I have to be honest here. I’m experiencing all sorts of emotions about Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle right now. I’ve been done with it for about 5 days, and I’ve had to wait to write the review until I processed some of these feelings. Even so, I’m still not sure I’m completely ready, but I can’t put it off any longer.
I read this book in high school after seeing the movie (which starred Romola Garai, Rose Byrne, Bill Nighy, Henry Thomas, Marc Blucas, and Henry Cavill) and have memories of finding it completely enchanting. It’s light and airy without being fluff, full of beautiful descriptions of nature and new emotions. It tells the story of Cassandra; her vain and gorgeous sister, Rose; her younger brother, Thomas; her author father who has been crippled by the success of his hugely “important” first work; and his much younger second wife, Topaz, a highly practical sort attempting to live the bohemian life, as they navigate the trials of living in poverty in an ancient, crumbling castle in the British country side. They are helped by Stephen, their former housekeeper’s son who stayed on after his mother died and carries a torch for Cassandra. Their lives are all turned upside down with the arrival of the young, handsome, and very wealthy American Cotton brothers, Simon and Neil, causing Rose to set her sights on Simon.
It’s a pretty straight forward coming of age story for Cassandra, and what makes it unique is that the entire story is told through three journals that she writes to practice her shorthand skills. Cassandra is 17, and a very young, naive 17, so the story alternates between moments of child-like wonder and deep perception. And for the first half of the book, I reveled in the fact that the book was living up to my comfortably hazy memories.
And then it happened.
The one moment that I had forgotten about that completely upended my feelings on the book.
Ok, spoiler alert: I am going to reveal a ton about the plot in the next few paragraphs, so if you don’t want to know, stop reading.
So at this point in the book, Simon and Rose are engaged to be married, and Rose is up in London, shopping for her trousseau. Most of the family is gone from the castle, except for Cassandra, who is preparing to celebrate the summer solstice. Simon unexpectedly arrives, and by the end of the evening he has kissed her, and she has fallen pathetically in love with him.
What’s your deal? It’s just a kiss, you might say. However, I have several problems with it.
Problem 1: Simon is a skeeve. He is engaged, and he kisses his fiancee’s sister. And if that weren’t bad enough, he seems completely confused when Cassandra gets upset. It NEVER, NOT ONCE crosses his mind that he shouldn’t be kissing anyone except for his fiancee, let alone her sister. To him this is perfectly fine, despite his professions of deep love for Rose. To him, it’s just a kiss because it’s totally cool to just kiss whoever happens to be in arms reach, regardless of your supposed relationship status, you know.
Problem 2: After her initial shock, Cassandra decides immediately that she’s in love with Simon. The entire book, she has talked about how while the Cottons are very nice, she has absolutely no interest in Simon. In fact, he kind of creeps her out at the beginning. But one kiss that is absolutely a violation, and she ignores all of her previous stranger danger signals and fantasizes about getting rid of her sister to be with Simon. I mean…what? Plus Cassandra is completely obnoxious from that point on, too, regressing into more and more petulant childlike behavior.
Problem 3: Stephen. Remember him? Throughout the entire book, Stephen has patiently and determinedly waited for Cassandra to see him in a romantic light, writing her poetry, spending his savings on a radio for her, and going without food some nights to make sure Cassandra has enough to eat. Additionally, he is described as the most gorgeous guy in the book. Yes, that’s superficial, but the good guy can be the hot guy, too. I have always been Team Stephen and not just because he’s played by Henry Cavill, my top celebrity crush, in the film. It’s because he is so good. Even when Cassandra pitches a massive temper tantrum in London because Rose is with Simon and storms off into the night, Stephen rescues her from a 24 hour diner in a sketchy part of town and pays her rather large dinner bill, no questions asked. Sure, the bad boy can be exciting, but the good guy is who you want to end up with.
Now, I am not a proponent of being with someone you don’t love just because they are a good person. However, Cassandra strongly suspects she would fall for Stephen if she lets herself, so she does everything in her power to not put herself in a situation where that would happen. Quite frankly, her behavior is appalling in the second half of the book, so Stephen really dodges a bullet in the end. He deserves better.
I was around 17 when I first read I Capture the Castle, and it occurs to me that I was of the same mentality as Cassandra: while intellectually I knew there was something wrong with Simon’s kiss, it was still terribly romantic to pine after someone, especially one that you can’t have. And I was a world-class piner, let me tell you. Long-term unrequited love felt terribly important and grown up. But now, I have a hard time getting past the ickiness of the situation. Cassandra loses her agency with that kiss. Before, she maintains control of her life, her individuality, and her identity as a writer, young woman, and person. After, she is reduced to the silliest of angsty teenage girl stereotypes. It would be very satisfying to say that Simon takes her agency from her, and in a way, he does. However, he wouldn’t see it as taking her agency because he never sees her as a real person anyway, just the odd, naive child sister of Rose. Cassandra does redeem herself somewhat in the end; she chooses not to marry Simon. (And to those of you who say, you’ve just ruined it! Don’t worry. It’s clear from the moment we meet the Cotton brothers that neither Rose nor Cassandra will marry Simon.) Yet Cassandra also chooses to maintain the limits on her world, staying at the castle rather than taking the opportunity to go off to Oxford. Her rationale: as an author, it is more important to experience the world that go to college. That may be so, but she will not experience much of the world staying at the castle.
There are still so many things I love about this book, but this reading of it has changed my view of it as a whole. Maybe I’ve outgrown it or maybe it’s place has become more tenuous in a world where the fight for women’s agency, sexual and otherwise, is a very visible constant battle. I don’t know. It’s definitely the first book that has affected me so drastically differently between first and second reading. However, the great thing is that it still prompts discussions, even if the subjects of those discussions have changed, and the creative formal approach Smith applies still holds up as fresh and exciting throughout the entire book. Go ahead and give it a read. Smith’s ode to youth and young love is still worth a chance.