3rd May 2012
Bookish Birthdays: Dodie Smith
I have been in love with Cassandra Mortmain and her family since I first read I Capture The Castle for as a teenager, but it wasn’t until I read her fascinating biography that I fell in love with the castle’s creator, Dodie Smith.
One of the original flappers, ‘the most sacked actress in England’, a shopgirl who became a sell-out playwright, and a later advocate for homosexuality and dalmatians alike, there is not that much you can’t love about Dodie.
Born into a middle class Manchester family in 1896, Dodie lost her father when she was two. She was brought up by her mother’s large boisterous theatre loving tribe of uncles and aunts and was encouraged to be both funny and effusive from an early age.
Dodie starting writing diaries and notebooks from when she was a very little girl and, like Cassandra, named them, ‘The Penny Notebook’, The Red Notebook’, ‘The Black Notebook’ etc. She was an excessive journal keeper and most of the words she wrote in her life were about herself.
Although she said of herself she had ‘lost her looks by the age of seven’ (utter nonsense, of course), she decided she wanted to be an actress and got herself a RADA (then ADA) scholarship.
Dodie became a working actress, living in the notorious Three Arts Club, a boarding house for women making a living as actresses, waitresses and various other esses.
These women, living out a twenties lifestyle five years before it became fashionable, saw the First World War out from underneath short bobbed fringes and fancy dress parties, eating beans on toast and courting Canadian officers.
They had numerous love affairs and lived entirely on their wits. Dodie loved this life; though she was constantly short of money, she saw her entire existence as a lovely game, her main priority being to find someone to seduce her.
Dodie was never a successful actress and finally gave it all up in 1922 for a steady wage, when she got a job working in Heal’s department store.
Heal’s at the time encapsulated the decade with its elegant yet modern outlook, selling the whole range of furnishings. Dodie had always had her own style, making her own dresses and hats (the people who lived opposite her bedsit would watch her get dressed in the morning with glee).
She also had her own sideline with her lifelong friend Phyllis Morris designing clothes, their tag line being ‘Quaint Clothes For Queer Customers‘) and obsessed with interior decorating.
Even her small rooms were lavishly furnished, and working in a furniture emporium suited her down to the ground. She bullied her way into running her own section and seduced the owner Ambrose (later Sir Ambrose Heal) four years later, by writing him a witty Valentine’s card.
Ambrose was twenty four years older than Dodie, and already had one well established mistress, but Dodie soon became his favourite. She had to keep the entire affair secret; the one person she could tell was the new boy on the Heal’s staff, Alec Beesley.
Alec and Dodie became fast friends, and years later lovers, although Dodie never found sex easy, hated sharing a bed and as she became successful, neglected the practice completely.
“Women have for so long been conditioned to equate sex appeal with success,” she once wrote. “Success [with her first play Autumn Crocus] satisfied my ego far more than a love affair could”.
She wrote her first play while Ambrose was having his tonsils out. Dodie, free to do as she wanted, lit candles, placed a glass of narcissi where she could see them, sat down with a large blue unlined exercise book and wrote a play.
This was the start of her greatest pleasure; writing. She later would find joy in little else save her animals and was only really happy when alone with paper.
Autumn Crocus, launched in 1931 under the pen name of CL Anthony, was a great success, and Dodie became an instantly popular playwright, her trademark charm and biting wit encapsulating the feeling of Britain in the 30s.
She knew and was admired by everyone, and had a string of hits in the West End, less so New York, and around the UK on tour. During this time she eventually quit Heal’s and became a full time writer, and she and Alec became a couple.
He was six years younger than her and when they bought beautiful thatched white Essex country cottage that was to be their home, The Barretts, they were not yet married, which shocked the neighbourhood. Dodie also acquired what was to be another lifelong obsession; her first Dalmatian, Pongo.
Dodie’s greatest play, Dear Octopus, the only play still regularly revived, was produced in 1938 and catapulted her to stardom, but the growing discontentment on the continent was a worry.
