Friday, June 6, 2008

Dodie Smith

Born May 3rd, 1896 in Whitefield, Lancashire, England
Died November 24th, 1990

Dodie Smith was a British novelist and playwright who almost incidentally wrote two of the more enduring and popular children's stories of the past sixty years. While most people might recognize at least one of her works, 101 Dalmations, because of Disney's movie versions of it, I suspect very few would recognize her as the author. Her other work which continues to capture new fans every generation flies just below the radar screen - those that recognize it, love it; but most people have never heard of I Capture the Castle.

Dodie Smith was born May 3rd, 1896 in Whitefield, Lancashire, England to Ernest and Ella Furber Smith. Tragically, her father passed away when Smith was only eighteen months old. As she related:

When I was eighteen months old my father died, and after that my mother and I lived with her family - my grandparents, three uncles and two aunts - in an old house with a garden sloping towards the Manchester Ship Canal. It was a stimulating household. Both my mother and grandmother wrote and composed. Almost everyone sang and played some musical instrument (we owned three pianos, a violin, a mandolin, a guitar and a banjo) and one uncle, an admirable amateur actor, was often to be heard rehearsing, preferably with me on hand to give him his cues. Although I had been taken to theatres long before I could read, it was the hearing of my uncle's parts which really aroused my interet in acting and in playwriting; the cues I gave got longer and longer and, by the age of nine, I had written a forty-page play. When I read this aloud to my mother she fell asleep - to awake and say apologetically, 'But darling, it was so dull.'

In 1914, the same year her mother passed away, Smith entered what became the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art to pursue a career as an actress. From the academy she joined the Portsmouth Repertory theatre and during World War I performed in France entertaining the millions of troops stationed on the Western Front. After the war she continued in her chosen career for a number of years but finally determined that a career on the stage was too financially uncertain.

While still retaining a strong interest in the theater, in 1923 she joined one of the old retailing institutions of London, Heals Furniture Store, as a toy buyer. She remained there for the next eight years until 1931. She apparently had a long running affair with the founder of the company but she also later met a fellow employee, Alec Beesley, who was to become her future husband.

All the while she worked in retailing, Smith spent her free time writing plays and screenplays for the stage and screen. 1931 saw the launch of her literary career with the production of Autumn Crocus which was critically and commercially well received. The 1930's were the playwright period of her writing career with one play following another every year or two, all being performed in London and with most of those going on to become hits on Broadway as well. Smith wrote the first few plays under the pseudonym C.L. Anthony but her identity was discovered almost right away. Call It a Day produced in 1935 was the first piece she wrote under her own name - it was also the most commercially successful of her plays with almost two hundred performances in New York and five hundred in London.

All of her plays followed a basically common form. Most are set in some domestic environment, with large casts of characters, often with a romantic angle. They are noted for their light and witty drawing-room repartee as well as for the author's attention to detail which gave some grounding to what might otherwise be too lightweight a script. Think of some fusion of Jane Eyre, The Importance of Being Ernest, and P.G. Wodehouse. Their success, particularly that of Call It a Day was attributed to the combination of normal settings with normal people/families dealing with normal issues, but doing so in a light and humorous way.

In 1938, Smith travelled with her business manager, former fellow employee at Heals, Alec Macbeth Beesley, to the US to help with the Broadway production of her most recent play Dear Octopus. While there, she and Beesley married in 1939. Owing to Beesley's status as a conscientious objector, they ended up deciding to remain in the US during the hostilities and in fact ended up living there for the next fifteen years. Their existence was somewhat peripatetic, but they ended up spending most of their time on the West Coast in Los Angeles.

While in Los Angeles, she formed friendships with other British expatriates, particularly the writers Christopher Isherwood, Charles Brackett and John Van Druten. After the string of stage successes through the 1930's, the American interlude was, with one exception, basically a fallow period. Smith wrote a couple of more plays which were produced in New York during the war years, as well as some screenplays for the Hollywood studios but other than that, she only wrote one book all through the forties.

That book was the product of a deep homesickness for England and is likely, a hundred years from now, when all the plays are forgotten, to be one of the two works for which Smith will be remembered. That book was I Capture the Castle with its arresting opening line, "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink."

It is striking just how many people have identified I Capture the Castle as a seminal book in their reading careers; usually the book that first transformed them into a reading fiend, or the book that inspired them to enter the world of letters as an author, or, most often, simply the book that made them realize there were others out there in the world like themselves. It is commonly characterized as a "girls book", and there is some truth to that. But it is a great book that almost all readers will love, especially young women (as well older ones that might not have had the pleasure of reading it in their youth).

The protagonist of the story is Cassandra Mortmain, a seventeen year-old girl living in a ruined (and hence cheap) castle in the remoteness of Suffolk in the interwar years with her older sister (Rose) and older brother (Tom), father (a reclusive novelist suffering from writer's block) and her step-mother. I Capture the Castle was not written as a children's book and, indeed, it is actually quite hard to categorize - it is not uncommon for people, in describing it, to say that it is unlike any other book they have read. Some people, having read it and knowing none of the background, are surprised to find that it is considered a children's classic. It is one of those well crafted narratives that appeal to two separate audiences but for different reasons. Adults tend to read it from the perspective of strong plot development and clever character description accentuated with incredibly subtle but detailed descriptions, all enfused with a subtle humor. Children enjoy it for the twists and turns of the plot and the realism of the young protagonist with whom they can relate and the book's complex affaire d'armour.

