Capturing Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle

This past July, while I was in Orlando for Leaky-Con and visiting family, my mother-in-law and I partook of one of our favorite activities: thrift store shopping. She knows all the best spots, and we always find great bargains and have a blast. While I was browsing the books, I spotted one I have only ever seen on the virtual shelf on J.K. Rowling’s pre-Pottermore website: Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. It’s a fairly well-handled edition, but it was practically free, and I decided I wanted to see why Rowling has always declared the novel’s narrator to be one of the “most charismatic” of any in any novel. I recently finally got around to reading it, so I thought I’d share a few of my insights, and see if those of you who have also read the book will post your thoughts as well!

Most people who recognize Dodie Smith’s name do so because she is also the author of 101 Dalmatians, but she was actually just as well known during her career for her plays and novels, particularly I Capture the Castle.This novel, which so captivated J.K. Rowling, is narrated by Cassandra, daughter of the supposedly brilliant author Mortmain who, fresh from his huge success with the ground-breaking experimental novel Jacob Wrestling, bought a castle whose architecture spans several eras. However, after fixing up the castle, Mortmain’s creative juices dried up, and by the time of the novel, teenage Cassandra, her younger brother Thomas, older sister Rose, and their eccentric stepmother (a model named Topaz) all are trying to survive by selling off the furniture and by accepting the contributions of Stephen, technically a servant, but brought up in the home with the family and now working on nearby farm while he cherishes a secret passion for Cassandra. The story itself is a coming of age tale, as Cassandra and Rose both learn a few things about love, life, art, and overcoming genteel poverty.

The plot, which takes a few twists reminiscent of Jane Austen, may have been influential on Rowling’s composition process (thought it’s more likely that the similarities result from the fact that both Smith and Rowling are drawing on Austen. ) The story, though, is not what really gets the reader’s attention; it is Cassandra’s narrative voice. In order to write her thoughts quickly, Cassandra has learned speed writing which she has adapted with her own special codes. Using this secret language, she makes detailed studies of the people, places, and events in her life, sometimes writing in actual journals, but often on old school copy-books, or anywhere else she can find paper. Her process actually sounds much like Rowling’s, and may have actually inspired Rowling to use the notebook method to capture her thoughts on Harry’s world just as Cassandra uses them to capture the world she knows.

Certain elements of the story will certainly resonate with those of us who have been to Hogwarts a fair few times: a castle with an odd combination of ancient and modern elements, but no electricity; eccentric family members who are all loved despite their individual oddities (including Topaz’s resemblance to Fleur Delacour); travel by train; a character named Rose who may have been one of the reasons Rowling chose the name for Ron and Hermione’s daughter; descriptions of food that make even somewhat questionable British cuisine sound tasty; and inanimate objects that have their own personalities (the old dress frame, which Rose and Cassandra call Miss Blossom, is voiced by Cassandra and sounds much like the talking mirror in Harry’s room at the Leaky Caldron).

But far more than some similar pieces, I Capture the Castle lends something less tangible to Rowling’s writing. The novel has a tone that, like the Hogwarts adventures, seamlessly winds together the comic and the crushing in a way that is reflective of life, particularly life as we see it when we are younger. Cassandra’s voice is, indeed, engaging, and readers will no doubt see how the narrative voice of Harry’s story has some of the same features.

In addition, like Rowling, Smith takes a genre that many find tiresome (teenage girl love-angst for Smith; schoolboy novel for Rowling) and makes it quite winsome. Those who resist the charms of Stephenie Meyer’s Bella as narrator probably won’t be drawn in, but those who can see how deftly the “capturing” works will find Cassandra a delight. There are, of course, elements that make the novel a bit dated (it was published in 1948), but overall, it is still quite charming, and the commentary on art (from painting to poetry, to photography, to music, to whatever one calls Mortmain’s writing) is amusing and thoughtful through the eyes of un-jaded Cassandra.

So if you are browsing your favorite used bookshop and see a copy of Capture the Castle, snatch it up, take a look, and maybe you, like Rowling and now, myself, will be captured as well.

Any other readers care to chime in?


  1. I keep checking Abebooks for a cheap copy, but haven’t been lucky.

  2. I loved this book. I first read it two or three or more years ago. I was on a quest to read the books that Rowling said she loved – I was trying to understand her point of view a little better and thought reading her favorites was one way to do it.

    Now that you have brought this up, I think I’ll have to pull it back off my book shelf and give it another read.

  3. Steve Morrison says


    There are cheap copies available from Biblio and Alibris.

  4. @Steve

    Thanks so much, I did not check either site.

  5. Davetheshortwinded says

    Note to male readers: Do not run away from this book because it sounds like it’s “for girls”!! Guys, you’ll enjoy it! And, for those who prefer to see it first, there is the movie version (but read it first, because of the plot twists).

  6. Thanks, Dave! I needed a Y chromosome endorsement! Indeed, this is not a “girls only” book, though the sort of readers who can’t travel along with Bella Swan (as I mentioned above) probably won’t have much luck with Cassandra, which is a shame. They’d be missing a treat!
    And thanks for the film endorsement. I knew there was one, but I had not checked it out yet. It’s good to know it’s good!
    Fun side note for Chaos Walking readers. Watch for Ben’s favorite song “Early in the Morning” to make a cameo at the end of the novel.

  7. If I recall correctly, Rowling did not encounter this book until 1999 (between PoA & Goblet) when, on a book tour, a fan gave her a copy. This is pertinent to any speculation about how ‘Castle’ might have influenced the Potter series.

  8. With Bella I got too tired reading about everything tingling and sparkling. I made it through the first book but never had any desire to pick up a second. I’ll have to give this book a try though.

  9. Davetheshortwinded says

    Elizabeth, the movie gets mixed reviews by Netflix viewers. Great cast…BBC production…but as with many movies (esp. of Jane Austen novels), much me be
    sacrificed for the visual. The characters’ feelings, which are so important to the story, cannot be adequately expressed in film. Another Rowling favorite, Little White Horse, experiences (IMHO) the same problem when it becomes The Secret of Moonacre. But, in both cases, I enjoyed and recommend both book and film, seeing one as supplementing the other.

  10. Davetheshortwinded says

    Sorry. “much must be”

  11. I actually just read this book as part of a Structure of Fiction course in an MFA Creative Writing program. We had a mixed crowd reading–poets, fiction writers, young women in their early 20’s, men in their late 20’s to mid 30’s, etc. We had an interesting discussion about the novel’s more heavy subtext. Some readers were not drawn to the book because of the winsome, teen-girl tone, and others were turned off by the Jane Austen-esque plot taking place in a more modern setting. Overall, though, I though we defended the book well against those who would try to label something as too “young” or “light reading,” to be good “serious fiction.” Learning that it was an influence for Rowling only makes me appreciate it more. Definitely a great read!

  12. I very much enjoyed I Capture the Castle when I read it, forty (or more) years ago. I haven’t read the sparkling vampire books, because my daughter told me “I want my I.Q. points back!” in response to me asking her opinion of the first book. She told me the main character was wimpy and stupid. Now, my girl, even in high school, was sensible to the point of having a reputation for being sensible. Takes after me, she does. But I would like to say that as a young person I enjoyed this book, so I would feel good about recommending it even to a sparkly-vampire hater.

    I would not be averse to reading it again. Sometimes bits of the book drift across my mind, like the warm brick wrapped in Cassandra’s worn-out flannel nightgown that warms the foot of her cold bed.

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