Archive for the ‘Dodie Smith’ Category

the girl from the candle-lit bath dodie smith 1978 001The 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

Oh, dear.

I was warned ahead of time that this book was a huge disappointment (see what Nan has to say here, and Elizabeth here) but I thought to myself, “Surely it can’t be that bad?”

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:

Fleur Fisher’s Review of The Girl in the Candle-Lit Bath

Strange and Random Happenstance’s Review of The Girl in the Candle-Lit Bath

Thank you, ladies. Next time I’ll believe you and not go forging ahead in optimistic disregard of your assessments!

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

dear dodie valerie grove 1996 001Dear Dodie: The Life of Dodie Smith by Valerie Grove ~ 1996. This edition: Chatto & Windus, 1996. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7011-5753-4. 339 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

I wonder if I can be truly fair to this biography, reading it as I did back-to-back with the subject’s own long and detailed discourse on her life?

For though Valerie Grove had complete access to the complete archive of Dodie Smith’s personal papers, the outline of Dodie’s life and the anecdotes she shared are merely repeated ad lib from Dodie Smith’s own four volumes of memoir in the first three-quarters or so of the book. Here and there Valerie Grove gives clarification and snippets of background information, but in essence what I felt I was reading was a brief condensation of the original memoir, minus the personal touches and the strongly “I” point-of-view which brought Dodie’s much longer work to life.

I was eager to get to the years not covered by Dodie’s own memoirs, the years after her return to England after her long American hiatus (1938 to 1953) originally inspired by partner Alec Beesley’s conscientious objector convictions and their apprehension about how he would be treated as England entered into the war years.

Valerie Grove did fill in the blanks here, as she was able to glean many of her facts from the completed manuscript of Dodie Smith’s fifth and unpublished volume of memoir, as well as from personal interviews with those who knew Dodie Smith well in her final years.

It is rather tragic that each successive volume of memoir had a harder time finding a publisher, as Dodie’s literary and theatrical star status waned with each succeeding decade and the predictable shift in public tastes and the ongoing hype around fresh young talents, such as Dodie herself was way back in the 1930s with her play-writing successes starting with Autumn Crocus and ending (to all intents and purposes, as she never after this wrote another really successful play) with Dear Octopus, and, to a secondary extent, with her two successful literary efforts, I Capture the Castle, and The Hundred and One Dalmatians. While her other titles had respectable sales, due in great part to the reputation of Dodie Smith’s “great” books, none were anything like as successful as those first two forays into mainstream and juvenile fiction writing.

Grove provides more details of Dodie and Alec’s rather unique-for-the-time household – the relationship, formalized by a 1938 marriage ceremony, was a perfect example of role reversal, Dodie being the breadwinner and Alec the support system and domestic homemaker. Neither Dodie nor Alec expressed any desire to have children, though both reportedly enjoyed the company of other people’s offspring; their affections were concentrated on each other and on their beloved pets.

Alec was tremendously handsome, in a matinee idol sort of way, and though occasionally encouraged to consider taking a screen test, he calmly declined any attempt to share the limelight with Dodie, living what seems by all accounts to be a rather self-contained and contented life. There was speculation among their peers (and I must admit to this as well) whether Alec Beesley was in fact gay, as it was public knowledge that he and the 7-years-older Dodie had separate bedrooms, and were intimate friends with a number of rather openly gay or bisexual men, most prominently perhaps the writer Christopher Isherwood.

dodie smith alec beesley christopher isherwood dec 25 1945 calif 001

Dodie, Alec, and Christopher Isherwood – California, December 25, 1945.

Grove agrees with the contention that Alec was indeed “straight” in regards to sexual matters, and utterly faithful to Dodie. She herself, after a young womanhood filled with sexual exploits, also seemed content to spend her later years in happy monogamy, stating at one point that her sexual urges seemed to have almost completely disappeared after the indulgences of her earlier days.

Dodie’s return to England in the early 1950s was at first marked by her exhilaration at being back home – her years in the United States were never completely happy, as she suffered from continual homesickness and guilt at abandoning her home country in time of war – and then by a rising sense of anguish at the realization that her plays, which she continued to write and attempt to promote, were no longer to the public taste. From “Dodie Smith” being a name to pique keen interest with theatrical managements, her name on a play was now a detriment, as the trend was now to bleak hyper-realism versus Dodie’s domestic “cozies”.

