As reported earlier, I picked up the first two volumes (of four) of Dodie Smith’s autobiography at the market recently. I read them back to back, which is always a nice thing to do. The first volume, Look Back with Love is everything Geranium Cat says it is: a classic, captivating memoir of a bourgeois childhood at the beginning of the twentieth century. Dodie’s mother was widowed very young and moved back to live with her parents, brothers and sisters. This made Dodie the only child in a large household of adults and it’s perhaps not surprising that she was spoiled. Sixty years later, she was able to recall in detail the houses they lived in and the appearance and characteristics of everyone she met; a sure sign that her gifts lay in writing and not, as she hoped, in acting. Already in this book there are hints of trouble ahead in her wilfulness, attention seeking and conviction that she was ‘so very interesting’.
Look Back with Mixed Feelings lacks the charm of the book about childhood. It covers the years from her time at St Paul’s Girls’ School in London to her employment as a buyer and manager at Heal’s. In between is the history of her attempts to go on the stage. True, the older Dodie realised that she wasn’t a very good actress but at the time she was sure she would be a success one day; all her friends were on the stage or hoping to be. I’d read this book before and also Valerie Grove’s biography, so I knew the story. Even so, I grew increasingly irritated by her persistence in the face of total failure, her reliance on her loving uncles for an allowance (she then failed to visit them for nine years, by which time two of them were dead) and her utter selfishness. The First World War seems hardly to have affected her; she appeared more interested in her clothes, or lack of them. Shortly before the war ended she blagged her way into a touring party going to France. Once there, finding herself doling out tea instead of acting, she dismissed the idea that she might have been doing war work all along by thinking of a new one: that really she was a pacifist and therefore exonerated from any guilt. I respect the views of genuine pacifists but don’t think Dodie was one, philosophically. It was typical of her way of rationalising any fault or bad behaviour. Eventually she gave up trying to act and a new chapter in her life began when she was employed by Ambrose Heal. Fame and fortune lay ahead.
Dodie Smith is a good example of my dictum that you should never let a writer’s life or character influence your judgement of their work. I simply cannot like her, yet she wrote two wonderful books which I shall love forever.
Edited to say, in case you hadn't guessed, that the books are I Capture the Castle and The Hundred and One Dalmatians.