Poor Dodie Smith. What a shame to have written your first book, and it’s I Capture the Castle, not far off being the best book ever, narrated by a character that is the perfect blend of innocence and charming worldly practicality. Thereafter you can write more books, but none of them will ever be as good, and everyone will feel sad that your subsequent books are not I Capture the Castle. In fact it would not be unbearably dissimilar to the plight of the father in I Capture the Castle, except without the Joyce comparisons.
It Ends with Revelations has my love in a small way because the title and epigraph are in reference to a play of Oscar Wilde’s. A Woman of No Importance, I believe, though I wouldn’t swear to it. Moreover, Oscar Wilde is mentioned in the book:
She’s known about homosexuality since she was ten years old when she asked what crime Oscar Wilde committed. My grandmother, who had met and liked Wilde, obliged with a straightforward answer couched in such a way that Kit accepted homosexuality as being neither right nor wrong, despicable nor pitiable, but simply existent.”
…It now seemed perfectly natural to be sitting here eating cucumber sandwiches (so suitable, in view of the mention of Wilde) in this matter-of-fact way.
Of course the guy’s grandmother met and liked Oscar Wilde. Everyone who met Oscar Wilde liked him. Even the Marquess of Queensberry liked Oscar Wilde when he met him. He forgot about it almost straight away, because his head was full of craziness, but when he met him, he liked him. People did. Oscar Wilde was extremely lovable. Good point, Dodie Smith!
The plot of the book is this. Jill (I love that name) is the wife of a well-known stage actor called Miles, who is working on a play version of something that succeeded on TV, and experiencing some problems with the child actor, who was trained for TV and not for the stage. As Jill is helping smooth down ruffled feathers (producer’s, director’s, actors’), she meets MP Geoffrey Thornton and his daughters, Kit and Robin. At once she is charmed by the girls, and so am I. They are the best thing about the book, and this, I regret to say, is down to their being the most I-Capture-the-Castle-ish aspect of the book. On the up side, Kit’s adorability reassured me about the name Kit, which I had been mad at from that dreadful Mary Renault book. Here’s Kit being charming at length regarding Ivy Compton-Burnett:
She did fairly well on clothes and life but was out of her depth as regards literature–though she was thankful to be able to say that she had read one book by Kit’s favourite modern novelist, Ivy Compton-Burnett.
“If you’ve only read one, you couldn’t have liked her,” said Kit. “People who do, read them all–and again and again.”
“I almost like her because she writes about families,” said Robin. “But she doesn’t tell one enough about their backgrounds, what the houses are like, what the women wear. And though everyone’s always eating, we’re never allowed to know what they eat.”
“Well, who wants to know what anyone eats?” said Kit impatiently. “And she does say quite a bit about backgrounds. Sometimes there are cracks in a wall, or an overgrown creeper, or the rich people have cushions. One can do the rest from imagination. And the strange thing is that whenever I re-read one of the books I get a different mental picture of the house in it–and I can remember all the different mental pictures. Very peculiar, that. And the dialogue’s so marvellous, somehow it’s what the characters are thinking as well as what they’re saying, so it ends by being what they are. People say the servants don’t talk like servants and the children don’t talk like children, but the servants just are our great-grandmother’s chauffeur and lady’s maid, and the children are me, almost before I could talk. And the plots are lovely, all the families have terrific secrets and scandals, just like our family–though Miss Compton-Burnett hasn’t done a dipsomaniac nymphomaniac, which seems a pity. She usually deals with quite ordinary adultery, though sometimes it’s murder or bigamy or incest, but the incest seldom comes to anything. I must say she’s fussy about incest. After all, it’s been highly thought of at many periods of the world’s history, and it appears to work well in the animal kingdom.”
“Kit, dear,” said Robin, getting a word in at last. “Jill isn’t interested in Ivy Compton-Burnett.”
“I am, now,” said Jill. “I’ll try her again.”
“Try A Family and a Fortune,” said Kit. “That’s my absolute favourite. Though More Women Than Men is rather a love. There’s a most charming homosexual in it, the nicest character in the book. He marries eventually.”