Further attempts at fiction writing after the stellar success of I Capture the Castle were not very successful; two more children’s stories following the also-stunningly-successful The Hundred and One Dalmatians also failed to capture the public imagination. Dodie and Alec, always living well up to their substantial income, started having serious money concerns. Royalties from the successful Disney adaptation of Dalmatians were to prove their most reliable source of steady revenue, though this declined as the years passed.

Dodie and Alec spent their last years in virtual seclusion in their country cottage, Dodie obsessively working on her memoirs, and Alec devoting himself to gardening. As age began to take its physical toll, things became increasingly difficult. Money worries, difficulties finding domestic help, and a succession of illnesses and injuries began to take precedence over Dodie’s creative efforts, though she remained remarkably lucid and articulate to the end, giving occasional interviews and writing letters and editing her journals and manuscripts.

One last Dalmatian, Charley, was Dodie’s constant companion, becoming even more important to her psychological well-being after Alec’s sudden death in 1987. Dodie had always assumed that Alec would outlive her; she was cut adrift to a great degree by his loss, suddenly having to deal with the multitude of small household and managerial tasks which he had always sheltered her from. Boisterous Charley gave Dodie an outlet for her affections, but was actually something of a challenge to care for; reports by those who knew her in her last years remarked on how bumptious he was, and how he would continually knock tiny, increasingly frail Dodie down. But she loved him unconditionally, setting aside a sum of money in her will for his care in the event of her death.

dodie smith charley 1986 001

90-year-old Dodie Smith and Charley, 1986.

Living alone in her cottage, now bedridden and increasingly fragile, Dodie protested against leaving, hoping that she could die in her own bed with Charley by her side. Her doctor insisted upon her entry into a nursing home, as it was becoming impossible to provide the needed care at home. Dodie Smith died in that nursing home in November of 1990. Charley, left at the cottage with daily visits by a caretaker to feed him, went into a decline, and died three weeks after Dodie’s departure.

Dodie Smith’s life was in some senses stranger than the fiction she made out of it; the “best bits” in her successes were taken directly from her life. A most unusual personality, admired greatly by many, loved deeply by some, and despised as well by those she fell afoul of. Dodie Smith had a very substantial ego; she had a stout faith in her own creative abilities, and though she occasional poked rueful fun at herself, one feels that she never really believed that she could possibly be wrong.

Valerie Grove has written a biography which shows all of the facets of Dodie’s personality. Borrowing heavily from Dodie’s own memoirs, its one major flaw in my opinion is that it is too dependent on these and on the continual quotations from the Look Back with… books. Having just read the books, much of what Grove wrote was very repetitive. Where she did cover new ground, there was occasionally a lack of context, as it seemed as though Valerie Grove was speaking to herself rather than to her audience.

Dodie Smith’s memoirs are very strong stuff. She has a distinctive voice which overwhelms the reader and draws one in and makes it hard to break away. I wonder if Valerie Grove felt the same way, which might account for the occasional flatness of the bits which diverge from Dodie’s account.

While one feels that Grove truly admires Dodie’s accomplishments, she is also just the smallest bit sour towards her subject. She seems to delight in pointing out the oddities of Dodie’s personal appearance, and continual physical descriptions of Dodie in her very old age seem a mite mean-spirited – “a wizened prune in a mink coat”, “a squeaky-voiced gnome”, “her stomach stuck out, possibly making up for her behind which had disappeared altogether” – and these are just a few of the many references throughout the biography to Dodie’s “odd” physique.

By all means read this biography; it does give a good overview of the life of Dodie Smith. But if at all possible, one should balance it by reading the subject’s own description of her life, because after reading Dodie’s memoirs I liked her an awful lot – she rather won me over with her balance of supreme ego and self-deprecating irony – and after reading Valerie Grove’s study I detected a certain sourness regarding her subject which tinged the writer’s expressed admiration with just a shade of doubt as to Grove’s real feelings regarding Dodie Smith.

Dodie Smith was a terrifically complex woman inspiring equally complex emotions even after her demise, is my very final summation of this biography which caps off my own readerly examination of this remarkable (and remarkably individualistic) woman’s life.

All in all, a worthwhile read. Recommended.

