Dodie Smith is best known for her children’s book, 101 Dalmations, but I Capture the Castle is by far my favourite of the two. I first read this book when I was about 14 years old. I remember abandoning reality and diving into it every afternoon after school for as long as I could make it last. I have since re-read it countless times and I never tire of it. Hollywood finally took my lead a couple of years ago and made a film out of it, though of course I much prefer the version I see in my head when I’m reading.
It is the diary of Cassandra Mortmain, the daughter of a famous author who, after an unfortunate incident with a cake knife is sent to prison. Upon his release he is as calm and pleasant as can be, but can no longer write. From that point on, what had been a charmed life slowly falls into ruins. He moves his family from a charming house at the seaside and takes out a 40-year lease on a crumbling castle. Some years later Cassandra’s mother dies and her father re-marries an eccentric and hauntingly beautiful artist’s model called Topaz. Over time he becomes less and less sociable, eventually becoming a recluse. His family subsists on the dwindling royalties from his one infamous book, Jacob Wrestling. But somehow, through Cassandra’s eyes, what could be a throughly depressing situation becomes quite charming. At times whimsical, at times humorous, the book is as much the story of her own ascent into adulthood and the disappointment that often accompanies it as it is the story of the day-to-day lives of her family.
As you may have noticed, I am a great believer that if a book has an interesting first line, it bodes well for the rest of it. This book has one of my top ten first lines: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” How could you not be intrigued?