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the blanks here, as she was able to glean many of her facts from the completed manuscript of Dodie Smith’s fifth and unpublished volume of memoir, as well as from personal interviews with those who knew Dodie Smith well in her final years.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