Thursday, 23 February 2012

Look Back With Love - Dodie Smith

I am growing very fond of those lovely folk at Slightly Foxed.  Last December I had spotted that they were publishing Dodie Smith's first autobiography, Look Back With Love (1974), and was umming and ahhhing about asking for a review copy... when they offered me one!  Although I'm always flattered to be offered books by any publisher, my heart does a little jump for joy (medically sound, no?) when it's a reprint publisher doing the offering.  And even more so when it's one of these beautiful little Slightly Foxed Editions (I covet the *lot*) - and even more so when it's a title I've wanted to read ever since I first read and loved I Capture the Castle back in 2003.


I was not disappointed.  Look Back With Love is simply a lovely, warming, absorbing book.  It is only the possibility that I may prefer one of her other three autobiographical instalments (think of it; three!) which prevents me adding it to my 50 Books You Must Read list just yet...

You may have gathered from all those volumes of autobiography that Smith doesn't cover her whole life in Look Back With Love.  Indeed, she only gets as far as fourteen by the end of this book, placing it firmly in childhood memoir territory.  I do have a definite fondness for memoirs which focus on, or at least include, childhood - as evinced by my championing of Emma Smith's The Great Western Beach, Angelica Garnett's Deceived With Kindness, Harriet Devine's Being George Devine's Daughter, Terence Frisby's Kisses on a Postcard, Christopher Milne's The Enchanted Places, and one of Slightly Foxed's other recent titles, P.Y. Betts' People Who Say Goodbye.  I especially like them if they cover the Edwardian period - perhaps because that means the subjects will have been adults in the interwar period which I love so dearly.  What links all these autobiographies, besides their recountings of childhood, is that they recount happy childhoods.  That is to say, they all find and express happy moments from within their childhoods, rather than prioritising the miserable or cruel.  Misery memoirs, I'm afraid, will never have a place on my bookcases.  I can understand why people write them - it must be a form of catharsis - but I cannot begin to fathom why people want to read them.

Dodie Smith's family sounds like it was wonderfully fun.  True, her father died in her early childhood, and she was an only child, but these sad circumstances do not seem to have held her back.  She certainly didn't grow up isolated: her widowed mother moved back to her parents' house, and so Dodie grew up surrounded by grandparents, aunts, and uncles.  The aunts gradually married and moved, but three uncles remained bachelors and meant (Smith says) that she never felt the absence of a father.  The dynamics of the family certainly don't seem to be lacking much.  As the only child amidst so many adults, Smith was showered with affection and approval - and no small amount of teasing...
Somehow I knew I must never resent teasing and though I sometimes kicked my uncles' shins in impotent rage, never, never did it make me cry.  Teasing must be accepted as fun.  And I now see it as one of the great blessings bestowed on me by those three uncles whom, even when they became elderly men, I still referred to as 'the boys'.
Smith's autobiography is not a string of momentous occasions, really, but a continuous, welcoming stream of memory.  Of course there are individual anecdotes, but the overall impression I got was of a childhood gradually being unveiled before us, with stories and impressions threaded subtly into what feels like a complete picture.  I was mostly struck by how accurate Smith's memory seems to be:
All the memories I have so far described are crystal clear in my mind; I see them almost like scenes on the stage, each one lit by its own particular light: sunlight, twilight, flickering firelight, charmless gaslight or the, to me, dramatic light of a carried taper.
This particular comment is actually an apology for the fact that, for recollections before she turned seven, Smith cannot recall exact chronology.  Well!  I have come to realise that my own memory is rather shoddy.  I remember strikingly little about my childhood - or, indeed, about any of my past.  If family and friends talk about an event, there's a good 50/50 chance that it'll come back to me - but if I were to sit down and try to write an autobiography, I think I'd come unstuck on about p.5.  I just can't remember very much, at least not without prompts.  Curious.  But it makes me all the more impressed when writers like Smith seem effortlessly to delve into their past and convey it so wonderfully - especially since Smith was in her late 70s when she wrote this memoir.

With memoirs, I seem especially drawn to people (like Harriet Devine) who grew up amongst theatrical folk, people (like Irene Vanbrugh) who became actors, or (like Felicity Kendal) both.  There's always been a part of me that wishes I'd grown up alongside actors and theatre managers.  Although I have no genuine aspirations to be an actor, I'm endlessly fascinated by the world of the stage, especially before 1950.  Well, although Smith's relatives were not connected with the theatre professionally, several were keen amateurs, and some of my many delights in Look Back With Love were Smith's first adventures upon the stage - especially the ad-libbing.

These sections were all the more enjoyable because Smith made frequent reference to her later career as a playwright.  (I've only read one of her plays - her first, published under a pseudonym - but am now keen to read more.)  When I wrote about P.Y. Betts' People Who Say Goodbye I commented that it was as though her childhood had been hermetically sealed.  Not once did she introduce her later life, or make links across the decades.  This worked fine for me, since I'd never heard of Betts before, and was happy to take her memoir on her terms.  Since I came to Look Back With Love with an extant interest in Dodie Smith, I've have been disgruntled if she hadn't made these connections between stages in her life (although, tchuh, she didn't mention I Capture the Castle.)

