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I Capture the Castle

by Dodie Smith
352 pages, General Fiction
Reviewed by Jeanne

A story known for the lively voice of its heroine, but tainted by vague spiritual content.

Plot

Seventeen-year-old Cassandra and her family live in a ramshackle castle in England - which ought to be romantic, but isn't when you are impoverished and have no means of righting the situation. And this is the family's position as they wait hopelessly for Cassandra's father, a one-hit-wonder author, to produce his next great work. In the interim, Cassandra decides to hone her own writing skills by keeping a journal, in which she "captures the castle"...and her family, the young men who enter her life, and herself.

Morality

Weak. The worldview of this book is obviously "secular," and Cassandra's primary goal is either her comfort or that of her family (and at times, it seems not even the latter). When the family discusses ways in which they can earn money, some of the suggestions are morally quite loose. Cassandra seems at times to "dabble" in love, which is perhaps understandable, if not right. Her sister is determined to do anything, including marry a man she doesn't love, to get money.

Much of the story deals with Cassandra's thoughts as she falls in love for the first time. Unfortunately, her first love also happens to be a man engaged to her sister. This is obviously a hairy situation, and she struggles with jealousy and the desire to win Simon, her sister's fiance, for herself. Cassandra also leads on a young man who is in love with her, although she bitterly regrets it.

Spiritual Content

Cassandra and her family, particularly her sister and stepmother, engage in pagan rites; these feature fairly heavily in the novel. Cassandra's stepmother "communes with nature" - often in a natural state herself. When Cassandra is in agonies over her love for Simon, she goes to talk to the Vicar, who is as worldly as any of the other characters. He suggests that she "try religion" and that a time of hurt is the best time for religion to work. The entire discussion is completely pagan and has no Biblical foundation whatsoever. Cassandra attempts to take the Vicar's advice, but even this is strongly colored by her own misconceptions of Christianity, "religion," and especially God. After her attempts fail to "work," she gives up and tries other methods. There are some pseudo-religious discussions about Heaven and Hell that are more philosophical than Biblical. This was perhaps the weakest part of the book.

Violence

None.

Drug and Alcohol Content

There is some discussion about the possibility of Cassandra's father having become an alcoholic, but the idea proves unfounded. Wine is mentioned a few times, as are other alcoholic beverages. Cassandra tries drinking as a means of relieving her sorrow, but gives it up quickly.

Sexual Content

Cassandra's stepmother, Topaz, is a model; she says she prefers painters who paint her naked, because they are in fact paying less attention to her. Several times characters take of their clothes in a non-sexual context - an odd element of the story. Cassandra thinks about how her sister will feel on her wedding night, but not in any detail. She also imagines being kissed by various young men. At one point she goes walking with a young man who has been in love with her all through the story; she allows him to kiss her, and it appears almost to go farther before she regrets her decision and runs away. Again, the whole plot of Cassandra's being kissed by and falling in love with an engaged man is extremely thorny, although it had an interesting resolution.

A married woman attempts to seduce a young man, and it is not entirely clear whether or not she succeeds (although that does seem to be implied). Topaz fears that her husband is falling in love with another woman; she herself considers going back to her free modeling life. A man and a woman stay together briefly, but it appears they are either married, or about to be and living separately.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

"Hell" is used several times as an ejaculation, as is "d*mn." God's name is taken in vain a few times. See Sexual Content.

Conclusion

"I Capture the Castle" is a story perhaps most popular for the lively, poignant voice of its first-person narrator. The title is apt: Cassandra does capture the castle through her writing, and in the end, captures her own coming-of-age as well. As mentioned above, however, there are some significant issues about the novel that should not be passed over lightly, and the paradigm appears quite worldly (Dodie Smith herself was a follower of Christian Science). It was the vague treatment of "religion" that most dampened my enjoyment of the book, coupled with the issues raised above.

Fun Score: 4.5
Values Score: 1.5
Written for Age: 13+

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