Random House Children’s Books, 2001
ISBN 0-09-984500-0
Dodie Smith, the author of The Hundred and One Dalmatians, was more than a writer of charming dog stories for children. She was also the author of several plays, as well as a remarkable first novel, I Capture the Castle, first published in 1949. Although the book is written from the viewpoint of a seventeen-year-old girl, it is truly a crossover work of fiction. I Capture the Castle draws inspiration from so many different types of literature and works well on so many levels that it ought to find an appreciative audience among readers of all ages and backgrounds.
        Cassandra Mortmain, the narrator, is a precocious teenager who has turned to a journal, ostensibly to practice novel-writing, but also to try and make some sense of her peculiar life. She lives in a chilly old English castle with her family, whose eccentricities provide much material for writing. Her father, the author of an acclaimed book, has stopped writing and spends all his time reading detective novels, while her beautiful stepmother has a penchant for walking about outside in the nude. Cassandra’s sister Rose is beautiful and moody; although she often comes across as discontented and selfish, the reader is able to love her because Cassandra loves her. Various other characters inhabit the castle, including the servant and “godlike youth” Stephen, who copies out classic love poems and gives them to Cassandra under his own name.
        The monotonous and impoverished life of the castle residents is disturbed by the arrival of Simon and Neil Cotton, two wealthy American brothers who have become the Mortmains’ neighbors. The Mortmain sisters cannot help but think of the possibilities for romance and marriage. Rose admits: “I thought of the beginning of Pride and Prejudice—where Mrs. Bennet says ‘Netherfield Park is let at last’.” Cassandra remarks dryly in reply that she would rather be in a novel by Charlotte Brontë. There are echoes of both Austen and the Brontë sisters throughout I Capture the Castle: the perpetual quest to appear desirable in the eyes of a rich young man, and the peculiar behavior (Cassandra and her brother Thomas lock up their father in an attempt to break his writer’s block) and sexual tension that so easily appear in a small community. Cassandra finds herself attracted by turns to Stephen, Neil, and Simon. Unfortunately, she comes to discover that she and several of the other characters are attracted to people who do not return their interest-what she eventually calls “a follow-my-leader game of second-best.”
        The plot is undeniably melodramatic, occasionally becoming a bit silly. However, Cassandra’s strong and unflinchingly honest voice carries the story through. Despite her evident talents as a writer and her perceptiveness about the feelings and motivations of others, she sees herself unromantically. In the very first paragraph of the book, she declares: “I have decided my poetry is so bad that I mustn’t write any more of it.” Her reflections on life, romantic feelings and the existence of God are not overwrought. Rather, they are moving in their simplicity and honesty. Although possessed of an unusually sharp mind and a thoughtfulness beyond her years, Cassandra can still be a typical teenager: able to fall in love with two or three people at the same time, convinced that the violence of her emotions will always last, and capable of extraordinary insight in her more peaceful moments of clarity.
        Although it was written over fifty years ago, I Capture the Castle remains undated. Cassandra can be na•ve at times, but she is often as worldly as any teenager of the twenty-first century. The freshness of the book’s style makes it immediate and timeless in a way that many of the books written for teens in the past twenty years are not. Cassandra Mortmain, her mysterious home, and the unforgettable characters who surround her are well worth returning to more than once.