Read Full Post »

Dodie Smith in 1921, aged 25.

Dodie Smith in 1921, aged 25.

Coming to the surface after blissfully submerging myself this past week in the massive memoir of one Dodie Smith: failed actress, reasonably competent department store saleswoman (and eventual mistress of the store owner), astonishingly successful playwright, bestselling novelist, Dalmatian dog lover, and all-around fascinating character.

I have just read something over one thousand pages of autobiography in all, if one adds up the pages counts of her four volumes: Look Back with Love, Look Back with Mixed Feelings, Look Back with Astonishment, and Look Back with Gratitude. A fifth installment was in the works, but never published, and I find that I am sorely disappointed – I would read it with great joy.

So – Dodie Smith. Where does one start?

Perhaps I’ll merely recommend that anyone who has read and enjoyed the first volume of her memoirs, Look Back with Love, immediately go on a quest to beg, borrow or (at daunting cost – these were the Great Big Splurge of this summer’s book hunting) perhaps even steel oneself to buy the rest of the books. They are absolutely excellent.

I am personally not terribly familiar with the 1930s and 40s London and New York theatre scenes, or the Hollywood of the 1940s and early 50s, and many of the big names referenced were quite vague to me, but it didn’t matter a bit: Dodie brought these various worlds to life.

I am glad I came to these memoirs after reading a number of Dodie Smith’s novels, as my familiarity with her fictions helped me center myself in her recollections. I was intrigued and surprised to find out how many of the incidents in these fictions came from Dodie’s own life. In her case, truth is frequently much stranger than fiction; the most outrageous incidents come from life.

The bits I’d jibbed at the most in The New Moon with the Old and The Town in Bloom suddenly clicked. I’d wondered where the author was coming from with her dramatically-minded, stage-struck, teenage heroines just aching to dispense with their virginity to older (sometimes much older) gentlemen, and now I know. They are echoes of Dodie herself, though she (reluctantly) kept her “purity” until the advanced age of twenty-five, at which point she decided to take a friend’s advice and bestow it on a slightly bemused man-about town of her acquaintance. (The advice was that if one wasn’t married by twenty-five, one should feel oneself obligated to embark upon an affair, to keep one from becoming a curdled old virgin. Or something to that effect. 😉 )

All of this talk about sex makes it sound like these memoirs are rather risqué, but in truth they aren’t. Dodie is so matter-of-fact and so willing to share not just reports of her actions but abundant self-analysis of why she did what she did, looking back on her youth from the perspective of her eighties, that the potential salaciousness of these frank remembrances is disarmingly diffused.

Dodie wrote an astounding quantity of journal entries – thousands of pages and millions of words over her lifetime – and she mined out the most fascinating nuggets to embellish her memoirs, which are easy reading, words flowing smooth as silk. No doubt Dodie took endless pains to make them so, as she references a favourite tag of Sheridan’s – “Easy writing’s vile hard reading” – and states that the opposite also holds true.

She should know.

Dodie Smith, aged 14, at which point this volume of memoir begins, picking up where "Look Back with Love" ends.

Dodie Smith, aged 14, at which point this volume of memoir begins, picking up where “Look Back with Love” ends.

Look Back with Mixed Feelings: Volume Two of an Autobiography by Dodie Smith ~ 1978. This edition: W.H. Allen, 1978. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-491-02073-2. 277 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Fair warning: These will all be rated 10/10. Grand reading experience; better than anticipated. I mean, 4 volumes of autobiography – surely one will get tired of this introspection at some point and long to put these down?

Nope.

Super-condensed recap:

The 14-year-old Dodie moves from Manchester to London with her mother and new stepfather. Stepfather proves to be unsatisfactory, emotionally abusing Dodie’s mother and squandering her small fortune. Heartbreaking turn of events as Dodie’s mother falls ill and slowly dies of breast cancer; Dodie nurses her and is present at her deathbed.

With support of her aunts and uncles, Dodie embarks upon dramatic training in London at the Academy of Dramatic Arts (later the RADA) and then on to a concerted attempt to build a career as an actress. Though she does rather better than many others, she finds a pattern emerging in which she is able to talk herself into parts, only to not be able to sustain them. Many end ignobly – Dodie refers to herself as “the most fired actress in London”.

