I Capture the Castle

While reading I Capture the Castle I thought it could be adapted into a very good play because the antics of the characters would have people laughing out loud. And Google told me that it has already been done. I recently saw the movie after reading the book and here I talk about them both. You have been warned!

I wish I had read this book as a teen, I would have been bowled over by it. The book is a tad wordy (I only felt that when she was describing the castle too much). No wonder she admired Julian Barnes’ masterful economy of words.

The Mortmains are a crazy bunch. The writer and father James Mortmain’s creative juices seem to have run out after one successful book. The family lives in genteel poverty in the hope that one day he will produce another masterpiece. Topaz, is his loyal wife, and eccentric but beautiful stepmother to his three children. She communes with nature to keep her sanity and needs to be a muse to exist. They live with their daughters, Rose and Cassandra, and their little brother, the studious Thomas. They are joined by Stephen, the son of their dead housekeeper who does chores around the house.

Cassandra, the younger sister, is like Elizabeth Bennet in the sense that her mind is not on matrimony unlike older sister Rose. Like Austen, her mind is on literary pursuits. She dreams of becoming a writer like her father which one would think is surprising because of the example he has set. So she writes diary entries for practice to sharpen her claws prose.

Poverty doesn’t bother Cassandra as much as it bothers Rose. Cassandra takes refuge in writing and hence she is saner (she believes that). Even though Rose is the elder sister, it is she who is childish in her ways, demanding things that she knows are impossible.

In spite of her father’s example Cassandra wants to be a writer (natural proclivity?) like her father. Both the sisters don’t do any housework – it is shared by Topaz and Stephen. The onus of earning money is on the menfolk. Published in 1934, the book appears dated because of the time period it is set in. The men and women were defined by set roles, rigid and fixed by society.

There’s talk of Bennets (from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) in the beginning, and Rose is hell bent on marrying the first rich suitor that comes a-knocking to get out of poverty even if she doesn’t love him. And that is where Simon Cotton comes in.

Cassandra is a precocious narrator (I would never call her ‘consciously naïve because I don’t know what it means!), who wants to be a writer and is always recording things that happen in her life in a notebook. This was at a time when paper is scarce, and there was no electricity in the castle, mind you. She lives in her head (like most writers) which some times makes her miserable, and she has no understanding of how the world works that adds to the ensuing drama.

The way the story is narrated (Aren’t epistolary narratives the best?) by Cassandra through her journal entries, it puts us right in her shoes.

They live on the castle on a lease and haven’t paid the rent in a long time. It is when the owners arrive, the Cottons from America, the story takes a different turn.

A few pages in I knew why I Capture the Castle is a cult classic. It seems like a fairytale in the beginning with very good dialogue, and the setting but the ending is ambiguous and quite realistic, open ended which is quite a departure for books written in those times, especially for the kind of story it told.

The book will give you a bad case of the giggles, whether you are reading in public or in private. I tried to keep the wide grin off my face to appear respectable (read not look like a complete idiot in the park where I have maintained over the years a very serious no nonsense persona) but the narration by Cassandra is such that you will fail.

A story where the women decide who, where, and when they want to end up with someone (if at all), and choose to walk out of marriages when it doesn’t work the way they want it to – it would have been groundbreaking for the time it was written in.

So many things have been talked about in this book without being self conscious, which would have otherwise made reading it a tedious affair. It touches on poverty, nudism, religion, psychoanalysis, distinction between the classes, and a very real portrait of a marriage and family. Also shows us a portrait of an eccentric writer, artistic expression and the way genius works (or doesn’t work) and what the people living with him have to put up with.

The book destroys many idealistic notions of love. The teens reading it will have a realistic idea about consent, love, longing, heartbreak and infatuation; they are different things whose boundaries sometimes overlap. The book drives home the message that it is okay to make mistakes. And most importantly it is okay not to find the love of your life the first time around.

The social observations  the book makes and the way Cassandra views the world, it is true what another reviewer said and what I had felt from the beginning – it’s Austen for the 20th century.

I liked how the contrast between England and America is showed in little things – it comes from the author’s own experience.

