The Girl From the Candle-Lit Bath by Dodie Smith ~ 1978. This edition: W.H. Allen, 1978. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-491-0-2113-5. 155 pages.
My rating: 3/10
I was wrong.
It is dreadful.
Great title, gorgeous cover. Very titillating to the readerly imagination, kind of like our heroine’s soap commercial was to the TV-viewing masses in this thankfully short novel, which explains the reference which the title makes. For our heroine is a not-very-successful actress, who was engaged to perform in a soap commercial which showed her nude but with the naughty bits always just concealed, and she is therefore famous enough to be recognized for this years later.
So, did her many fans concentrate solely on her face? I can see some credence in her being continually recognized if she were wandering around nude, but as her fans instantly recognize her when she is fully clothed there is something weird going on with this premise.
Oh, heck. The whole thing is weird. And not in a good way, either.
Dodie Smith was 82 years old when this was published, part of an all-at-once 1978 three-book release by her publisher, along with the second volume of her autobiography, Look Back with Mixed Feelings (which is utterly excellent), and a juvenile, The Midnight Kittens (beautifully illustrated by Anne and Janet Grahame-Johnston, and appearing quite promising from my recent browse-through), and all I can assume is that her elderly energies were mostly being engaged with her journals and memoirs. The Candle-Lit Girl is a sketchy creation, paper-thin and not terribly engaging. In fact, I found myself wishing someone had left her in that notorious bathtub, well submerged.
But here she is, undeniably on paper, and wafting about the vintage book world tempting those seduced by the excellence of Dodie Smith’s masterpiece I Capture the Castle into exploring her other novels. I speak from experience; I was one of those seeking something of the same quality of Castle, and I must agree with all of those who have quested before me that there is nothing in this particular book for us.
The other Dodie Smith novels I’ve read, The Town in Bloom and The New Moon with the Old, are quite acceptable as minor diversions, containing as they do a lot of genuine charm and reasonably cohesive narrative threads, but The Girl From the Candle-Lit Bath is an utter dud, not even up to the standard of these mild but amusing second-raters.
So – have I made my point yet? I think I have. Stay away!
Do we need a plot description? I guess we do, after this opening rant.
From the flyleaf:
When Nan Mansfield arrives home to hear her husband, Roy, on the telephone arranging a clandestine meeting in Regent’s Park, she is determined to find out what he is involved in. Is there another woman – or can it be blackmail, drugs, or even treason?
Roy is a Member of Parliament who was helped into politics by Cyprian Slepe, a brilliant eccentric who lives with his sister, Celina, in a decaying Stately Home. Nan comes to believe that Cyprian is connected with Roy’s mysterious activities. Helped by an enigmatic taxi-driver, she delves deeper and deeper, while her love and loyalty war with her ever-increasing suspicions, until at last she discovers that her own life is in jeopardy.
This starts off quite well, with a mysterious meeting and exchange of a small package in Regent Park between respectable Roy and a shady-looking man with long, “obviously dyed” hair. In fact, Nan thinks Roy’s meet-up is a woman, though taxi-driver Tim insists the stranger is a man.
Tim insists on quite a number of things, come to think of it. He goes well beyond the call of taxi-driverish duty, escorting Nan up to her apartment after the witnessed rendezvous and examining every nook and cranny, and warning Nan that she well may be up against more than she knows. For while Nan is still thinking that Roy is engaged in a purely personal complication, Tim is spouting off about the possibilities of Evil Russian Involvement (Roy is an M.P., after all, although very much an innocuous backbencher) and Political Espionage. Of course, Tim claims to be a (and actually is) a thriller writer, so these sorts of plots come quite naturally to his mind.
Not so Nan, who is exceedingly dim and unimaginative for someone whose métier is the theatre. Can’t help but think (rather meanly) that this might explain why her career was so second-rate, and why she was so willing to drop out of the theatre world to play tame political wife to ambitious Roy.
Anyway, Nan starts dictating her experiences into a tape recorder, the transcripts of which recordings we are now reading. At first I thought that might explain the curiously flat tone of the writing, that it was a deliberate attempt by Dodie Smith to represent Nan’s monologue, but after a while I gave up on that idea, concluding instead that the author really wasn’t that engaged with her story, hence the droning prose.
The plot is as full of holes as a piece of Swiss cheese, and the analogy doesn’t stop there. As well as being embarrassingly cheesy, this thing is capital-L Lame. Poor Dodie proves herself to be something of a one-trick pony, repeating all of the theatrical clichés we’ve already seen in her other non-Castle novels. Sure, she had some great youthful experiences in her own time as an aspiring actress, but we can only hear them so many times before we turn away in boredom. And her rather promising villain, Cyprian Slepe, is never properly developed, nor is his ditzy sister Celina, who is actually rather intriguing, what with her habit of painting portraits all in swirls of colour with one pertinent feature rendered with artistic precision. I liked that bit, and thought it showed promise. But nope, Dodie drops it and wanders away, into poorly-thought-out Communist Plot Land. Well, more like British-Right-Winger-Mulling-Over-Getting-Involved-With-The-Russians Plot Land. Or something. It’s a bit nebulous as to what the whole conspiracy is actually about. Gar.
Well, I’m going to point you to those other two reviews, because they go into more detail and are well worth reading if you’re wondering if you want to hunt down this very obscure novel for yourself.
My advice to you: Don’t do it. And if you do do it, go for a library copy and don’t shell out your hard-earned cash for a personal copy. (Speaking from rueful experience. Oh, well, looks grand on the shelf. I do like that cover.)
Here you are:
Thank you, ladies. Next time I’ll believe you and not go forging ahead in optimistic disregard of your assessments!