Saturday, January 23, 2016

Dodie Smith's novels

Among the piles of books I return with from my London trips are almost always a couple of paperbacks of novels that are out of print in the States. Most often they're relatively domestic novels by women from the early to mid-twentieth century, doomed to US obscurity through some combination of sexism and a sense that they're too English in their focus and outlook. In recent years, I've completed my Barbara Pym collection, added to my Alice Thomas Ellis, and introduced myself to Barbara Comyns in that way. This time, it was Dodie Smith's novel The Town in Bloom (1965) that drew me in.

I first encountered Smith the way most folks do these days: not through the book that was the most successful in her lifetime, The 101 Dalmations (which her biographer, Valerie Grove, says she wrote "out of sheer irritation at Enid Blyton's success"), but via her charming, funny, beautiful, moving first novel, I Capture the Castle (1949). Often classed as a young adult novel, it tells of a girl coming of age amid genteel (but very real) poverty and English eccentricity. I wrote about it way back in 2007:
Without disrupting the verisimilitude of her young narrator's perspective, Dodie Smith's perceptiveness and intelligent attention shine through, and though I Capture the Castle is a gentle book at heart, with little of the darkness of the world, there's at the same time a palpable sense of reality to it. Its gentleness and humor are not created through avoiding or denying life's dangers but through enthusiastically embracing the world as it is--imperfect, yet still able to take your breath away with its shimmering beauty. Smith is not talking down to anyone, and she's not limiting the insights her story can generate: she's simply showing us a young woman learning about herself, her family, and the differences that make us who we are.
While I've not read all of Smith's books, it's hard to imagine another one topping I Capture the Castle: it has that feeling that great first books often carry of a lifetime of energy and perception finally finding a release, brilliantly.

The first volume of her memoirs, Look Back with Love (1974), however, does come close. It, too, is concerned with English eccentrics, primarily Smith's three bachelor uncles, all of whom worked at the Exchange by day, but gave their hearts to amateur theatre at night. Groves, in her foreword to the Slightly Foxed edition of Look Back with Love, praises Smith for being able to convey vividly "the feeling of enjoyment from the distant past," and she's right: the book brims with innocent pleasure and distinctive, appreciative character sketches. Here's an account of Smith's Aunt Bertha, for example:
She had a most original personality, in fact it bordered on eccentricity. She could not, for instance, tell her right hand from her left unless she hopped; and she insisted that if she was left alone for more than three hours her teeth went soft. But she was a shrewdly intelligent woman. She was also a very humble one and never ceased to be surprised when people liked her, as they invariably did. She had come out even worse than my mother over education and would look terrified if any historical character was mentioned--both she and my mother seemed to think that not to know history was the lowest depths of degradation. And though Auntie Bertha wrote excellent letters, her fear that the spelling and punctuation might be faulty always caused her to add a postscript saying--"Burn this."
It's a wonderful book, through and through, one I'd recommend to any Anglophile.

The fact that those two books are so good has left me a bit at sixes and sevens about the two other Smith novels I've read, The Town in Bloom and the one that followed it, It Ends with Revelations (1967). They're . . . fine? Smith never writes less than well, and there's unquestionable pleasure to be had simply sinking into her prose: her conversational sentences never step wrong, and the female narrative voice in The Town in Bloom is satisfyingly self-confident and congenial. Yet both feel a bit slight rather than minor--a fine distinction, I'll acknowledge, but one that I think exists: rather than setting a limited compass and ambition and making it work, they seem to be lacking some crucial element that would make them come to life. Though both have relatively small casts, few characters are distinctive; there's little of the quick grasp of personality Smith offers us in her memoir. And the plots--extravagant to the border of melodrama in Revelations (secret homosexuality; blackmail; an affair), slight to the point of nothingness in Town (young woman begins to make her way in theatrical London)--aren't convincing or compelling enough to offer much compensation.

And yet . . . I wouldn't say they're bad books, and would even recommend Town to the right reader. If you can reconcile yourself to the fact that Smith is interested in her heroine almost to the exclusion of all other characters, then the introspection and self-questioning and pondering over major life decisions that they both undertake can become quite interesting. What choices, at mid-century, did an educated woman who needed an income have? How was she best served in work and in love? What does it mean to look back on past choices with regret, but also to know that you wouldn't do differently even if it were possible? Here's a sample, from late in Town:
Was there in me a frozen immaturity? Bits and pieces were all I could look back on, bits of love, bits of talent for acting, writing, even music. (I had been taught music as a child, and very well taught, but for years I had only played by ear--how like me.) And now the boot of the car houses a collection of oil paints! A nonsense was all my life would ever add up to, the nonsense life of a nonsense woman. Eve's life of devotion amounted to something far more worth while than my ragbag of experience.

She had once said I suffered from an excess of individualism and I had always thought of this as a compliment. But if the individualism remained that of a precocious child, what then?
What I ultimately appreciate in these novels--and, again, much more so in Town--is that presence of thought. One of the qualities I most admire in a Dance to the Music of Time is Anthony Powell's willingness to allow Nick Jenkins space for reflection: he's not afraid to let Nick's thoughts on and reactions to an event break up and delay the actual account of it; what we care about in that book isn't so much what happens as what Nick draws from what happens. What will stay with me from Smith's novels, and what keeps me from saying they're unsuccessful, is exactly that, the sense she conveys of a character mulling it all over, just as we, the readers, are always doing as a book unfolds itself before us.

1 comment:

  1. i fell into "i capture the castle" like falling through my own front door. wonderful homey sensation. in particular i identified with the father, sitting up in the attic(?) serially reading detective books. and tx for the reference to powell; i've mulled over starting "dance" for some time. maybe this will kick me out of low gear...