Dodie Smith’s “I Capture the Castle”: What Jane Austen would have written in the 20th Century

An Author who has been Disney-ed nearly out of print.

I Capture the Castle (ICTC) is a great read for a winter’s day, or really, just a great read.  It is a bit of a spin on the classic Victorian novel, and in case you miss that, the characters throw in several references!  They definitely see themselves as latter day Jane Austen heroines, no question, but this book was written as contemporary fiction in the 1940’s (set in the 1930’s), so in the end, the books goes off in several unexpected ways, so you are left guessing until the end.

I have to admit, the beginning of this book does grate on me a bit: the family is extremely poor, to the point that they don’t have enough to eat, yet for some reason the only member of the family who actually does something about it by getting a job is the “ward” of the family: the son of the deceased housekeeper.  Who also lives in servant’s quarters and continues to work for the family even though he is unpaid.  I found it all a bit hard to take: there are 5 able-bodied adults, including the father, in the family, and besides the one mentioned above, only the narrator of the book attempts any type of gainful employment.  The rest just make excuses and don’t pay their bills, including the rent on the broken down castle they live in.

Ok, on second thought, maybe that’s the humor. Let’s hope so. I’m probably too American to get it.

So you have to able to get past that, which I admit, almost made me put this book down.  But if you get through the first part, which is mercifully short, the second part is funny.  I especially enjoyed the characterizations of the family’s American neighbors, the Cottons, and their first dinner party.  And to honest, it’s nice to read a British book in which Americans come off so well!

The third section, the longest, begins slowly.  The narrator, Cassandra, believes she has fallen in love, and I wasn’t sure if I could take a whole section of her mooning around over a man. But finally, it is in the third section that this book starts to diverge from its 19th century predecessors, and in the end, is a very 20th century wild ride that takes the reader off in some surprising directions before arriving at an unexpected conclusion.

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Spoiler Alert: Do not read the article below if you want to read this book!

Why I Capture the Castle has gained a secret cult of book lovers

Dodie Smith is an author that you don’t know that you know.

You may think that you have never heard of Dodie Smith before, but actually, you probably have heard of at least one of her books without knowing it.  She wrote 101 Dalmatians, the basis for the Disney movies.  She also wrote a sequel, which by the way, has nothing to do with the sequels to the Disney movies.

I’m not normally a fan of animal books of any kind, but I’m a fan of the title, The Starlight Barking.

Intertextuality and Reader Response or, nothing under the sun is new.

Intertextuality is the influence of one text on another. There is also the influence that the reader has on the text; this idea is tied to the Reader Response theory of literary criticism.

In school, you might have been taught that the meaning is in the text. While I believe that you can misread a text, and ought to double check yourself for mistakes, I think the meaning is in the interaction between the reader and the text.

Intertextuality is both intentional and unintentional. The more you have read and experienced, the more you bring to your reading of a text. The same is true of authors or any artist: all that they see, hear, and experience comes out in their work.

Here is more information about these ideas if you’re interested in them…if not, go straight to the quiz!

Reader Response theory from the Poetry Foundation

Intertextuality from Thought Co.

Intertextuality from Literary Devices (with a quick quiz!)

Also, you can find my doctoral dissertation on this subject here.


Note on the cover photo

The exact setting of this novel is imaginary other than it is in Suffolk, England. I searched the Internet for photos of castles in the area until I found the photo above, which most closely matches the description in chapter 3.

I was looking for a castle that isn’t too large and looks inhabitable. This one is a private home and even has a moat!

It is Wingfield Castle and is in Suffolk. I found the photo and description here.



Puzzles, Intertextuality, and the Castle

Puzzles and word games play a significant role in I Capture the Castle in connection with Cassandra’s father’s work as an author.

The protagonist and narrator, Cassandra, is an aspiring author and the daughter of an author, so she is well read and sees the connections between her family’s situation and those of certain novels that a lot of us (then and now) have read. 

Perhaps her references made me get started, but then I couldn’t stop, and I found myself mentally playing the “intertextuality game”, in which I see how many literary references I can find. 

So that you, dear readers*, can join in the fun, I have a special quiz for you all to play at home.  Take a look at the list below, and as you are reading I Capture the Castle, try to identify the link.  I’ve put my answers at the bottom so you won’t see them until the end. 

*You got that one, right?

Quiz: Identify the intertexuality between the books listed below and I Capture the Castle

1. Pride and Prejudice AND Sense and Sensibility

More from The Lois Level on Jane Austen:

“Pride and Prejudice”: What was really going on in Elizabeth Bennett’s home?

Jane Austen: Inventor of “Chick Lit” or Subversive Radical?

2. Wuthering Heights

4. Jane Eyre and Vanity Fair

5. Little Lord Fauntleroy

6. The Buccaneers

7. The House of Mirth

8. Gone with the Wind

9. Lisa and Lottie

10. Mere Christianity

1.     Pride and Prejudice: Two sisters (of five) must marry well to save the family, and their only prospects are the single men on the adjoining estate. In Sense and Sensibility, there are two sisters in a family who have already lost their property through entailment*, who also need to make a good marriage to save themselves.

