are less than amused by the experience and as they walk away, Cassandra overhears them saying they will cease further acquaintance with the family.
However, after an amusing episode with a fur coat and an alleged sighting of a bear, all is forgiven between the two families and they become close friends. Rose convinced herself that she really is arrested and taken with Simon so Cassandra and Topaz devise a scheme to get Simon to propose to her. This has an excellent result for the family as he falls in love with her and proposes shortly after.
Time in the novel following this is split between the castle and London. Rose and Topaz head to the city with Mrs Cotton to purchase Rose’s wedding trousseau. Whilst everyone else is away, Cassandra and Simon spend the evening together when they inevitable kiss. Cassandra becomes obsessed with Simon; it’s all she thinks about. However, she does end up feeling incredibly guilty. Simon, is of course, Rose’s fiancé. With Rose being away, Cassandra feels more and more lonely and isolated.
“It came to me that Hyde Park has never belonged to London – that it has always been , in spirit, a stretch of countryside; and that it links the Londons of all periods together most magically – by remaining forever unchanged at the heart of a ever-changing town.”
Over this time, Stephen continues to copy poems for her and save his money to buy her gifts. Cassandra decides that she has to tactfully let Stephen down in terms of his offer of love. She encourages him to pursue his model and film career, which has recently taken off.
“…surely I could give him–a sort of contentment... That isn’t enough to give. Not for the giver.”
Cassandra decides to join forces with him and Thomas to help their father overcome his writer’s block. They lock him in one of the towers, delivering food parcels to him. He becomes quite frustrated, but eventually it seems to be for a good cause. Cassandra, meanwhile, is acutely aware that her attraction is increasing. Cassandra continues to record everything in her journal.
In the background, unknown by all the characters in the novel other than Stephen, Rose and Neil have been falling in love. To conceal their growing love, they pretend to hate each other. When they eventually elope together, Simon is left heartbroken. However, for Cassandra, this means there is a sign of hope. Before Simon leaves to go back to the United States, he visits Cassandra.
“I found it quite easy to carry on a casual conversation it was as if my real feelings were down fathoms deep in my mind and what we said was just a feathery surface spray.”
Despite her feelings for him, Cassandra decides to deflect the conversation at the moment when she believes he may propose marriage, in the belief and understanding that he was still in love with Rose.
The novel ends on a rather ambiguous note. Cassandra reminds herself that Simon has promised to return to her. She closes her journal for good, still loving him.
“I get the feeling I do on finishing a novel with a brick-wall happy ending – I mean the kind of ending when you never think any more about the characters.“