By Allie Skalnik
I was given this book for my eighth-grade graduation along with a raving review of the book’s brilliant female protagonist, Cassandra Mortmain. I only got around to reading the book recently, which is unfortunate because I now believe that my eighth-grade self would have been able to learn a lot from Cassandra. To be quite honest, I’m now torn between feeling like this book is too childish for me now and wondering whether that’s a terribly self-important thing to say, but nevertheless, the book touches on several interesting topics, including how to write a coming-of-age story for teenage girls.
One of these interesting topics is how money affects status. The Mortmain’s go from barely having enough food on the table in the beginning of the book, to living comfortably by the end. Cassandra, even more than others in her family, wrestles with this. She states very clearly that money has made her life easier, better. Simultaneously, she feels as though by acquiring wealth, she’s losing something, because the money comes with a whole host of new problems. She looks down upon the ultra-rich she begins to see, who have money coming out of their ears, but who have become shallow and frivolous. She is able to articulate this complex relationship we have with money, where of course it doesn’t really mean anything, but of course it matters to have food on the table.
What makes Cassandra such a unique narrator is her keen ability to love her family to death and simultaneously criticize them relentlessly. This allows for the novel to criticize the world without assigning blame. This is important because novels often speak about issues their authors see in the world, and by shifting the blame from individuals to the world as a whole, Dodie Smith is able to point out the vast importance of the points she raises.
Cassandra is very shrewd and likes to think of herself as somebody who sees the world as it truly is, no sugar-coating or fancy metaphors. Rose, she says, is perfectly lovely, but a bit delicate and frivolous. Topaz is never going to be able to replace her mother, but oh does she try. Cassandra finds her lovely, but she’s eccentric, and she’s obsessed with being the woman who ‘fixes’ Cassandra’s father. Stephen, she says, is a bit daft. He’s foolish sometimes, and Cassandra looks down on him a bit because of his ongoing crush on her. Thomas is still a little kid who’s trying to act like an adult, and Cassandra often bristles when he tries to act as if he’s older than her. Finally, Cassandra’s father is perhaps going mad, bless him, and Cassandra sees that he’s not very good of a father without blaming him too much for it.
It became perfectly clear a few chapters in that Cassandra is the only character who is not disillusioned, or at least, who is aware of her disillusionment. Simon thinks Rose loves him, Rose thinks that she knows how to charm men, Stephen thinks that Cassandra will love him one day, Thomas thinks that he knows everything, Topaz thinks she can fix father, and father thinks that he’s on his way to writing a great work of literature. Each of the characters lie to themselves, but when Cassandra lies to herself, thinking that she’s happy without Simon or that she doesn’t take some amount of pride in knowing Thomas’s hung up on her, you best believe she’ll concede the truth a few lines later. Because of the candid way Cassandra is able to write to us in her diary, she never seems foolish like other characters. In fact, she comes off as intelligent and self-aware and thoughtful. This is especially important considering that she is a seventeen-year-old girl in a novel written in 1948.
Cassandra is different from how I expected a seventeen-year-old girl to be portrayed in 1948. As opposed to being shy and demure, she is outspoken about things she cares about and thoughtful beyond her years. The adventures she finds herself on are also not the makings of a damsel in distress. Cassandra and Rose are on the run trying to escape a mob of townspeople who think they are bears and attempt to shoot them. Cassandra and Thomas plot to get their father to write by tricking him and trapping him in a dungeon for days on end. Cassandra is the farthest thing from a simpering teenage girl. Most notably, her intelligence is obvious to everyone in the book. Nobody dares question her when she declares she wishes to become a writer, and while this is not a Feminist Book, Dodie Smith sets a precedent for young women who are brilliant in their own right.
When I started this book, perhaps because of the charisma and brilliance of Cassandra Mortmain, I really wanted it to be a Feminist Book. But, I Capture the Castle has no feminist agenda. In fact, there are a few things I find fault in. It’s impossible to ignore that Cassandra is forced to rely on the men in her life, most notably, for income. When reflecting upon the reasons for why the Mortmain’s came out of poverty in the year in which the book is set, Cassandra acknowledges that it’s because of Simon and Stephen that their family has food on the table. Topaz’s contributions seem small in comparison and are mostly glossed over. No, the reason why the Mortmain’s have food on the table is because Cassandra’s older sister, Rose, was set to marry rich, and when she broke off the engagement, it was Simon’s kindness and compassion that saved them. A book is not a Feminist Book because it concerns strong women, and it shouldn’t have to be a Feminist Book, either. I Capture the Castle is able to say valuable things about family and self-deception and the power imbalance that comes with money. And of course it says something about being a teenage girl, but in this case, it doesn’t have to be the point.