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Literature / I Capture the Castle

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"And I regret to say that there were moments when my deep and loving pity for her merged into a desire to kick her fairly hard.”
Cassandra Mortmain, "I Capture the Castle"

Set in the 1930s in England, I Capture the Castle (1948) is Dodie Smith’s best-loved (though little-known) book, with the power to leave its readers with a mild case of the warm fuzzies.

I Capture the Castle is the journal of Cassandra Mortmain, a 17-year-old girl who lives in a rented castle in the depths of Suffolk with her impoverished and decidedly unconventional family: her reclusive father, who was once a very famous and ground-breaking author until he was sent to prison for three months for threatening his wife with a cake knife; her eccentric and glamorous stepmother, Topaz, who was once a nude model and still believes in "communing with nature"; her flawed but beautiful elder sister, Rose, who is desperately sick of being poor; her younger brother, Thomas, who is smart and doesn’t appear much in the book until the second half, and the hired hand, Stephen Colly, who is extremely handsome and desperately in love with Cassandra.

The plot begins when the young American heirs to the castle and its property, Simon and Neil Cotton, plus various sophisticated relations, come to England to look it over. In doing so, they run smack-bang into Cassandra having a bath. After the initial awkwardness is over, they get along swimmingly. Before long, Simon and Rose become engaged. Then Cassandra falls in love with Simon, which messes things up for her a bit. But even though she’s lovesick, she still manages to hatch a plot with her brother to get their father writing again.

Even when she’s in the midst of lovesickness, family rows and a couple of embarrassing mishaps, Cassandra still manages to be level-headed and adventurous. She is sometimes naïve and sometimes astonishingly wise, but always intelligent, funny, optimistic and unexpectedly honest.

Made into a movie by The BBC in 2003 starring Romola Garai as Cassandra, Rose Byrne as Rose, Marc Blucas as Neil, Henry Thomas as Simon, and Henry Cavill as Stephen.

This book provides examples of:

