My rating: 6.5/10
I have just laid down The New Moon with the Old with something like a delicate revulsion; I am subsequently wrestling with the dilemma of how best to describe this fantastic tale. “Fantastic” in this case meaning contrived and highly improbable.
That said, damning as it is, I’m going to keep this book, and I know I will re-read it, both to give it a second chance to redeem my first impression of its awfulness and because, despite that very awfulness, it has frequent moments of a quite appealing charm and clever turns of phrase that almost (almost!) redeem the awefully (fantastically!) bad bits.
Confused yet? If so, we’re on the same page.
Dodie Smith’s first novel, I Capture the Castle, is, in my frank opinion, more than a minor masterpiece of the “light novel” genre. There is so much that I like about that work that I have been eager to get my hands on some of Smith’s other, much more obscure titles, hoping that they would have something of the same delicate touch and deep appeal of Castle. Sadly, New Moon did not meet expectations.
The New Moon with the Old is set in contemporary times, the early 1960s, though the heady atmosphere of that change-filled era is nowhere apparent in the story. A young woman, Jane Minton, has just been engaged as an assistant to wealthy Rupert Carrington. Her duties will be to act as occasional secretary and general overseer of the domestic arrangements at his country home, Dome House. Also in residence are Rupert’s four children: 14-year-old schoolgirl Merry, who is actively planning a stellar acting career; 20-year-old Drew, an aspiring “Edwardian-era” novelist; twenty-something Clare, unsure of her natural bent but toying with the romantic idea of being a “mistress to a king”; and slightly older Richard, a musician and neophyte composer. Two devoted elderly sisters acting as cook and general maid round out the cast of characters.
Jane arrives at Dome House and is immediately impressed by the quiet luxury which surrounds her. Absentee lord of the manor Rupert is more than generous in his provision for his dependents, but this is very soon to change. On her first full day in residence, alone in the house, Jane is surprised by Rupert’s sudden clandestine appearance. He hurriedly explains that there is suddenly no more money to pay for his family’s luxurious lifestyle, and he asks her (or, rather, she spontaneously volunteers, due to her unspoken crush on Rupert) to look after the young Carringtons and try to launch them into their careers. Rupert himself is about to flee the country to avoid prosecution for some undefined financial transgression related to his handling of his clients’ affairs. Jane, who fell in love at first sight with Rupert at her job interview and now welcomes a chance to openly show her rather sudden devotion, jumps in to the situation cheerfully, going so far as to seek outside employment so she can assist with Dome House’s operating costs.
After this sketchy set-up, the story continues as a series of multi-chapter interludes, following each Carrington as he or she attempts to pursue each driving ambition, or, in Clare’s case, to find an ambition to pursue.
The characterizations of Jane, Rupert, and the two maids are extremely superficial; the author insists on telling rather than showing the reasons for their actions, and, in the case of Jane and the maids, their over-the-top dedication to a rather offhand employer and his ineffectual, over-indulged (though endlessly sweet and charming) brood. The four young Carringtons are better presented; we do get more of a chance to get inside their heads as we follow them on their precipitous fledgling flights from Dome House.
The story takes off (as much as it ever does) with the first decision by the youngest child (Merry) to seek her fortune elsewhere. The adventures of Merry and her three siblings are rather unusual and require a serious suspension of disbelief from the reader. New Moon’s world is one in which love at first sight is a commonplace, and serendipity and coincidence reign supreme. Great wealth, often unsuspected, abounds to save the questing characters from more than superficial worry and discomfort.
This collection of vignettes is tacked together by visits back to Dome House to see how Jane, the maids, and the rest of the family are making out; as the characters move out of their downy nest they generally fall into others even more generously feathered, much to this reader’s perpetual annoyance.
Near the end of the novel, after waiting in vain for the whole thing to jell into something a little more cohesive, the author did provide a spot of conversation between several of the main characters wherein they admit their own anachronistic traits, and poke a bit of fun at themselves. This went far with me to renew my flagging interest. I thought, “Aha! Dodie Smith realizes what a mess these people are, and she’s deliberately allowing them this exposition with a view to a stronger, more artistically satisfying and marginally more realistic ending.” But it was not to be.
By the novel’s end, everyone is neatly paired off with a friendly and/or romantic interest; everyone has found a solution to their financial woes. Though reasonably open-ended, the conclusion is quite clear in its optimistic tone for all concerned, most appropriate to this fluffy little fairytale.
I see that this title, as well as two others, The Town in Bloom and It Ends with Revelations, have been reissued in March, 2012. If the other two titles are at all like The New Moon with the Old in tone and complexity (or lack thereof) I would think that here we have nothing more than a trio of nice little beach or lawn chair reads, of value for several hours of light entertainment and inventive nostalgia.
The New Moon with the Old serves to display the perfection of I Capture the Castle as a diamond among literary rhinestones. Rhinestones being pretty enough for a bit of shine and dazzle, as long as they aren’t confused with the genuine thing!
And a bit of a heads-up here for the reader expecting a story as morally upright as I Capture the Castle turns out to be. New Moon shows Dodie Smith in a much more laissez-faire moral mood. She uses as a rather feeble plot device Rupert Carrington’s financial dishonesty, and she ignores the reality that his actions have doubtlessly injured many innocent parties; she offhandedly arranges for him to be bailed out of his disgrace by a wealthy connection who can afford the best lawyers and counsel; and her characters have surprisingly permissive views on sex and sexual arrangements. One of the most off-putting passages (to me) was near the story’s conclusion where Jane is scorned for her “frigidity” concerning extramarital sex: “No wonder she hasn’t been able to catch a man!” is implied. But I wasn’t shocked so much by the sophistication of the characters’ amoral sex lives as by their offhand acceptance of the “easy ride” that money brings; all concerned seem quite happy to act as sweetly smiling and endlessy charming parasites on various wealth-engorged hosts.
A strange little novel in so many ways.