Alec was a conscientious objector and although she struggled with the decision, Dodie and Alec moved to America in 1939 to avoid Alec being arrested.
This started fifteen years of ‘exile’, during which Dodie wrote one of the best loved and in my opinion most wonderful books about England ever written, but became incredibly unhappy and depressed.
Dodie hated America. Although she and Alec and lived all over, from New England to Malibu, she never felt settled or at ‘home’. They had their dogs and money, but few friends.
This changed when Dodie met the writers Christopher Isherwood, who wrote Goodbye to Berlin, and John Van Druten, who nicked Isherwood’s story (at Alec’s suggestion) for the play I Am A Camera, which became the musical Cabaret.
Dodie felt abandoned and isolated from her former life. She always regretted her extended exile, at first because of the war and then through fear of being branded cowards for missing it.
In 1946 desperate for England, she started writing properly an abandoned project about a girl called Sofia living with her Joycian writer father who is seduced by a pair of rich American brothers who save her family from poverty. Sophia became Cassandra, and I Capture The Castle was born.
It is impossible for me to describe how important this novel is to me. Cassandra is ‘conscientiously naïve’, eccentric whilst still remaining bitingly sharp, learning to live with herself , thinking about God, nature, and love for the first time.
She is also coping with her depressed father whose moods impede the entire family and whose lack of focus and drive, combined with a society that allows comparatively uneducated but clever women to do nothing because of their so called class, has reduced their family to relative poverty.
It struck such a massive chord with my fifteen-year-old self that it changed me fundamentally as a person, and gave me hope in the circumstances I was in.
I Capture The Castle was published in 1948, and was a hit, praised magnanimously by readers and critics. It was opted for film several times (though this never happened until 2003 with the lovely film starring Romola Garai and a perfectly cast Bill Nighy) and became a stage play.
Dodie eventually returned to England in 1953, and tried to recapture her success as a playwright, but the times had changed and her efforts failed. Flop after flop saw a now-older Dodie becoming despondent and depressed. Eventually she became wrapped up in a new project; The Hundred and One Dalmatians.
This charming story of Pongo and Missis’ adventures rescuing their beloved puppies from the fur-loving Cruella De Vil (astonishingly, Dodie loved furs herself and had several) is supposed to be for children, but I re-read it last week and found it full of the trademark Smith wit.
The book was sold to Disney for £25,000 and became incredibly successful. Dodie and dalmatians became synonymous, though she didn’t actually own one at the time of writing the book. The follow-up book, The Starlight Barking, included sci-fi elements and was not as popular.
Dodie continued to write for the rest of her life, including It Ends With Revelations, centred on a married actor who is in fact homosexual.
The book reflects Dodie’s own views on homosexuality, which was at the time illegal for men, and was eventually published in 1967, the year the law changed.
But the thing she wrote most was her journal. She once wrote 85,000 words of journal on a crossing of the Atlantic. She eventually published, in the seventies and eighties, three volumes of autobiography.
When she died, aged 94, she left boxes and boxes of journals, and correspondence, which is now kept in Boston University Mugar Memorial Library. Her literary executor was the author Julian Barnes, with whom she struck up a close friendship in her last years.
Dodie Smith was a marvel. She had an unconventional lifestyle as an independent breadwinner to the end but completely incapable of looking after the day-to-day without her partner, she influenced writers, and theatre, and is loved equally by dramatists for Dear Octopus, children for The Hundred and One Dalmatians, and everyone for I Capture The Castle.
There are so many delicious quotes from Dodie Smith in Grove’s biography, but I would like to end on my favourite, her describing sitting by her cottage window (alas, not in the kitchen sink), staring out at the moon:
‘I felt astonished that I should be allowed to live here, and sit up all night if I wanted to. Was I the only woman in the world who, at my age, and after a lifetime of quite rampant independence, still did not feel quite grown up?’
Thank you, Dodie Smith, and happy birthday.