Pages: Dodie Smith’s
I Capture the Castle
Writer: Eleanor Kriseman
Editor: Rachel Hurn
I always tell people my grandmother introduced me to “I Capture the Castle.” “It was her favorite book,” I’d say, “and I was her favorite grandchild.” The latter is how she’d drunkenly introduced me at my cousin’s first wedding. I’m not actually sure she ever read the book. But I’d like to think it was that she loved the book so much she wanted to share it with me, to deepen the bond between us.“I Capture the Castle” is a riches-to-rags story in the form of a diary—that of Cassandra Mortmain, a teenage girl who lives with her beautiful sister, stormy father, and flighty stepmother in a decaying castle in the English countryside. Cassandra’s father wrote one successful novel, the proceeds of which have supported them for years. But as the money dwindles, so does her father’s inspiration, confidence, and kindness. Cassandra eventually takes on the emotionally grueling task of trying to save their family from destitution.
I imagine my grandmother, twenty-four, on the precipice of marriage, feeling certain her life would take the opposite trajectory—she was headed from rags to riches. At one point she and my grandfather were so poor they couldn’t afford bread from the corner bakery. The owner took a liking to them and saved them loaves to pick up at the end of the day. “I thank heaven there is no cheaper form of bread than bread,” Cassandra writes. “Now it is as solid a meal as we can scrape together, as it has to last us until breakfast.” I imagine my grandmother eating a half-stale loaf, remembering this line, reassuring herself—my life will not always be this way.
Cassandra’s efforts to distract her family from their poverty are futile glimmers—dyeing their clothes and sheets green to make them feel new, befriending the stable boy who stokes the copper so that they might have steaming hot baths again. Yet even in the depths of their misery, she objects to her sister’s declaration, “I could marry the Devil himself if he had some money.”
“Oh, Rose, have you thought what marriage really means?” Cassandra asks of her, imploringly. What Cassandra means is There is still so much beauty in this life we share—don’t you love it, at least somewhat? Aren’t we enough? Still, they hatch a plan wherein the beautiful Rose is to seduce Simon, their landlord’s son, and trick him into marriage.
What happened to my grandmother? My grandfather became a prominent doctor and, as a point of pride, refused to let my grandmother work. She spent her days alone—smoking, drinking, reading. She left behind a collection of tailor-made clothing—the most ornate, bejeweled dresses I have ever seen in person. And what became of Cassandra? I’ve read this book countless times, but upon rereading, I realize I’ve gravely misremembered the ending, and not in Cassandra’s favor. What makes me think it was my grandmother who gave me the book is Cassandra’s voice—the humor, the yearning, the sarcasm, the desire to learn and keep learning—so similar to that of the woman I remember. But I think this must only be myth. I’d like to remember things my way, though. I want my grandmother to be the one; I want Cassandra’s intelligence to have been enough to save her.