My rating: 8.5/10
After my mixed feelings about one of Dodie Smith’s “other” (meaning not I Capture the Castle) adult novels, The New Moon with the Old, and my rather shaky introduction to this one (I quit early on the first time of attempting to read it) I was very pleased to find that I did like this one, after all. A whole lot. Now isn’t that interesting?
Three ex-actresses meet for their every-five-years reunion dinner, hoping that this year, the eighth reunion, the fourth of their friends, the elusive Zelle, may join them, but it appears that this is not to be.
It’s been forty years since vivacious narrator Mouse (we never learn her real name), placid Molly and sleekly beautiful Lilian were all thrown together in the lively heyday of the 1920s London theatre scene. They have all gone on to varying degrees of success and happiness, and by and large enjoy their reminiscences every time they meet, but there is a shadow lurking regarding the unknown fate of the fourth of their jolly crew, who vanished (voluntarily) from her room in the theatrical boarding house they all shared and hasn’t been seen or heard from since, despite repeated pleas to join the reunion published in the personal ads of The Times.
As the three friends chat after their window table lunch, Mouse becomes increasingly intrigued by an eccentrically dressed woman huddled over her drab knitting on a park bench outside, who keeps glancing at the ladies inside in a surreptitious manner. Could it possibly be…?
An attempt to intercept the maybe-Zelle fails, but Mouse has marked the house her quarry disappeared into for future investigation. Meanwhile, the encounter has triggered a flood memories of the summer in the 1920s when the four girls came together in their unlikely friendship, and which ultimately saw all of them launched on their forever-after paths due to decisions made in the passionate heat of those few torrid months.
I hesitate to go much further in my description of the plot, because I did so enjoy unravelling it all on my own, but I will say that it involves a whole lot of sex. Thinking about it, talking about it, plotting how best to go about arranging it, and of course doing it. There is nothing at all graphic, aside from some teasing reference – “I should write down all the details in my diary but well maybe I’ll just let it live in my memory…” – but these girls are all, in their own ways, carrying on very active love/sex lives. Mouse is assumed to be the most innocent, due to her relative youth (she’s eighteen) and child-like appearance (she’s tiny and innocent looking) but she turns out to be nothing of the sort, absolutely throwing herself into the experience, and eagerly shedding her virginity with only a few meditative regrets:
I was very happy too – in a way; I am finding that out as I write. I am, somehow…exorcising the loneliness. It will pass, it will pass.
But with it will pass someone I shall be a little sorry to lose: myself as I was before last night. Aunt Marion had a book of poems by Charles Cotton which she bought for the Lovat Fraser decorations, and in one poem are the lines:She finds virginity a kind of ware That’s very, very troublesome to bear, And being gone she thinks will ne’er be missed.
I think one will miss it, but only for a very little while. Soon one will forget that it ever meant anything. Perhaps it never did; already I can almost accept that. The great plane tree outside my window is just as beautiful it was that May night when I last wrote in my journal, though its summer leaves are a little less green than the leaves of spring…
Shades of Cassandra Mortmain, I believe I detect in these youthfully self-focussed musings.
The novel gives a fascinating glimpse of the world of the 1920s’ theatre, being very much involved with backstage life, and the details Dodie Smith gives are worth wading through the occasionally tiresome teenage angst of our narrator, and the annoyances that her full-speed-ahead-towards-the-goal persona occasionally engender.
The theatre scenes of the first half of the book are fascinating, though the focus changes (dramatically) once the love affairs start. I did feel that perhaps Mouse’s experiences in the theatre were a bit too plush-lined – she seems to end jam side up pretty well each and every time she stumbles, being taken in and indulged and helped and sheltered again and again and again, even by those she’s deliberately wronged. Rather special, is our Mouse.
I was relieved by the ending, which wasn’t as blissfully neat and tidy as I feared it would be, though it glossed over a whole lot of bothersome details, citing their unimportance due to the passing of four forgetful decades.
Dodie Smith gained my readerly good regard by her willingness to show that there were no fairy tale endings, or, more aptly, that there are really no endings at all (except the very obvious final final one); life does go on and on and on, with no attainment of a permanent goal, and, furthermore, it (life) can continue to be exceedingly interesting, no matter what your birth certificate lists your age as.
Much has been made in some of the other reviews I’ve read about the unexpected feminist elements and the surprising frankness regarding sex in this book, but I didn’t at all feel that these were unusually daring, because though the novel was for the most part set in the 1920s, it was written in the 1960s. Though our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers kept a discreet silence (for the most part) about their personal sexual affairs, there is no doubt whatsoever that their private lives were just as sophisticated as anything going on in this generation, so any sort of “Gosh! Golly! Gee whiz! These girls were downright modern in their escapades!” attitude gets nothing but a yawn from me.
To sum up, The Town in Bloom is a rather better book, in my opinion, than The New Moon With the Old, though I Capture the Castle still occupies a niche set well above either of these.
I have several volumes of Dodie Smith’s biography waiting on the TBR shelves, but I do believe I will investigate some more of her fictions first, if I can get my hands on them. It Ends with Revelations will be the easiest to obtain, and after that I’m not quite sure where to go. Possibly a play or two? Dear Octopus has been recommended to me as worthy of reading. And maybe a revisit to the juveniles, to dally for a bit among the Dalmations…