Christy at A Good Stopping Point was just talking about cultural references in books, and whether they work, and how, and why. I do not know the answer, but this passage about Ivy Compton-Burnett is doing it right. I think that having fictional characters drop cultural references is a gambit, and it can come off affected, or it can come off like the characters love books and cannot resist talking about them. In this case, Dodie Smith has managed the latter. Of course, in this case she does not do a compelling plotline, or resist introducing a potentially explosive plotline in the last quarter and then resolving everything all nice and pat, but hey, she’s name-dropping Ivy Compton-Burnett very successfully. Even if I didn’t know who Ivy Compton-Burnett was, this passage feels perfectly natural.
Kit and Robin on art films, and I do really sympathize:
“And Julian [their brother] should be back soon. He went to one of the arty films he favours.”
“We only like some arty films,” said Kit. “Even some of the slow ones and some of the horrible ones. But we’re not enthusiastic when slowness and horror are combined.”
“Julian thinks those are best of all.”
Basically you can give this book a miss. It is trying to be about compromises, and happiness, and love, but it does not really succeed. I’m only giving it three stars rather than two for the compliment to Oscar Wilde.
I’ve never heard of this one though I loved I Capture the Castle. What a shame she didn’t write more books like them. I guess 101 Dalmations is also good but in a different way. Kids definitely love it.
Oh, of course, I liked 101 Dalmatians too. I guess I was just thinking of her books for adults.
Have you read/did you like 101 Dalmatians? That was the first book I read by Dodie Smith and I loved it as a kid — re-reading more recently there are a few things that bother me but still plenty I love. I only read I Capture the Castle in the last five years (though I did enjoy it too).
Those dropped-in cultural references are one of my favorite things about the “historical girl books” that I love, like the Betsy-Tacy series and Anne books. It’s funny, because I find the dropped-in cultural references in current books generally annoying.
I did like it–although of course I saw the wonderful Disney movie first, with that marvelous Cruella de Vil, so that colored my perception of it as a kid. It’s been years since I picked it up though.
Oh, I loved that in the Betsy-Tacy books. Betsy got in trouble once for reading that wicked dime novel, which I think was Lady Audrey’s Secret. I was so surprised when I got a bit older and realized that was an actual book!
Cultural references can too often date a book, especially if they’re just tossed in for the sake of being there- but if they’re organic to the characters and make sense even if you don’t know exactly what the reference is, they work.
Agreed. I also think it’s true that cultural references can work brilliantly when they’re still current, and completely flop when they aren’t. Particularly when it’s something like–I don’t know, like the Balloon Boy. It was such a ballyhoo while it was happening, but it won’t even be a blip on the radar of real history.
The only other adult Dodie Smith I’ve read is The Town In Bloom, about which I remember mainly my disappointment that it wasn’t as good as I Capture the Castle.
But I do have a fondness for 101 Dalmations, and even more for Starlight Barking.
Is that the one about the actresses? I read that one too, if that’s the one where the main character is called Mouse.
I own Starlight Barking, but I’ve never read it. I think I picked it up at a library book sale and then forgot about it, and I haven’t read 101 Dalmatians since then, so haven’t read Starlight Barking either. Nice to know it’s something to look forward to!
Too bad this wasn’t as good as you hoped. I think cultural references in a book are fun, especially when I actually know what they are! :–)
I do feel disproportionately pleased with myself when I catch cultural references–when I was a kid we hardly watched any TV and very few movies, so I felt rather out of the loop. It makes me especially happy at catching cultural references now. 🙂
I still have not read I Capture the Castle, though I have read such amazing things about it and really don’t know why I haven’t picked it up by this point! I don’t think this book sounds horrible, but I am going to take your advice and skip this one. Thanks for the very honest and comprehensive review!!
Oh, I hope you can read I Capture the Castle soon! It’s just completely charming and delightful all the way through. It’s really a perfect book for, like, the first cool day of autumn.
I’m so glad you included that excerpt about Ivy Compton-Burnett, which you had referred to when you were commenting on my post a couple of weeks ago. That is a splendid bit of dialogue there, especially on Kit’s part. I’m with Jill: Kit’s recommendation makes me want to read Ivy Compton-Burnett now. Dodie Smith can do voice so well – it’s a shame the other aspects of the book were less compelling/charming. I haven’t read this one, only Smith’s I Capture the Castle.
Well, I Capture the Castle is, as I say, by far her best thing. If you really fancied reading another of her books, I’d go with The New Moon with the Old. It’s got a silly plot, but it’s really charming to me, because of the characters’ voices. You’re right, that’s something Dodie Smith can do very well!
