Dodie Smith said she never felt ‘quite grown-up’. This may sound like an excuse for tiresome behaviour, but Dodie did retain all her life a childlike charm, being under five feet tall with a high-pitched girlish voice. She was an only child, a singularly precocious, egocentric and thoroughly original one.
When she died, aged 96, in 1992, and I embarked on her biography, I often had to remind people who she was. Older people would remember Dodie’s most famous, 1938 play Dear Octopus: its scenario was a Golden Wedding family reunion with John Gielgud as the eldest son, making his Grand Toast ‘To the family: that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape; nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to.’ And women of every generation – grandmothers, mothers and daughters – have always adored I Capture the Castle (1954), her first novel. Those who love Cassandra, its utterly likeable heroine, will not be surprised that Dodie based her very much on herself.
But everyone of every age knew about The Hundred and One Dalmatians (1956), which Dodie wrote at 60 – out of sheer irritation at Enid Blyton’s success. Walt Disney’s animated film was so popular they re-made it (and a sequel), decades later, using live actors including Glenn Close as Cruella de Vil, and 249 real Dalmatian puppies.
The keys to Dodie’s drawing-room comedies, to the romantic novel and the children’s story all lie in her childhood. In Look Back with Love, published in 1974 when she was 78, lucky readers will find one of the happiest and funniest accounts of an Edwardian upbringing, representing Dodie at her best. It was followed by three more ‘Looks Back’: With Mixed Feelings, With Astonishment and With Gratitude – four volumes that took her only to the age of 60. (There was a fifth, too, never published.) Typical Dodie, to consider herself worthy of more volumes of autobiography than Winston Churchill – but then, she had spent much of her life writing millions of words about herself in her diaries, always lamenting that there was ‘so much left out’ (which made me, wading through them, rather cross).
‘I will always be grateful for my upbringing in Manchester,’ Dodie wrote. ‘My family was so much more alive and stimulating than most.’ Her father died when she was a baby, so her mother took her back to her own parents’ home, Kingston House in Old Trafford, where Dodie was surrounded by ten doting adults: mother, grandparents, three bachelor uncles known as ‘the Boys’, two as-yet-unmarried aunts, and two maids. They might tell her she was ‘mardy’ – a Lancastrian word for spoilt ‒ but that was hardly her fault when ‘nobody made much secret of the fact that I was a genius’. Fair-haired, dark-eyed Dodie was their darling. ‘Who would imagine that I would grow up plain? My looks had gone by the age of seven. But nobody told me I wasn’t a born actress, and they encouraged me to perform at all times. I sang, I danced, I recited – usually a mawkish poem about a defunct linnet. And the reaction of my family was ecstatic.’
The Furbers were an exceptionally fun-loving family. They loved trips to the seaside, rides in the first motor-cars, fairgrounds with water-chutes and merry-go-rounds, circuses, brass bands, dressing-up parties, jokes, charades, musical soirées at home and above all, the theatre. By day the three uncles worked at the Exchange, but their hearts were in amateur dramatics, of which dozens of groups flourished in Manchester.
People tend to love their mothers, as Dodie wrote, but she liked hers as well, ‘and I have come to believe it is more important than loving; it wears better’. Her grandmother, ‘Grandima’ (who had once written a polemical novel against mass education, under the pseudonym George Challis), would read history aloud to her, and the uncles would get Dodie to hear them learn their parts in the evenings, over a glass of whisky and a cigar. From this Dodie developed what she called her inner ear, with which she instinctively heard any dialogue spoken aloud: ‘very useful for a playwright’. Having three uncles at home quite made up for having no father. ‘I still like to remember myself, pretty and beloved, in my bonnet and best white doeskin shoes, walking hand in hand between two of my straw-hatted uncles at the age of eight – which I think is probably the most enviable in the world.’
This is what Dodie conveys so well: the feeling of enjoyment from the distant past. She can evoke the ‘basking, Sunday afternoon charm’ of Manchester’s Victorian suburbs, and her fondness for lighted windows at dusk. She writes of her lifelong preference for the anticipation of pleasure over actual events: the thrill of Christmas Eve, as opposed to ‘flat and stodgy’ Christmas Day; the orchestra striking up, more exciting than the show itself; children’s parties never living up to their wonderful promise, as in Peggy Lee’s song, ‘Is that all there is?’
She remembers discovering reading (‘what I hankered for most were books about large families of children to whom nothing worrying ever happened’). She loved Shaw’s prefaces, and Thackeray and Dumas, but not Dickens or Hardy, and it still puzzles her that she never took to Trollope: ‘He writes the kind of books I should so much enjoy, if only I did.’ She rhapsodizes about her inspired teacher Miss Allen, who taught English and music in a sunny classroom decorated with Rossetti prints and bowls of flowers. All this nourished Dodie’s imagination, so that despite her popularity at school, she was never dismayed to find herself alone. At 8 she started a notebook entitled ‘As I sit by my window’ observing passers-by; her mother said this made her seem lonely, to which Dodie replied: ‘I like being lonely.’
Among many tableaux vivants, the funniest is probably that of afternoons spent at the new-fangled public baths – relished by Dodie and her aunts though none of them could swim a stroke: Aunt Carrie smoking a Gold Flake even when afloat, all of them shrieking and screaming (‘frequently people got out at the sight of us’) and staying in the water till their teeth chattered.
Because of Dodie’s mania for animals (she refused to swat even a fly), no one dared tell her when they were killing one of the family chickens for supper, so she would announce to guests, ‘This poor hen was found dead this morning.’ Nor would any of the family tell her the facts of life: Dodie was told that doctors brought babies, but even they did not know where they came from. ‘It really is the greatest mystery in life,’ said her mother.
Dodie was destined for the stage, despite her incipient plainness and an over-developed bosom (‘What you got in there, Miss Dodie? A cabbage?’ said Charlotte the maid). Her mother assured her that ‘a large bust was a good thing to have, and I should like it all right when it had settled down’. But from her very first role – as a boy, in a melodrama – she was ‘exhilarated by the blackness beyond the footlights’. She was obsessed with the actor Fred Terry, and fancied herself in love with a fellow amateur actor in Manchester named Norman Oddy.
This volume ends as Dodie, at 14, bids farewell to Manchester when her mother gets married again, to a man the uncles instinctively mistrust. The wedding takes place on a wet October day, surely an augury: ‘It did rain so very hard.’ Although Dodie knows the move to London will benefit her acting career, she also instinctively knows that life will never seem as natural again. I, who also left the north at 14, when my father’s job took us to London, can confirm that this is exactly how such a traumatic move felt.
Dodie turned to autobiography late in life, as many of the best memoirists do. The enthusiastic reviews for Look Back with Love confirmed that she could still find success, in a fourth literary genre, into her ninth decade. She and her husband Alec were then living snugly in their thatched cottage, The Barretts at Finchingfield in Essex, with their Dalmatians, Disney and Jason. When young interviewers flocked down to see her, Dodie always gave an excellent, chatty performance while Alec cooked lunch. ‘I think I’m an oddity really,’ she would say. ‘But I do my very, very best to write well.’ And never better than in Look Back with Love.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 32 © Valerie Grove 2011
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 16: Dodie Smith, Look Back with Love