She finds a certain amount of solace and a relief of creative yearnings in her private writing; she works on a number of plays, writes much in her journals, and dabbles in poetry.

Writing of this period in her life, 1914 to 1922, Dodie references quite frequently her later novel, The Town in Bloom, in which she includes numerous from-life experiences of herself (“Mouse” in the novel) and her friends and fellow striving actresses. The “giving up virginity” scene is apparently also drawn from personal experience, as are the other romantic and sexual goings-on of the girls in the novel. As in the novel, this volume of memoir focusses as strongly on the yearnings of a young Dodie for love and romance as much as for a theatrical career.

Gloriously funny throughout; I laughed out loud at some of the anecdotes. Wonderful descriptions of, well, everything, really. Especially of clothing. Dodie put a lot of effort into her personal appearance, dressing for effect whenever possible. Heads up, Moira, if you haven’t already dipped into this one – the descriptions are brilliantly detailed and just begging to be illustrated! (Even better than in The Town in Bloom.)

The volume ends with Dodie down on her luck, finally accepting her failure as an actress, and preparing to enter into the “civilian” workforce, as a shopgirl at the esteemed London household furnishings emporium Heal and Sons. The saga ends abruptly and rather cliff-hanger-ishly (as does Look Back with Love) – one is left poised to go on, and yearning for the next installment. And luckily, here it is, published just one year later:

look back with astonishment dodie smith 001

Dodie Smith, circa 1932, in one of her most successful and beloved outfits to date, a grey hat and coat (with matching shoes and handbag) by “Gwen of Devon”

Look Back with Astonishment by Dodie Smith ~ 1979. This edition: W.H. Allen, 1979. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-491-02198-4. 273 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Picking up exactly where Look Back with Mixed Feelings leaves off, with Dodie stepping into Heal’s through the imposing glass entrance doors and taking on what would prove to be a respectably long stint in the retail trade – 1923 to 1931.

Dodie finds life as a working girl pulling the regular 9-to-6 shift five days a week (plus 9-to-1 on Saturdays) something of a change, but she grits her teeth and gets down to it. She has been engaged as Number Five Assistant to the section manager – a situation which rankles – Dodie must initial all of her transactions with the manager’s initials and “5” representing herself as an anonymous cog in the works – and which she soon manages to finagle herself out of, partly by intelligent grasp of her duties and promotion, and partly because (this bit is not in the memoir, but is added in by me from the accounts of others, most notably Valerie Grove in her biography Dear Dodie) Dodie has managed to secretly seduce the store owner, Ambrose Heal.

Ambrose is referred to in LBWA as “Oliver”; Dodie does a rather nice job of obscuring his identity, though when one is fully aware of the scenario many veiled references click perfectly into place. Ambrose is married, and he also already has a long-time mistress, Prudence Maufe, who is well up in the hierarchy of Heal’s. Dodie assures Ambrose/Oliver that she will be happy with “crumbs from the table”, as it were, and the two remain occasional lovers for the next 15 years or so, when Dodie makes a final break with Ambrose upon her departure for the United States on the brink of World War II. (They will remain lifelong friends and dedicated correspondents.)

Marvelous details of the workings of Heal’s; much discussion and description of the era’s domestic architecture. Dodie eventually becomes the toy buyer for Heal’s, and is sent to Leipzig Fair in Germany to view and order stock for the coming Christmas season. A side trip to Austria proves to have astonishing consequences, as Dodie there stays in a small mountain inn maintained by a harp-playing innkeeper.

Inspired by the mountain setting and the cheerful eccentricities of the innkeeper, Dodie, who has been churning out reams of dramatic manuscript and plays in her meager free time, translates her experience into what will become her astoundingly successful play Autumn Crocus, the smash hit of the 1931 London theatre season (“Shopgirl Writes Play!”) and the rest is history.

Look Back with Astonishment goes on to describe Dodie’s entry into the next phase of her life, that of a successful playwright. She was to go onto have an unheard-of six financially successful plays in a row: Autumn Crocus, Service, Touch Wood, Call It a Day, Bonnet Over the Windmill, and Dear Octopus. The quality of these varied, with Dear Octopus popularly declared to be her very best, but Dodie poured heart and soul into each and every one, and her descriptions of casting, staging, rehearsing and dealing with various actors, actresses and directors makes for fascinating reading.

