Along with most of us I suspect, I only knew Dodie Smith as the author of 101 Dalmatians and it remained this way until in my mid-forties I came across a battered old green Virago edition of I captured the Castle and realised it was the same author. I read it and loved it and that was that. I knew no more of her or anything else she had written for years until I read Look back with Love, my current book of the month, re-issued in the lovely Slightly Foxed Editions.
Won't repeat myself, here is what I said then and this delightful tale set me in search of the other volumes of autobiography available. It goes without saying that I am reading them in the wrong order, but this is because I reserved them at the library where they had to be dug up out of an archive somewhere in the bowels of Essex and I have to take 'em when I can get 'em.
So the fourth one first - Look Back with Gratitude and this covers her life in the US during the war. Her husband, Alec and their Dalmatian Pongo, set sail for New York to see America and to check on her play Dear Octopus which was running in the Big Apple. Alec was a conscientious objector and part of their departure was to avoid him being conscripted into the war in any way and though this was not advertised as the main reason when they left, I doubt that many of their friends were unaware of this. They lived in California and were drawn reluctantly in the film world, mainly because they paid well and they needed the money but they made many lasting friendships there including Christopher Isherwood, whose story about Sally Bowles became a successful play, I am a Camera. It seems that Alec was the person who suggested this. Isherwood at first pooh poohed the idea but then took it on board and the results are well known.
Though I thoroughly enjoyed this memoir, I did have slight difficulty coming to terms with the fact that effectively, they fled the UK throughout the war and only returned when peace was declared. I am well aware from my readings of Noel Coward's letters and diaries that he was excoriated for going abroad, though it turned out later he was engaged in intelligence work, so I wonder how the great British public reacted to the exit of the Beesleys? Sorry, Beelsey is Alec's surname and I admit this sounds like a title from Harry Potter...
The third volume Look back with Astonishment, which I read after the fourth (as I said I never do things the correct way) covers the period in her life when she realised she could never make a career on the stage as she was just not good enough and she ended up working at Heals. Yes, good old Heals still in the Tottenham Court Road in the same building as photographed for this book. My abiding impression when reading this is that she got away with murder; seemed to do more or less what she liked; was bossy and lost her temper at regular intervals; was given time off ad nauseam when she had her first play produced and yet managed to retain a part time job at Heals. I did wonder what her fellow workers thought of all of this, surely they must have resented it? Throughout this volume Dodie talks about a man with whom she is having an affair and who she called Oliver. Since then I have discovered that 'Oliver' was in fact, Ambrose Heal himself, so no wonder she was more or less allowed the run of the place. She also got her furniture at a discount............
Having read these volumes and found them interesting, witty and full of wonderful cameos of the actors, actor managers and film stars of that period, I then found myself in the position I sometimes find myself in after reading an autobiography, of not sure that I liked the writer very much. The first volume Look back with Love was totally enchanting but Dodie was writing about her childhood and her family and was not quite so centred on herself. I think the problem, for me, is that the rest of these volumes is all about her, and naturally so. Have said this on many occasions I know, but when you write an autobiography or diaries, it is difficult to hide one's real character, they are always a give away, and Dodie gives away quite a bit here. She met her husband Alec when he worked at Heals, he was seven years younger than her and became totally devoted. She viewed him as a rather sweet young man but warned him off falling in love with her. Impossible for him not to know about the identity of 'Oliver'. He supported her, helped her, financed her when she was broke and eventually became her manager when she became a full time playwright. But, if there is one thing that will make me change my mind about Dodie it is the fact that she gradually came to realise what she had got, she ended her affair with 'Oliver' and married Alec though this was not until she was in her forties and they had been together for years. They then had the most wonderfully happy marriage and she shows herself at her best when she writes about him:
"Of course I had known I should miss Alec, but during our wild rush to get me off I hadn't had time to think just how much I should miss him......I felt ill with a sense of loss....during our thirteen years in Amercia we had been separate for less than half a dozen nights...now we shouldn't see each for months. Was he as distressed as I was?"
Well, yes he was and on checking her biography it seems that they both lived well into their nineties and their happiness was total and enduring. I have now reserved Dear Dodie by Valerie Groves at my library as I feel I need another viewpoint other than that of Dodie herself. Last year I read all of the Journals of LM Montgomery, heartbreaking in places, and then a biography and it was incredibly interesting to see the emotional outpourings of the journals were harnessed within the biography and a balance created. So looking forward to the same when the library lets me know it has arrived.
All of these books are out of print but seem to be available on Abe Books, Amazon etc and if you are interested in this author, they really are worth a read.
It was only after starting this Dodie binge that I discovered, serendipity of the highest order, that several of her novels are being reprinted, The New Moon with the Old; The Town in Bloom and It ends in Revelations. These are being published by Corsair in March 2012 and I will be trying to lay my hands on copies of same.
An intriguing lady....