  • Abuse Mistake: Cassandra's father wasn't really threatening his wife with the cake knife.
  • Abusive Parents: Still, some of Mr. Mortmain's behaviour toward his children, especially Cassandra, is physically abusive and he is guilty of severely neglecting them.
  • Adaptational Angst Upgrade: In the film version certain events are made more serious and have longer-lasting effects than in the book, such as the cake-knife incident (which is tied up in James Mortmain's relationship with his first wife and his current writer's block), Topaz's temporarily leaving Mortmain and Cassandra not so easily making peace with Stephen and Simon after her kisses with them.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Stephen loves Cassandra, who loves Simon, who loves Rose. Who loves Neil. That, at least, is requited.
  • Bathroom Stall of Overheard Insults: Cassandra is in the barn when Simon and Neil leave the castle after their second visit and hears them discussing Rose's blatant attempts at flirting and herself as "consciously naïve." Though she at first keeps it to herself, she accidentally lets slip to Rose and later Simon what she overheard them saying.
  • Beard of Evil: Cassandra thinks Simon's goatee makes him look like a gargoyle.
  • Believing Their Own Lies: Played with when Cassandra nearly believes Neil's lie about killing the bear — which she knows didn't even exist:
    Neil: I held the lantern high; I could see the bubbles coming up. And then I saw the dark bulk of it under the water, being carried along by the current.
    Cassandra: But you didn't have a lantern.
    Topaz: He didn't have a bear.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: The Mortmain females. Topaz is silver blonde, Cassandra is a light to medium brunette and Rose has ginger hair. (In The Film of the Book, it's slightly altered: Cassandra's the blonde, Topaz has light brown hair, but Rose is still a redhead.)
  • Butt-Monkey: Poor damn Stephen just can't win.
  • Chekhov's Classroom: Prior to Simon's engagement, he and Cassandra have a conversation about Mr. Mortmain's writer's block and whether it was caused by his time in prison. Months later, re-reading their conversation in her journal gives her and Thomas their idea of re-imprisoning him in Belmotte Tower.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: The unrequited variety; Stephen is in love with Cassandra.
  • Cool Old Guy: The vicar, whom Cassandra describes as "unholy." He's by no means wicked, only very youthful and exuberant for a vicar.
    Cassandra: Father once said to him: "God knows how you came to be a clergyman." And the vicar said: "Well, it's His business to know."
  • Creator Breakdown: In-Universe. James Mortmain hasn't written a word since being released from prison.
  • Damsel in Distress: Not really, but in the minds of the villagers the Cotton brothers saved Rose from an escaped circus bear.
  • Deal with the Devil: Early in the book Rose claims she'd sell her soul to the devil to escape poverty and half-jokingly wishes on a gargoyle in the castle for a way out of her poor, unsatisfying life. Which is almost the exact moment the Cottons walk in...
  • Distracted by the Luxury: Rose and her peach-coloured towels. And her little black suit.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Stephen is this to Cassandra. Even when he realizes she's in love with someone else, he still puts her happiness over his own.
  • Empathic Environment: The Midsummer's Eve when Simon kisses Cassandra and the day after are beautiful and sunny days, followed by weeks of cold, wet weather during Cassandra's misery after she realises her feelings for him. Her birthday, when she receives a present from Simon, is the only nice day. The novel itself begins in March, at the beginning of spring, continues through into the summer, and finishes mid-October.
  • Extreme Doormat: It's subtly hinted that Rose and Cassandra's mother was this, sublimating her own feelings in order to support her temperamental artist husband. (In the film version, not only is it more overt, but Cassandra realizes she's in danger of living a life exactly like her mother's.)
  • Fanservice: In the BBC movie, Topaz gets naked, although we only see her from the waist up. This could also rank as Fan Disservice as there are far more female fans than male fans.
    • Cassandra too, sunbathing naked on top of the tower.
  • First Kiss: Played as a plot twist, when Rose points out that "a kiss can do a lot of things." Cassandra believes she's referring to her first kiss with Simon (which Cassandra witnessed) as confirming that she really loves him and isn't just stringing him along to get him to marry her. She's really referring to her first first kiss with Neil, which sealed her attraction to him.
    • Cassandra can't see romance being worth all the trouble until she gets her first kiss. Then it's all she can think about.
  • Foreshadowing: Mortmain talking to Cassandra about Rose and Simon in chapter 13, specifically when he asks if she's really in love with Simon. Thomas has already guessed that she isn't, and when Cassandra goes to London to find out, Rose confirms it.
    • Simon's comment about Rose being bored by a concert he took her to in London. Cassandra is surprised since Rose loves music and sings very well. It's an early hint of Rose's real feelings for Simon.
  • Genteel Interbellum Setting: If you squint, you can just about tell that the book is in the 1930s.
  • Giftedly Bad:
    • Topaz loves art and the world of artists, but has no talent of her own (her painting of the Tower apparently looks like an upturned pudding basin and a rolling pin) and has resigned herself to inspiring others, rather than attempting any of her own.
    • While quite a good writer of prose, Cassandra's attempts at poetry are so terrible that she decides she mustn't write any more of it.
  • Girl in the Tower: Cassandra likes this trope given her nude sunbathing on top of the Belmonte tower. She and Thomas later imprison their father there to inspire him to write.
  • The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry: Subverted, as beautiful Rose and clever Cassandra are very fond of each other.
  • Gold Digger: Rose is determined to marry into money even after realizing she doesn't love her fiance.
  • Hidden Depths: At first Thomas is just a cheerful young boy, but then he shows that he is fairly well-versed in psychology and understands modern literature much better than Cassandra. He's the one who first catches on that Rose doesn't really love Neil when he points out that most engaged women can't shut up about their fiancees or their wedding plans, while Rose almost never mentions hers.
  • The Ingenue: Cassandra starts off "consciously naive" but gradually grows out of it.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Cassandra. And Simon. And Stephen!
  • Kid Sidekick: Thomas, first to Stephen (when they sneak over to spy on the Cottons' fancy party) and then to Cassandra (first when they unravel the mystery of Rose together, then when they conspire to convince their father to write again).
  • Likes Older Women: Stephen who likes the older Leda Fox-Cotton.
  • Love Epiphany: Cassandra realizes she's in love with Simon when she can't stop thinking about their kiss.
  • Love Makes You Dumb: Cassandra describes being in love as like being on drugs.
  • Missing Mom: In the book, Cassandra cannot even remember her face until she suddenly pictures her giving her a piece of advice.
  • Nice Guy: Stephen is loyal, decent, and faithful, both to the Mortmain family as a whole and to Cassandra in particular.
  • Nipple and Dimed: Topaz's topless shots got an 'R' rating from the MPAA. In Australia the film is rated 'PG 15'.
  • Nude Nature Dance: Cassandra's artsy stepmother, Topaz, loves doing this kind of thing to "commune" with nature.
  • Post-Kiss Catatonia: Cassandra is in a daze for days after her first kiss with her sister's fiance. She feels guilty over it but she can't stop daydreaming about it.
  • Pretty in Mink: Aunt Millicent's furs which include a "collie-dog rug" and several fur coats and jackets. Rose gets mistaken for a bear while wearing a fur coat.
  • Reclusive Artist: Again in-universe. James Mortmain.
  • Sibling Triangle: Cassandra, Rose and Simon.
    • Another is Rose, Simon and Neil.
  • Settle for Sibling: Cassandra and Rose hope for this after she runs away with Neil. Implied to be partly why Simon kissed Cassandra and why he asks her if she'd like to come to America with him - "a mixture of liking me very much and longing for Rose."
  • The Shadow Knows: When the family first meets Simon, Cassandra notes that from the angle where she stands, his shadow looks like a devil. She references this incident later when she has misgivings about him, since his arrival was heralded by Rose making a wish upon the devil for a way out of life in the castle.
  • Spirited Young Lady: Cassandra references this trope in the third part of the book, when she refers to herself and Rose as "two Brontë-Jane Austen girls, poor but spirited, two girls of Godsend Castle."
  • Starving Artist: Cassandra's father, James Mortmain, hasn't written a word in ten years. Now his royalties from his first book have dried up, and he's starving the entire family along with himself.
  • Sympathetic P.O.V.: Cassandra doesn't find out till much later that Rose and Neil kissed.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Cassandra letting slip to Rose what she overheard Neil say about her after their second visit to the castle the same evening Neil kissed her, which causes Rose to behave coldly to Neil the next day. Also her letter to Neil assuring him that Rose really loves Simon. Both contribute to Rose and Neil believing that the other wasn't in love with them.
  • Writer's Block: James Mortmain has long since given into his when the book begins. Cassandra and her younger brother Thomas take unorthodox steps to cure him of it.
  • Wrong Side of the Tracks: They may not have started out this way, but the Mortmains have ended up here.