Dodie’s private life has not been stagnating these years either. As well as continuing with her secret relationship with her boss, Dodie has developed another romantic partnership, one which will ultimately see her through to the end of her days.

Seven years younger than Dodie, and marvellously handsome and personable, Alec Beesley had led a life as dramatically complicated as anything Dodie could have dreamed up, and after a most difficult adolescence with a hateful stepmother had gone off to North America where he worked at a variety of jobs from section ganger on a railway in Alaska to cashiering in a Vancouver bank. Back in England, Alec has taken on the job of Advertising Manager at Heal’s, where he and Dodie meet frequently. (Often, to much eventual 3-way heart stirring, in Ambrose Heal’s office.) Com-pli-cat-ed!

Alec and Dodie eventually set up parallel households in adjoining flats; no one is quite sure what their exact relationship is, but Dodie makes mention of the happiness of both their sexual and emotional compatibility, and they do eventually marry (details in Volume 4, Look Back with Gratitude) though neither feels as though any fuss needs to be made regarding the legalization of what was long an established marriage in everything but the eyes of the public and the law.

As Look Back with Astonishment draws to a close, Alec and Dodie, along with Dodie’s beloved Dalmatian dog Pongo – yes, the inspiration for that Pongo, with much more concerning Dalmatians to follow in Volume 4 – are settling themselves into their accommodations on the ocean liner Manhattan, beginning what will prove to be a long self-imposed exile from their beloved England, due to Alec’s long and deeply held convictions as a conscientious objector and Britain’s coming entry into what will prove to be World War II. It is 1938.

I have left so much out; there is a lot in this volume! But I must move along, to the fourth and final installment:

Dodie, Alec, Folly, Buzz and Dandy (I'm not sure which of the canines is which - all these spotted dogs looking rather alike to me) in California, circa 1944

Dodie, Alec, Folly, Buzz and Dandy (I’m not sure which of the canines is which – all these spotted dogs looking rather alike to me) in California, circa 1944

Look Back with Gratitude by Dodie Smith ~ 1985. This edition: Muller, Blond & White, 1985. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-584-11124-X. 272 pages.

 

My rating: 10/10

Brutally condensing here, though I could go on and on and on.

Dodie and Alec and Pongo set up house in New York and then cross the continent to California. They spend the war years engaged in various theatre and film projects; Dodie’s list of new acquaintances is a Who’s Who of the entertainment and literary world of the time. The most wonderful, for all concerned, is her finding of deeply kindred spirit and forever-more close friend Christopher Isherwood.

Pongo expires; Dodie acquires two more Dalmatians, Folly and Buzz. Folly at one point produces an astonishing 15 puppies (anything familiar here? – yes – this shows up in print down the road) of which litter Dandy is kept to make a boisterous trio.

Dodie turns her attention from playwriting and screenplays to conventional fiction, and spends three years working on what will become her first novel and what many consider her lifetime magnaum opus. That would be – drumroll please – I Capture the Castle, published in 1949 and an instant bestseller in England, once it is released there after its respectable but not stunning debut in the United States.

Much detail of crossing the continent numerous times; the agonizing internal conflict of abandoning England in wartime, the feeling of bitter homesickness and exile which never really goes away, the temporary return to England and the production of several not-very-successful plays, much agonizing on “next steps”, the long gestation and glorious birth of Castle, and much, much more.

This volume ends with Alec and Dodie returning to England for good in 1953; we leave Dodie gazing at the receding horizon of New York City through her stateroom porthole on the Queen Elizabeth.

A fifth volume was planned and apparently mostly written, but never published. I am bitterly disappointed; there is much more to tell and Dodie is by far the very best person to tell it.

I am better than half way through Valerie Grove’s 1996 biography of Dodie Smith, Dear Dodie, and though there are snippets here and there of things not included in the original memoir, it is so far merely a repeat of what I have already heard from the subject’s own lips, as it were. I am looking forward to Grove’s coverage of the years Dodie didn’t get to, being most curious as to the circumstances surrounding the writing and publication of The Hundred and One Dalmatians, as well as the her subsequent adult novels – The New Moon with the Old, The Town in Bloom, It Ends with Revelations, A Tale of Two Families, The Girl in the Candle-lit Bath –   and two more children’s books – The Starlight Barking and The Midnight Kittens.

