The Shameful Book Club: I Capture the Castle

img_3609I’m back from the horrific depths of grad school! One of the most exciting things about finally being done with school is that I can now read for fun again. What makes this frustrating is that I work in a library and am overwhelmed by the fact that I can take home as many books as I want. I cannot read 28 books at the same time, and yet I have 28 books checked out right now. I’m glad to be back working on the Shameful Book Club because it gives me some focus and drive.

Just as a reminder (it’s been so long), the Shameful Book Club is an attempt by me to come clean about many books I have lied about reading. I’ve assigned a genre for each month of the year and when that month arrives I pick a book that I have lied about reading in my past, read it, and then write about it. September’s genre is “classics”, whatever that means.

I first became enthusiastic about I Capture the Castle after watching the wonderful film adaptation as a young teen. My mom did what any good librarian would do and gifted me a copy of the classic novel by Dodie Smith, who also wrote The One Hundred and One Dalmatians. I got very excited and started to read it, only to abandon it for some ungodly reason. I’m sure the demands of being a super rad high schooler got in the way of reading legit literature and bettering my soul. One this is for damn sure, I would have been a lot better off as a youth if I had only read I Capture the Castle at 15 rather than worrying about “coolness” and “college” and “boys” and “black eye makeup”. This book is a damn education. Every time I picked it up I felt like my soul was getting a hug. The writing is so effortless and yet incredibly impactful. You don’t need to strain or push yourself to read it, you’re actually excited to carve out time for it.

The novel, set mostly in the English countryside in the 1930s, takes the form of 16-year-old Cassandra Mortmain’s journal. Cassandra is the middle child in an incredibly eccentric family. Her father was a celebrated author whose one and only novel was lauded as a masterpiece, but years of reclusive behavior and inactivity has buried him in obscurity and plunged the family into severe poverty. Some blame this on a bought of jail time he served after threatening his first wife (and Cassandra’s mother) with a knife in a fit of rage–an incident the family now laughs off. Cassandra’s mother died several years prior to the time of the novel, and her stepmother is a delightfully ethereal artists’ model named Topaz who enjoys being nude in nature and whose style is very unorthodox. One of my favorite lines in the book is a description of Topaz as, “…tall and pale, like a slightly dead goddess.” I hope one day someone describes me that way.


Topaz communing with nature

Cassandra’s older sister Rose is described as a great beauty with warm features, but she’s fiery and bold (not always in a flattering way). I loved hearing about the two sisters and their differences, because I think it bares a resemblance to me and my sister Claire. I am very much a Rose, and I see a lot of Claire in Cassandra. But while I definitely identify as Rose personality wise, my experiences in life are more like those of Cassandra’s. The obsessive journal writing, dreaming, romantic mishaps…all of that is very much me. Their younger brother Thomas even reminds me of my own younger brother, Alan. Luckily, we lived in a warm, comfortable house with plenty of food and amenities, unlike the Mortmains who somehow survive on virtually no income in a drafty, drippy castle rented on a whim by their father when times were good. All their furniture was long since sold to pay bills.

One day, two American brothers show up and the Mortmains’ lives change forever. Simon and Neil are the grandsons of the man who was renting the castle to the Mortmains and who lived in a grand house near by, which now belonged to Simon. They are wealthy, attractive, and fun, and soon the two families become fast friends. It isn’t long before Simon is head-over-heels in love with Rose and a wedding is being planned. The wedding also ensures that the Mortmains will never go hungry again. The only issue is that Rose doesn’t love Simon, but Cassandra does, but Simon doesn’t love Cassandra, but Stephen, the Mortmains’ housekeeper’s son, would die for her. What a pickle!


Rose (Rose Byrne) and Cassandra (Romola Garai) in the 2003 film


This romantic fumbling is what I connected with the most. I think that every young person has felt about someone the way Cassandra feels about Simon. She’s fully enveloped by the idea of him, and even the slightest mention or loosest connection to him gives her a fluttering chill. Sadly, that person rarely feels the same about you. But every young person has also felt the same way that Cassandra feels about Stephen. She has times where she wants to love him the way he loves her, and she fully acknowledges his beauty and kindness, but no matter what she does she just can’t fool herself or Stephen. But navigating that situation left both of them confused and hurt at times, Stephen especially. This really resonated with me, as I have lived this exact scenario myself with much harsher and more embarrassing results. I was not at my best and did not act kindly.

This parallel between myself and Cassandra served the same purpose: coming of age. While I wish I could take back a lot of what happened in my situation, it did result in many hard lessons learned. I have never repeated any of the mistakes I made then. Cassandra, through her infatuation with Simon, the resulting fight with Rose, and her redefining of her friendship with Stephen, grew out of her “consciously naive” childhood self and started to see the world as the complicated place that it is.

Rose’s path is very interesting and speaks to the changing place of women in society at that time. She felt she had to marry for money to rescue her family, but her headstrong personality and the modernity of the 1930s allowed her to *ahem* surprise everyone. I don’t want to spoil that twist for people who don’t know. I really love that moment, however, when they realize that things aren’t going to happen the way everyone thought. Rose followed her gut and ran fast in the direction it was telling her to. I find that I also make decisions like this, but luckily I’ve never been in quite the same situation as Rose.


October = horror

While I absolutely relate to both Cassandra and Rose in different ways, I’m secretly hoping that I end up like Topaz, who’s just kind of nuts and lovely. She’s actually my age in the book, so I guess I can start living my best life now as a perpetually naked slightly dead goddess. I Capture the Castle has been added to the list of books that I need to reread every few years, along with Little Women and Rebecca. I’m sure I will get something equally powerful out of it each time I read it. How do you feel about I Capture the Castle? Who do you most identify with?

October’s genre is horror (of course)! I’ll be reading Pet Sematary by Stephen King, because I definitely did not read it and probably told every single one of you that I did. Oops. I did actually read a good chunk of it, like with I Capture the Castle, but I don’t remember anything about it really. I can’t wait to cuddle in some fluffy blankets with a hot toddy and this super creepy book as the weather gets colder and my favorite holiday approaches! I’ll also be reading a bonus horror book…stay tuned to see what it is. And of course, you’re welcome to read along with me and join in the shame. Happy reading!


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