Cassandra and her sister Rose are determined to try and save the family fortunes. They have no income, are dependent on the generosity of the old landlord who allows them to live in the castle virtually rent free, and have been surviving for five years by making do, and selling off the furniture. Twenty-one year old Rose's financial rescue plan is to find some suitable, preferably rich suitor, though at this point of isolation, really anyone will do. Their prayers seem to have been answered when the old gentlemen dies and his heirs, two young American brothers and their mother, arrive. Nothing, however, is predictable in this remarkable tale.

Let's leave it at that. Well, rather, let's leave it with a sampling of this immensely quotable author:

'I write this sitting in the kitchen sink'

'There were moments when my deep and loving pity for her merged into a deep desire to kick her fairly hard.'

"I don't like the sound of all those lists he's making - it's like taking too many notes at school; you feel you've achieved something when you haven't."

'the pool of light in the courtyard, the golden windows, the strange long-ago look that one sees in old paintings'.

where the past is 'like a presence, a caress in the air'

I Capture the Castle was published in 1948 and immediately became a recurring 'find' for each generation of readers that came along.

In 1952, Smith and Beesley returned to the UK where they settled for the remainder of their lives (though they did periodically return to the US for visits). Smith attempted to return to her writing of the thirties by writing a series of plays through the fifties but that ship had already sailed. What was witty and mildly entertaining in the thirties seemed dated and irrelevant. The large casts around which she constructed her stories were no longer economically feasible in straightened post-war Britain.

In 1956, Smith came out with her first book explicitly written for children, 101 Dalmatians. Based on its success, in 1967 she came out with a sequel, The Starlight Barking: More about the 101 Dalmatians, as well as one other children's book, The Midnight Kittens, neither of which struck as much of a chord as did 101 Dalmatians.

An adventurous and humorous tale of smart Dalmatians (Smith had a series of Dalmatians as pets), eluding and eventually defeating the plans of the evil furrier Cruella De Vil, this book has a life of its own that was dramatically amplified when Disney came out with their cartoon version in 1961 and then much later, the film version.

That was pretty much it for Dodie Smith's books for children. Four in all, two of which are great. Through the sixties and seventies, Smith wrote a handful of novels for adults with some moderate success. Her last writing hurrah came in the early seventies and early eighties with a four book series of memoirs starting with Look Back with Love: A Manchester Childhood, in 1974 and which was by far the most popular.

In summary, Dodie Smith led a fascinating life with multiple careers and, indeed, multiple writing careers. She wrote two classics of children's literature, neither book being like the other and none of them really much in character with her other works. The final thing I would add as a point of interest is just how broad her network of interactions with other famous people and famous children's authors extended. Among the people with whom she worked over the years were Sir John Gielgud in her early plays, Christopher Isherwood from her years in California, Julian Barnes (her literary executor), Roger Moore (in the theatrical version of 101 Dalmatians in 1954), Walt Disney himself of course, but also Bill Peet, the famous children's author and illustrator who at the time worked for Disney as an illustrator and led the work for the cartoon version of 101 Dalmations.

Dodie Smith passed away November 24th, 1990.

Independent Reader

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith Highly Recommended

The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith Recommended

Dodie Smith Bibliography

British Talent by Dodie Smith (Play) 1924
Autumn Crocus (three-act comedy; produced in London by Dodie Smith (Play) 1931
Service (three-act comedy; produced in London by Dodie Smith (Play) 1932
Touch Wood (three-act comedy; produced in London by Dodie Smith (Play) 1934
Call It a Day (three-act comedy; produced in London by Dodie Smith (Play) 1935
Bonnet over the Windmill (three-act comedy; produced in London by Dodie Smith (Play) 1937
Dear Octopus (three-act comedy; produced in London by Dodie Smith (Play) 1938
Autumn Crocus, Service, and Touch Wood: Three Plays by Dodie Smith (Play) 1939
Lovers and Friends (three-act comedy; produced on Broadway by Dodie Smith (Play) 1943
The Uninvited (adapted from the novel by Dorothy Macardle) by Dodie Smith (Screenplay) 1944
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (Novel) 1948
Darling, How Could You! (adapted from Alice-Sit-by-the-Fire by James M. Barrie) by Dodie Smith (Screenplay) 1951
Letter from Paris (three-act comedy; adapted from Henry James's novel The Reverberator by Dodie Smith (Play) 1952
I Capture the Castle (two-act romantic comedy; based on her novel; produced at Aldwych Theatre by Dodie Smith (Play) 1954
The 101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith (Children's Book) 1956
These People, Those Books (three-act comedy) by Dodie Smith (Play) 1958
Amateur Means Lover (three-act comedy) by Dodie Smith (Play) 1961
The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith (Novel) 1963
The Town in Bloom by Dodie Smith (Novel) 1965
The Starlight Barking: More about the 101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith (Children's Book) 1967
It Ends with Revelations by Dodie Smith (Novel) 1967
A Tale of Two Families by Dodie Smith (Novel) 1970
Look Back with Love: A Manchester Childhood by Dodie Smith (Memoirs) 1974
The Midnight Kittens by Dodie Smith (Children's Book) 1978
The Girl from the Candle-lit Bath by Dodie Smith (Novel) 1978
Look Back with Mixed Feelings by Dodie Smith (Memoirs) 1978
Look Back with Astonishment by Dodie Smith (Memoirs) 1979
Look Back with Gratitude by Dodie Smith (Memoirs) 1985

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