I have I Capture the Castle and I haven’t read it yet! Yay! It’s on my bedside pile though (and you know how that looks). Oh goodness for Oscar Wilde. Imagine, if you liked this book and thinking of a 4, you would’ve given it a 5 for the Wilde reference 🙂
And if I’d liked it a five, I’d have had to make up a new rating. :p Seriously, I am the biggest sucker for compliments to Oscar Wilde. I will forgive a lot in a book or author who flatters Oscar Wilde.
What Clare said about cultural references – they can definitely come across as gimmicky, but when done well I actually like them. It can be so interesting to know what people were reading and watching and thinking about in a particular time period. And it’s such a pity her other books aren’t nearly as good
Yes! I do like it when the characters really talk about their cultural references, rather than just saying the names of things in passing. Then it’s less about the book or film or whatever and more about them, so it matters less whether I’m familiar with the thing they’re discussing.
Beside I Capture the Castle, which is a book I buy a used copy of every time I see one, because you can’t have too many, I have only read one other Dodie Smith novel (if you don’t count 101 Dalmations). I can’t remember the title, even looking them all up and trying to see if one sounds familiar, and I haven’t wanted to read another one. (It was the one about the two naive young sisters who seek their fortunes. One wants to be an actress and the other, who has read a lot of racy historical novels, intends to be the mistress of wealthy aristocrat.)
I noticed a couple of things about that book. The characters were all more flamboyant (exaggerated?) than any of the characters in I Capture the Castle, and yet managed to be less interesting, and no one was nice. Niceness isn’t necessary, but–I don’t know–without those jolts of straightforward human kindness (Miss Marcy, Cassandra being Miss Blossom for Rose, Simon and Topaz at times) something is missing, in a story filled with such frenetic eccentricity.
The other thing I noticed was that despite not thinking much of the book, certain passages have stayed with me for seven years nearly intact; not that there’s much to them, they just seem wise in the ways of the world, and made really vivid pictures in my head.
So I will probably read more Dodie Smith some day. Mourning, like you, every book for not being as good as I Capture the Castle!
Why do you think its so much better than her other work?
The one you’ve read sounds like The New Moon with the Old, which is my favorite apart from I Capture the Castle (but miles less good, of course). It’s actually four siblings, there are two brothers as well. The little sister goes off and gets more or less adopted by a posh family, while masquerading as an actress, and I believe some old posh guy proposes to her, but she’s really far too young for him. But I agree, it didn’t have the heart that I Capture the Castle did.
(I liked it when someone tells Clare, the older sister, that the cremation came off nicely. “Did cremations, wondered Clare, ever not come off nicely?” :D)
I don’t know why Smith never managed a book as good as I Capture the Castle. Maybe she became too self-conscious about writing? The later books feel insincere, in a way that I Capture the Castle didn’t.
Yes, I read New Moon With the Old. I did have a feeling there might have been a boy or two but I found the girls so much more interesting. . . .
Insincere is a good word–like she didn’t really believe such story-worthy things could actually happen in real life when she wrote New Moon With the Old, but she still kind of did when she wrote I Capture the Castle.
I just made myself sad for Dodie Smith writing that.
Ha, I didn’t remember the cremation remark, but cremations that don’t come off nicely paints a *very* vivid picture!
This is good to know as I’ve only ever heard of I Capture the Castle!
It’s the best one!
One of the things I most enjoy about I Capture the Castle and 101 Dalmations, which are the only ones I’ve read, is how flamboyant (to use Trapunto’s excellent term) the characters are.
And Wilde was certainly flamboyant; it makes sense that her characters would be fond of him. Although who wouldn’t be? I cried at the end of the movie about him, which I originally watched out of curiosity to see Orlando Bloom as a “rent boy.” What was that one called? *opens new window to look it up* oh! ahem…Wilde.
I’ve been meaning to watch that movie because I love Stephen Fry because he speaks eloquently of his love for Oscar Wilde’s short stories, and has recorded them, and is wicked smart, among other reasons (for loving Stephen Fry). But Orlando Bloom is in it? Whoo-hoo!
Orlando has a bit part; he’s literally a face in a crowd. But a pretty one.