*Entailment is often an issue in British novels. It’s the system in which the entire estate is kept together and is automatically inherited by the next male. The benefit of this system is that it kept the estate together. The problem with this system is that it often automatically impoverished the other siblings and obviously developed a problem between supply and demand for the landed classes. If the patriarch of the family had serious money and managed it well, some women and younger sons inherited money, whose income they could live on. There’s a mention of this difference when Simon explains that he automatically inherited his estate, but he wasn’t sure if the money was also going to be left to him to do a rift in the family.

Read more here, from Austen Authors.

3.     Wuthering Heights: Stephan Colly, like Heathcliff, is a “ward” of the family who is of a lower social class, but more resourceful that the “upper class” family. Like Heathcliff, Stephan is in love with one of the family

4.     Jane Eyre & Vanity Fair: The Vicar literally calls Cassandra “the insidious type” and directly compares her to Becky Sharp and Jane Eyre (page 111 in my edition, published 1998).

5. Little Lord Fauntleroy: Simon Cotton, an American, comes to England to inherit as estate, just like young Cedric Errol does, and the relationships between the fathers and grandfathers are similar in the two novels, with both fathers having moved to the United States. Ironically, the only direct mention of Fauntleroy in ICTC is in reference to a conversation between Cassandra’s stepmother and father that has nothing to do with the Cottons. (323).

6.     The Buccaneers: Dodie Smith would certainly have been aware of the phenomenon of American “nouveau riche” women going to the U.K. to marry impoverished British aristocrats in the 19th century, which is the subject of this novel. I enjoyed Smith’s treatment of Americans much more than Wharton’s (although I’m sure Wharton accurately represented it). I thought Cassandra’s fascination with Mrs. Cotton’s personal cleanliness especially amusing.

Read more from The Lois Level on The Buccaneers here.

7.  The House of Mirth: I kept thinking about this novel as an example of what could happen to Rose and Cassandra, especially as they begin to negotiate the marriage market. This similarity is underscored by both Lily and Rose/Cassandra’s being disinherited by the one wealthy relative they have, an aunt. There is also a similar issue in that Lily, Rose and Cassandra all want to marry for love, which is the right thing. Right?

I always think of Lily Bart when I hear this song: she’s too trashy to be classy and too classy to be trashy.

How would similar circumstances + 50 years affect Cassandra and Rose?

8. Gone with the Wind: While I was reading the first section of ICTC, I kept thinking of that scene in GWTW when Scarlett vows that she will get her family through all of this and that none of them will ever be hungry again. You know, the same day that she has delivered a baby and driven said baby and the rest of her family through enemy lines to find her mother dead, her father out of his mind, and her home nearly destroyed?

Yeah, that one.

I know we are all supposed to be embarrassed by GWTW because of its depiction of slavery in the South, but at least the O’Haras didn’t sit up in their plantation and do nothing while the former slaves/now unpaid servants all ran around and did the work.

Well, they all would have if Scarlett had let them.

On the other hand, Scarlett didn’t worry too much about who loved whom when she had bills to pay (unless it might help her pay said bills), so you say who is wrong.

9. Lisa and Lottie: Like Dottie Smith, this is a novel that you think you don’t know but you probably do. Disney has made it into a film twice. Have you heard of The Parent Trap?

Lisa and Lottie is one of those books I randomly discovered in the public library when I was a kid. Years later, I was stunned when I first saw The Parent Trap (old movies weren’t around so much in the ‘70’s). The plots were so similar yet a lot of the details were different. We couldn’t just Google our questions in those days, so I randomly wondered about it for years.

The relationship between Neil and Simon Cotton in ICTC is somewhat like the relationship between the twins in Lisa and Lottie in that their parents divorced and each parent took one sibling to raise…which also shows that the plot in Lisa and Lottie probably wasn’t as considered as barbaric as I have heard some comment.

Ironically, Neil is from California and Simon is from Boston (be sure to read Cassandra’s initial impressions of them, especially if you are American…very funny). This plot detail is not part of the original book (published in Germany in 1949), which placed the sisters in Vienna and Munich, but is in the 1961 The Parent Trap. Smith beat them both, publishing ICTC in 1948.

Got it?

Side note: According to Wikipedia, author Erich Kastner originally started this novel as a screenplay during a brief period during which Hitler allowed him to work during World War 2.

Dodie Smith wrote ICTC while living in the U.S. during World War 2. She and her husband left England because they were conscientious objectors to the war.

Which seems a bit much if someone is bombing you to bits while also apparently worrying about what screenwriters do with their time, but there you are.

10. Mere Christianity: In the third part of ICTC, Cassandra engages in a lot of self-reflection as she struggles to come to terms with, well, growing up really, but framed by an immediate situation. As a part of her process, she discusses Christianity with the village vicar, a family friend, and does some serious reflection on her beliefs and the meaning of Christianity.

C.S. Lewis began his exploration of Christianity at Oxford at around the same time that Smith was writing ICTC in the United States while World War 2 was probably minimizing communication between the two countries, so it’s hard to say if there are any direct influences between Smith and Lewis’ work, but certainly the Vicar’s ideas (in the novel) remind me of Lewis, so there it is.

C.S. Lewis might be another author you think you don’t know. Although his nonfiction work is definitely not unknown, he is known even more widely for a book called The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first of the Narnian Chronicles.

How did you do? If you want even more, look up Proust, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare, and tell me what you think below.