The book shows how marriages crumble and how effective poverty can be in breaking families. How important compatibility is, especially if one of them has an artistic temperament (god help you if both are artists) because patience is needed to bear the tantrums idiosyncrasies that come with the territory.

The description of nature, beauty and of light – moonlight, starlight, dawn, dusk and the effect they have on her greatly appealed to me.

I wish I could find words–serious, beautiful words–to describe it in the afternoon sunlight; the more I strive for them, the more they utterly elude me.

The book is real, comical, messy, dreamy, and colourful. Contradiction is the nature of the book, quite life like. I know it is hard to believe when most of it set in a crumbling castle and a madcap family lives in it but then which family isn’t mad? Mine most certainly is.

I identified with Cassandra because of her ambitions of becoming a writer and her habit of  writing diaries though I am not an inveterate diarist like her, I do like to let it all out out from time to time.

I am surprised to see how much I have written; with stories even a page can take me hours, but the truth seems to flow out as fast as I can get it down. But words are very inadequate – anyway, my words are.

I know a movie has been made and now that some time has passed, I have sufficient distance to not completely trash the movie by comparing it with the book (inevitable for any book adaptation) and try to see it as a standalone piece, when I can still remember the soul of the book.

Cassandra, played by Romola Garai, declares at the outset that she will never fall in love, and you probably know that is exactly what will happen because life gives you opposite of what you want.

 I would’ve thought that love was the murderous thing, not the lack of it. I am never going to fall in love. Life is dangerous enough.

I saw the movie but it wasn’t what I expected. (Is it ever?) For me the book and the movie work at different levels. The primary difference, I thought, the movie has made obvious what the book hinted at, and made ambiguous what the book clearly stated. And the movie has fewer characters than the book, some ditzy ones are left out.

I also thought the ending of the movie was more people pleasing than the book’s ending, though it was no doubt romantic.

In the movie the Castle wasn’t magnificent nor was a tour of it given. It wasn’t a character like it was in the book. Living in a castle sounds romantic (but it isn’t) and it took me back to a carefree time, a time when Famous Five reigned supreme on my shelves.

I loved how the different notebooks Cassandra writes in divides the book into three sections. It’s a pity the movie missed out on them.

The movie is excellently cast. The characters are real and flawed like in the book. The tone of the movie was more dramatic where the book was comic. There’s an inherent innocence in the way Cassandra views the world which comes from her naivete which the movie fails to capture well. Romola Garai carried the film on her slender shoulders but I felt something was missing. Bill Nighy is excellent as the negligent father and husband. Rose Byrne as the older sister is pretty, ludicrous and superficial, true to her character in the book. I loved the character of Thomas, their little brother, in the movie. He looked like a pompous little Harry Potter with his round glasses. Topaz is played by Tara Fitzgerald who does complete justice to her character’s idiosyncrasies. Stephen played by Henry Cavill is so earnest and beautiful that your heart breaks for him.

The dynamic between the sisters changes after Rose gets engaged. It is shown gradually in the book but in the movie it is rushed.

In the book the pets are so delightfully portrayed, both the cat and dog, they are as real as the peopled characters. In the movie there was only the dog but it wasn’t given any characteristics.

As soon as I finished the book I wanted to seize someone and tell them to read Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. (I am gifting and recommending it with a vengeance.) I urge you to read it. Pretty please. Or if you prefer watch the movie and let me know how do you like it.

Spoilers ahead!

I found Simon kissing Cassandra distasteful. He took advantage of a 17 year old who’s never been kissed which put ideas in her head. He took advantage of her innocence and caused her a lot of heartache. I think Simon kissed Cassandra because she was available and he wasn’t getting any affection from Rose, his fiancee, who in turn felt trapped in a marriage of convenience to save her family but didn’t anticipate falling in love with someone else.

Neil and Simon Cotton never really knew each other. After the parents divorced, each took one son and they grew up separately. It must have made them less brotherly towards each other. But it is Rose’s deceit I cannot understand. Rose grew up with Cassandra and she could have told her the truth. But can you tell the truth when you are deceiving yourself and trying to convince yourself that this lie you are living, is in fact the truth?

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