‘I Capture the Castle’ — and a castle of my own

Choosing the books that will be your companions on vacation is a major, heady decision. As soon as we began to plan our trip to England, I poured through my stacks to find the perfect book for the journey.

And I made the right call. Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle, written in the 1940s, is a classic — but one I’d never read or even heard of until I began blogging. Smith’s debut novel is often on the lips of book bloggers, but it was this review from Things Mean A Lot that had me frantic to own it.

This novel has everything I love and crave in a story: an idyllic British setting; a love triangle; family dynamics — and turmoil between sisters; a castle; a hot guy hanging around the premises, tempting the narrator; a narrator who is a writer; a historical setting; oh, and a castle.

Seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain lives with her family on a crumbling estate in the English countryside, where her father — an eccentric author — has written nothing since the publication of his famous work years before. After the death of their mother, Cassandra lives with her older sister, Rose, and Thomas, their little brother; rounding out the crew is Topaz, their ethereal stepmother who fancies herself a muse, and Stephen, a handsome teen in love with Cassandra who has worked for the family since childhood.

It’s a combination of many factors that makes I Capture The Castle so great and memorable. The loving but competitive relationship between Rose and Cassandra is poignant and true-to-life; the family’s tenuous efforts to stay afloat with no income is touching and sad. The arrival of American brothers Neil and Simon Cotton adds a new dimension to the Mortmains’ troubles — after years of not paying any rent, the young men have inherited the castle and become their landlords. And, you know, they’re good looking. And American.

Rose hatches a plan. The entirety of the novel is a result of this effort to emerge from the grips of poverty and degradation unscathed, but in the end? Well, no one escapes. Cassandra tells readers the story of the Mortmains and Cottons through her diary entries, and I loved the unfiltered glimpse into her life as she experiences love for the first time. I’m a sucker for coming-of-age novels.

It’s a story about first love — and family. Change. Friendship. It’s entertaining and wise and sad, all at once. It’s the sort of book that makes you think about other books differently — measuring them up, maybe, or comparing them to this: a story that becomes so alive in your imagination.

While reading, I couldn’t help but think of Jane Austen and her beloved Pride & Prejudice — the desire to marry well at any expense and be removed from an undesirable situation is at the heart of I Capture The Castle. Rose reminded me of Mrs. Bennet or one of her flighty daughters . . . or perhaps Elizabeth herself. The Mortmain sisters are independent and determined and beautiful and tragic. They’re the sort of characters you never forget.

And they were the perfect companions for my jaunt through the English countryside. I finished the book in my hotel in Waterford, Ireland, closing the last page as lorries honked late into the night outside my room. Days later, we were in Wales — and it was there that I toured Cardiff Castle, an enormous and impressive structure in the heart of the city that made me feel like I’d stepped right into the pages of this beloved book.

The Norman keep is a tall, imposing and majestic building within the castle walls — a shell that remains atop a moat brimming with lily pads and greenery. After touring the Victorian mansion on site, my sister and I hustled over to ascend the keep’s many stairs. Once up, I felt like I’d stepped into the pages of I Capture The Castle; inside, vines peek between stones while birds perch in every crevice, watching. It was easy to imagine Cassandra curled up in a rough windowsill, scribbling in her diary, or envision Roman soldiers waiting for an ambush. The first fort is believed to have been established there in 55 AD.

55. AD.

We don’t have castles in America — or if we do, they’re nothing quite like this. They’re impressive, sure, but not from the year 55. It doesn’t even make sense to type that: 55. There are numbers missing from that, it seems. Many of them.

Cardiff Castle was easily one of my favorite stops on the tour — a place that seemed steeped in history, and I was absolutely in love with the mansion’s library (a detailed photo post to come). Just being there — in Wales; in the UK — was a surreal feeling, but one I loved. I’m a huge history buff and felt like soaking up every scrap of Welsh history I could — and having never even heard of Cardiff Castle, it was easy to feel unexpectedly enamored with the place.

I’m happy to have read I Capture The Castle, a book that will always bring back fond memories of this time in my life — and this vacation — for me. And I’m thrilled to have summoned up the energy to climb the keep and look out at a brimming and beautiful Cardiff, waking up on a sleepy Saturday before my eyes.