I keep saying that different things from this book were my favourite part... well, that's because I loved so much of it.  But I think, honestly and truly, my favourite element was Smith's ability to write about houses.  I love houses.  Not just to live in (they're handy for that) but as subjects for novels, autobiographies, TV redecoration programmes...  Chuck me a novel where the house is central, and I'm in.  Write something like Ashcombe and I'm delirious.  So I loved the way Smith conveyed the various houses she lived in.  Not that she wrote in huge detail about decor or style, although these were mentioned - more that, somehow, she manages to make the reader feel as though they were also residents in the houses, looking around each room with the familiarity of those who share Smith's memories.  I can't pinpoint an excerpt which made me feel like this; it permeates the book.

Most of Look Back With Love is (as the title suggests) lit by the glow of nostalgia.  The humour tends to be gentle, intertwined with the fond remembrance of innocent times past, rather than knockabout comedy, but there was one excerpt which made me laugh out loud.  It's part of Smith's tales of schooldays:
My mother felt the elocution lessons were well worth the extra she paid for them, but she was not pleased when Art became an extra, too.  Drawing, plain and simple, was in the curriculum but, after we had been drawing for a year or so, the visiting mistress would bend over one's shoulder and say quietly, "I think, dear, you may now tell your mother you are ready for Shading."  This, said my mother, merely meant she had to pay half a guinea extra for me to smother my clothes with charcoal; but it would have been a bad social error to refuse Shading once one was ready for it, so she gave in.  I then spent a full term on a bunch of grapes - the drawing mistress brought them with her twice and then we had to remember them; they were tiring fast.  After a few terms of Shading pupils were permitted to tell their mothers they were "ready for Oils", but mothers must have been unresponsive for I can recall only one painting pupil.  She had a very small canvas on a very large easel and was generally to be seen staring helplessly at three apples and a Japanese fan.  After many weeks I heard the drawing mistress say to her brightly, "One sometimes finds the best plan is to start all over again."
Lovely, no?

This has gone on for quite long enough, so I'm going to finish off with a characteristic piece of Dodie's writing.  The setting, ladies and gents, is the senior (mark it, senior) dancing class.
There were so many superb boys that I did not see how I could be without a partner, but I was soon to realise that there were two girls too many and I was always one of them.  Few of the boys were younger than fifteen.  I was only nine and small for my age, but I could never understand why they were not interested in me - I felt so very interesting.
This is the rhythm which is maintained throughout Look Back With Love: young Dodie always thought she was very interesting, and old Dodie looks back across the years with the same level of interest, albeit now more detached.  There is every possibility that this level of self-importance in a child would have been irritating for those around her - Smith freely confesses that she used to recite and perform at the merest suggestion of the drop of a hat - but, from the adult Smith, it pulls the reader along with the same happy enthusiasm.  Smith's childhood was not wildly unusual, but the way she is able to describe it elevates Look Back With Love above other childhood memoirs.  Everything, everyone, is capable of interesting Dodie Smith (adult and infant), and this makes her the most fascinating subject of all.  It is rare that I am bereft to finish a book.  A mere handful of titles have had this effect on me in the past five years.  But Look Back With Love is one - as I turned the final page, I longed for more; I longed to know why she made such dark hints about her stepfather; how her playwriting took off; how she experienced the theatre of the 1930s... thank goodness there are three more volumes to read!


Others who got Stuck into this Book:

Well, I was going to do a round-up of other bloggers who've written about Look Back With Love, but I can only find one who has!  But they say it's quality not quantity, and you couldn't do better than Elaine's review over on Random Jottings:  "Look back with Love is a lovely, lovely, lovely book.  It is charming, it is delightful, it is beguiling, it made me laugh and it made me cry and I adored every single word of it and was very sad to finish it. [...]"

22 comments:

  1. Thanks for the link SImon and I just knew you would love this book. I have now read two vols of her adult autobiography and here is my link to my post on those

    http://randomjottings.typepad.com/random_jottings_of_an_ope/2012/02/dodie-smith-not-just-101-dalmatians.html

    I, too, love reading about theatre and the growing up in etc. You should try Noel Cowards Diaries or his autobiography. totally fascinating and name dropping everywhere!

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    1. I do have Coward's diaries, I think, or perhaps his letters - will immerse myself one day! And will head off and read your other review... :)

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  2. Dodie Smith holds a special place in my heart. I read I Capture the Castle in 2003 also. It was the same year I discovered Persephone Books and realized that there was a type of fiction (didn't even know what to call it) that I wanted to focus on for the rest of my reading life: British, 1930 - 1950, mostly female, witty, domestic, understated, in the Austen tradition, language and character-driven (plot in the backseat) -- you get the picture. @:-)

    To your review: sounds like a wonderful book. I like that she always thought she was interesting. I'm sure she was right. I have a biography of Smith in my TBR pile. I've skimmed through it but it has been in the TBR for a long time. Have you read Dear Dodie by Valerie Grove?