Dodie Smith died in England at the most respectable age of 94, in 1990. Her beloved Alec predeceased her by three years. Her last Dalmatian, Charley, pined after Dodie’s death, and died a mere three months later.

Dodie Smith never produced anything which could be considered high literature; her plays, though popularly successful, were slight things, mere entertainments for the masses. Yet the best of her work lives on today and continues to appeal to a succession of new readers and audiences. Not such a shabby legacy.

Dodie Smith was a truly unique character, a complex heroine of her long personal era, and a tireless documenter of the times she lived in.

Need I add, these volumes of memoir are very highly recommended?

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

look back with love cover slightly foxed dodie smith 001Look Back with Love: A Manchester Childhood by Dodie Smith ~ 1974. This edition: Slightly Foxed, 2011. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-906562-30-4. 272 pages.

My rating: An easy 10/10. A pleasure first page to last.

This post should be extremely easy to write, as it is merely meant to be an enthusiastic recommendation of two things.

First and foremost, this stellar memoir by Dodie Smith (I capture the Castle, The Hundred and One Dalmations), detailing with immense good humour her childhood days in Manchester, when she lived with her widowed mother in a series of family homes.

Before reading this book I had come across several excellent and detailed reviews which inspired my search-and-purchase. I shall not attempt to add to their number, but instead will encourage you to follow these links to the several posts which led to this happy acquisition.

Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf  – a wonderful review, with generous quotes from the text.

Simon’s Stuck-in-a-Book post is disarmingly chatty and wholly enthusiastic.

And from Elaine at Random Jottings, this excellent advice:

I beg you, please do get hold of a copy. If you are feeling miserable, it will cheer you up, if you are feeling ill (as I was when it arrived) it will make you feel better and, if you are already well and happy, it will make you even more so.

Sheer and utter delight from start to finish.  I will end as I started. This is a lovely lovely lovely book.

Yes, indeed.

Which leads me to the second recommendation I have for everyone, which is of a bookseller.

Look Back in Love in the original being fairly scarce and rather highly priced when found, the book I have in hand is a beautifully produced reprint from Slightly Foxed Editions, who specialize in (among other things) “pocket hardback reissues of classic memoirs.”

Take a good look at their list of offerings. I’ve read enough of these to be able to say that whoever is searching out these memoirs to republish has a keen eye for an excellent read. Well done, Slightly Foxed! If I’m ever in London my bookish pilgrimage will include their store (either before or after a sure-to-be-costly visit to Persephone – how can one possibly choose?!) to bow down at the source (as it were) of some of the best-chosen and best-produced vintage reprints currently available.

While not exactly cheap – a postpaid copy to Canada set me back a rather sobering £19, or about $35 Canadian dollars – I justified the cost with the thought that I was supporting a most worthwhile enterprise.

My Slightly Foxed edition is a joy to handle and to read, being compact and neatly cloth bound with a handy ribbon marker, a text block of smooth, creamy paper, and a nicely legible font. My only regret is that it does not contain the photographs included in the original edition; I love the inclusion of photos in memoirs as it adds so much to be able to see the characters and places referred to. But Dodie Smith’s words give such a wonderfully clear picture of both people and surroundings that one can envision the scenes perfectly well without visual aids.

I was so very pleased with this first volume of Dodie Smith’s memoirs – which takes her to the age of fourteen – that I have just tracked down and ordered the middle two volumes of the remaining three autobiographical books, Look Back with Mixed Feelings, and Look Back with Astonishment. I had already acquired Look Back with Gratitude, the last of the four, and though I have leafed through it with anticipation I am being stern with myself and will be saving it to read last, to maintain a chronological order.

And here, to further pique your interest (those few of you who haven’t already discovered this gem for yourselves) is a random page scan. Open this book anywhere and similar anecdotes abound. Even out of context, isn’t this a joy?

Click to enlarge for ease of reading.

(Click to enlarge for ease of reading.)

Read Full Post »

The Town in Bloom Dodie Smith corsair editionThe Town in Bloom by Dodie Smith ~ 1965. This edition: Corsair, 2012. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-78033-301-4. 314 pages.

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…

 

 

Read Full Post »

The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith ~ 1963. This edition: Atlantic – Little, Brown, 1963. Hardcover. 367 pages.

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.

Read Full Post »