Friday, 24 February 2012

Look Back with Love by Dodie Smith

Published 1974

Oh heavens, where to start to describe this wonderful memoir of childhood? Dodie Smith, famous as the author of 101 Dalmatians, must have been the most delightfully trying little madam ever! It would probably be true for nearly anyone who'd been a child with a literary bent, but I kept finding things in common with her (including having been a little madam? Probably, I'm afraid. It's rather easy when children spend a lot of time with adults.) For a start, reading Look Back with Love took me back to the earliest, happiest days of my own childhood, when I lived with my grandparents, as Dodie did. Some of the resonances, it is true, must also be due to the fact that Smith is one of the writers who has been a part of my entire life - I can hardly remember a time when I wasn't reading about Pongo and Missus and the Dearlys, and in my teens I discovered Cassandra Mortmain and Jane Minton, and her voice is one of those I can conjure most easily in my head. But we shared other experiences too: (nearly) falling out of cars, family holidays in a car which was always coming to a halt on hills (why did adults never think ahead and take water for the radiator with them when they must have known it was going to boil?) and lots of theatre visits and theatre talk.

Dodie's mother, Ella, was widowed when Dodie was only 18 months old, and they moved to Old Trafford in Manchester to live with Ellas's parents, the Furbers, and her unmarried siblings, Harold, Arthur, Madge, Bertha and Eddie. In I Capture the Castle Cassandra talks about "capturing" her own family and acquaintances (and the castle itself) and here, Dodie herself captures her extended and opinionated family in Chapter Two. There's a wonderfully matter-of-fact tone about her writing always, and she tells everything at the same pace, which somehow manages to heighten the drama. It feels very much as though she's talking to you directly:
The youngest brother, Eddie, must have been in his early twenties as I first remember him. He was tall and thin with lank, dark hair, a wide forehead but a narrow face. He had a sardonic sense of humour but was the most sensitive of the family. Being the youngest, he had fewest rights - he had, for instance, no right to any particular armchair and it was years before he was able to treat himself to one. When he did, it was so large and comfortable that his brothers sat in it whenever they got the chance. He had a hard struggle to get going in business and once told me that, when he first started to apply for jobs, he had not even a penny to spend on stamps. So he would smear a little gum where the stamp should have been and hope the recipient would think it had come off in the post.
...though Auntie Bertha wrote excellent letters, her fear that the spelling and punctuation might be faulty always caused her to add a postscript  saying - '"Burn this."
Once Dodie started school she attended Mrs North's Girls' School, in a large Victorian villa, where every Wednesday afternoon they had dancing lessons.
dancing was an extra and my mother said it would be the ruin of her for such a large number of accessories were required. One needed an accordion-pleated dress, at least fifteen yards wide, for the skirt dance (wretched children not possessing such a dress did not "take" the skirt dance and were looked at pityingly).
(For the benefit of my readers, there are descriptions of the skirt dance here and here. I once, along with other members of the dance group I belonged to, made a Victorian ball dress for myself - six of us spent a weekend's dance course frantically accordion-pleating our skirts in our spare moments. Only six yards, though - the mind boggles at fifteen!)

The chapter on family holidays is bliss. Auntie Bertha was by this time married to Uncle Bertie, who acquired an already elderly de Dion Bouton - which Dodie describes as "an extremely open" car - so they all went on a touring holiday. This was in 1907, so it must have looked something like this:

Isn't that wonderful? It (sorry, she) was always running out of petrol, and finally, late in the afternoon and after Leominster, broke down:
For four hours, Uncle Bertie wrestled with the de Dion, while great flying beetles zoomed with menace in the twilight, the moon rose and lights appeared in the windows of the big Georgian house at whose gates we had come to a stop. A sympathetic maid came out and offered to bring tea, but this was declined; my mother and Auntie Bertha were pining for it, but Uncle Bertie feared it might delay him, should he suddenly be able to start.
It's fanciful of me, I know, but I can't help feeling that this Georgian house might have made an appearance in 101 Dalmatians, when an elderly spaniel offers a resting place to the dogs and the exhausted puppies.

Look Back with Love has recently been reissued by Slightly Foxed Editions in an elegant little volume. I find it hard to imagine that anyone could fail to be captivated by the lively Dodie. In her play of 1938, she described the family as "that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape; nor in our innermost hearts, ever quite wish to" (I wish someone would stage Dear Octopus again,* because I love it very much) and this memoir is a celebration of the family who inspired such affection. I'm conscious that I haven't done justice to her, because I just wanted to share all of it with you. I'm dying to read the second part of her autobiography, Look Back with Mixed Feelings, too, about her time as a drama student, because I know there would be more common ground there. Oh, and I didn't tell you the bit about Mrs Warren's Profession...*

* I watched a TV version once with my great-grandmother, and at the end she said, "I'm not quite sure, dear, what Mrs Warren's profession actually was"...neither was the young Dodie.

* Edited later because I noticed that I'd called it Dead Octopus - which would have been a rather different kettle of fish, LOL.


  1. It was pretty good wasn't it? She was a little madam really, but a beguiling one despite that. Excellent review.

  2. I'd love to read this! I wish my library had it but alas it does not. Dodie Smith is such a charming writer.

  3. When I'll have my kindle at the end of March, I shall look for this as an ebook and hopefully find it, it sounds like a wonderful book for me to enjoy.

  4. I'd like to read this. After reading Valerie Gove's biography, I really disliked Dodie, in spite of loving her books.

  5. This is going on my wishlist. I liked Valerie Grove's biography, but this must be better.

    By the way the word verification is very difficult - I have to have several goes before it will accept my comment! Maybe I'm a robot.

  6. Snap! I've just written about this - isn't it wonderful? I enjoyed it so very much, and have ordered the second volume already.

  7. You make this sound really interesting. Great review!

  8. I have this and so far have read only a wee bit of it, which I enjoyed. Your great review has had me reaching to take it off the shelf, though. I must read more of it, and soon!

  9. I grew up with 'I capture the Castle', but haven't read anything else of Dodie's, must take a look at this biography.
    I'm pleased to find out about skirt dances - only time I've met them is in 'Pixie O'Shaugnessy' by Mrs George de Horne Vaizey, where the prettiest and most popular girl in the school dances this.

  10. This really sounds wonderful.

  11. Thank you all so much for your comments - it's a lovely book and an excellent addition to wishlists. I'm sorry not to reply to everyone individually but I'm swamped with work and won't re-emerge for another week or so. Margaret, I'm sorry about the word verification - I find it hard on other people's blogs, too. I'll try complaining to Blogger about it when I'm back...

  12. Thanks for sharing this -- I adore Dodie Smith, and I adore memoirs of childhood. I did not know about this one but will be searching it out immediately! I, too, wish someone would stage Dear Octopus in my environs...I read it a few years back and just loved it. Would really like to see it on stage.