Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana
She captures it indeed. I Capture the Castle is the journal of young Cassandra Mortmain, who lives with her eccentric family in an old and dilapidated castle (only rented, and the rent much overdue) in Depression-era England. Her father is a once-famed novelist now suffering from his twelfth year of writer's block; her stepmother is the beautiful twenty-nine-year-old Topaz, who likes to "commune with nature" in the nude; her older sister, Rose, " 'hasn't any clothes or any prospects' " and would just about sell her soul to the devil for a chance at either. There is a younger brother and a shy, good-looking farmhand about the place, but the story centers on the two rapidly maturing sisters, and the prospects that open for them when a wealthy American family, including two eligible young men, arrive in the neighborhood.
It's a pleasant read for midsummer, if you enjoy reading books that have something to say about the season you are in now. Cassandra and Rose are romantic girls who always celebrate, on Midsummer Night, what they call "the rites" -- " 'I got it from a book on folklore when I was nine,' " Cassandra explains. They go to the top of an ancient mound where the oldest tower of the castle still stands, and there they build a bonfire, wear flower-garlands, eat cake and sip port, and dance, in imitation of what they imagine were pagan saeasonal rituals. They close the ceremonies by shouting the vowels, an act which, strangely enough, other authors besides Dodie Smith agreed was appropriate. (The poet and historian Robert Graves made a case for the significance of the vowels in pagan European myth. His book, The White Goddess, was published the same year as I Capture the Castle.)
Smith's spinning and interweaving of the stories of the Mortmain girls' romantic adventures, the father's recovery from writer's block, and the culture clash between English and American sensibilities is deftly done, if sometimes a bit wordy. Religion slips in, and not just on Midsummer Day: during a long talk the Vicar laughs at Cassandra's grimly facing God " 'as if he were a long wet week.' " The American woman reader will enjoy seeing herself as Mrs. Cotton, mother of the two eligible bachelors. " 'Amazing, their energy,' " Mr. Mortmain says. " 'They're perfectly capable of having three or four children, running a house, keeping abreast of art, literature, and music -- superficially of course, but good Lord that's something -- and holding down a job into the bargain. Some of them get through two or three husbands as well, just to avoid stagnation.' "
And anyone will be struck by what the book becomes on a second reading. Dodie Smith was most competent, and this novel is the only non-mystery I can recall whose ending explains scenes which were so well done to begin with that the reader had not recognized any mystery in them.