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    1. You have described, of course, exactly the sort of books I love! I'm constantly surprised by how many like-minded souls there are out there, and that I'm not just blogging about them to myself.

      I did read Dear Dodie, right after I read I Capture the Castle for the first time, and now remember almost nothing about it... but I do remember being surprised that the play I owned by C.L. Anthony was actually by Dodie!

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  3. I just head over heels in love with I Capture the Castle, so I'm thrilled to hear about Look Back with Love. Thank you!

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    1. You're welcome - I'm sure you'd love this too!

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  4. Elaine's review convinced me I would love this and now with you heaping praise on it I'm convinced I need to buy it!

    And what a lovely list of childhood memoirs in your third paragraph, most of which I've yet to read. I have no desire to read about miserable childhoods but I cannot get enough of happy ones, especially ones where extended family played a large role. Having grown up in a small family (our largest Christmas dinner was seven people, usually only five) I love to read about the influence of uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents. But, then again, I love memoirs centering on close-knit families just as much since they echo my own experiences!

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    1. Hurrah! I can't see you *not* enjoying this, Claire.

      It wasn't until I started making that list, and dashing back whilst writing the review to add to it, that I realised quite what a lot I'd read.

      Like you, my family gatherings were pretty small - although I have a fair few relatives, none of them lived very close. I think what I like best in family memoirs, whether large or small families, is learning about family inside jokes and sayings.

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    2. Emma Smith - Great Western Beach is simply wonderful and so is Kisses on a Postcard both of which I have raved about over on Random. I know there were unhappy childhoods around but I really don't want to hear about them. Mine was spent abroad as my dad was in the army and we lived in Malta Egypt and Cyprus and I remember such happy happy days.

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  5. Alas I'm one of those "Never Got Past 101 Dalmations" readers when it comes to Dodie Smith! Ordinarily I wouldn't have thought that Look Back With Love was my type of book at all. But your enthusiastic thumbs up, coupled with the fact that something in the style of her writing in the excerpts chimed for me with Robert "Ask The Family" Robinson's memoir "Skip All That" (which I loved), have made me decide to definitely give it a try.
    I like the fact that sometimes random reading in blog world can suddenly connect with my life unexpectedly. Your review did two things for me. Firstly it reassured me that my incessant teasing of my daughter is probably OK (Phew!) and secondly Dodie Smith's recollection of Senior Dancing Class reminded me of my own Country Dancing classes at school in Scotland. I can't recall if we had anybody "left over" like Dodie Smith, but I do recall, whenever we were invited to choose a partner, the boys stampede to one beautiful girl in particular(with the exotic-for-Scotland name of Shairoze!) Being light on my feet I won the prize on more than one occasion! So thank you for the review, the recommendation, the parenting reassurance and the happy memory! ( I think that's what you call getting your money's worth from reading a blog!)

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    1. What lovely recollections, thank you for sharing them! And how nice when a blog review connects with life in the way (as well as reassuring you about parenting ;))

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  6. Lovely: yes! I started reading that paragraph about the art lessons and couldn't stop! On to the wish-list it goes!

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    1. Hurrah! I did love that paragraph so much.

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  7. I read Look Back With Love years ago and remember loving it, thanks to your review I've now got Being George Devine's Daughter and Deceived With Kindness to my wish list.

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    1. Great, Victoria, both brilliant books. I love reading about children who grew up amongst the arts.

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  8. I also read this years ago and loved it then - Dodie Smith is that rare combination of naked self-interest and attractiveness. The later volumes are also very interesting, especially whichever volume it is that deals with her career as a playwright in the 1930s. I'm delighted to see this back in print - Valerie Grove says somewhere that Dodie produced at least one perfect play, novel and children's novel, and this has to be up there among the best memoirs.

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    1. Very well put, Tanya -self-interest and yet attractive. Volume Two has now arrived, so I shall enjoy finding out the next step...

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  9. Just wanted to mention that three of Dodie Smith's novels are being re-issued by Corsair, and amazingly enough will also be available for Kindle in the US. Of course I out-smarted myself by pre-ordering from book depository...Still, good news.
    Brigitte

    The New Moon with the Old
    The Town in Bloom
    It Ends with Revelations

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    1. Thanks, Brigitte - aren't the new editions lovely? (Not that I've seen them in hard copy, just the beautiful images)

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  10. Glorious, wasn't it! I read it rather slowly, to savour the pleasure.

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    1. how rarely that happens, but how wonderful when it does!

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  11. Have just re-read "Look Back with Love" for the second time, (I have the copy published 1974 by Heinemann, given to my Uncle in 1975) and I enjoyed it even more the second time.

    Penny Evans 7th April 2013

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