*giggles* I was shocked to find Orlando Bloom was in that movie giving Stephen Fry the eye. But the film put me off Jude Law for years–he does look a lot like horrible Bosie.
So true about the dialogue you quoted – very I Capture The Castle-ish – it also reminded me of the chit-chat between the sisters in The Brontes Went To Woolworth’s.
Trapunto very neatly expressed the key issue about the only other Dodie Smith novel I read: The characters simply are not likable. ( I think the one I read was called The New Moon With The Old.) My thought was: Why read a book at all if you don’t want to hang out with the characters? Or at least visit with them for a while?
I found the characters in The New Moon with the Old moderately likable. I liked the little sister who went to live with the rich family, and I liked the older sister’s travails with the old guy. Not nearly as fun as Topaz and Cassandra, of course.
Even I want to try Ivy Compton-Burnett after that passage! I need to read some Dodie Smith, too. I’ve had I Capture The Castle on my to-read list for what feels like forever.
I confess, I initially thought I Capture the Castle was going to be dull, and delayed reading it. But it’s great! Read it! 😀
Ahhh, I quite enjoyed I Capture the Castle, but I’m sad to hear that this one wasn’t really there. 😦
So, Oscar Wilde. Name for the first born? I think so.
Mm, I’m not sure I can saddle my kids with the name “Oscar”. But if I end up taking a pen name, I expect it will be Oscar Wilde related. :p
I went through a period of reading every Dodie Smith book I could find, in the hope that one of them would be as good as I Capture the Castle. And this was actually my favorite non- I Capture the Castle Dodie Smith book. I think it’s mostly because I find Kit and Robin charming, and there’s so much of them in it. I find the plotline with Miles and the play and the child actor pretty squirm-inducing, though, mostly because Smith handles the whole thing in a kind of earnest, careful, over-emphatic way that I’m sure was fine at the time but now comes across as very dated.
I remember I recommended this book to a cousin who liked Dodie Smith, and on hearing the title she said, “Ugh, I am so SICK of Oscar Wilde!” and refused to read it.
Yes, the whole bit at the end with the kid trying on the blackmail, that was a bit much for me. And everyone flinging themselves into hysterics when it was obvious the husband hadn’t done it.
Sick? Of Oscar Wilde? Why would anyone be sick of Oscar Wilde? #dismayed
What a bummer to write I Capture The Castle, straight out of the gates. It’s an impossible act to follow – and I’m sorry this book didn’t turn out great as the passage you quote is delightful. But ah well, you win some, you lose some.
I know. But what gets me is that she didn’t even come near to following it. Like, Audrey Niffenegger, her first book was The Time Traveler’s Wife, and it was really good. Her Fearful Symmetry didn’t pack the same punch, but I still thought it was a very good book. Dodie Smith’s subsequent books aren’t even close to as good as ICtC.
Dodie Smith. Another of those authors I’ve never read and really need to.
I hope you do. I Capture the Castle is a wonderful book, just completely charming from start to finish.
Ah. This makes me a little sad. I really loved I CAPTURE THE CASTLE. But it appears that I can skip this one at least. I still might read 101 DALMATIONS some day. Thanks for the heads on up on this one.
Sorry to know that you didn’t like this book of Dodie Smith’s. I haven’t read ‘I Capture the Castle’ yet but it somewhere near the top of my ‘TBR’ list. I hope to read it soon. It sometimes feel sad, when an author first book is so brilliant and her / his later books can never come near that. In some ways that is amazing, and in other ways it is sad.
I think I need to read Capture the Castle. 🙂
You absolutely do, if you haven’t yet. It’s wonderful.
Sadly, additional proof that nothing ever lives up to a first book like I Capture the Castle is the fact that I’d never once heard of this book. For shame!
Honestly, it’s just not that good. I hate to be mean, but this is one that’s deservedly fallen into obscurity.
I missed all this when you posted it, which is amazing because I love Dodie Smith – I’m old enough for them to have been much less dated when I read them, which probably helps, but The Town in Bloom was perfect for someone who wanted to work in the theatre, as was The New Moon with the Old, which is one of my most regular re-reads. I liked this one too (wish I’d bought it when I read it, because I can’t really afford it now, 2ndhand copies are very expensive) but I guess nostalgia plays a huge part. I’m sad you didn’t like it much, all the same.
This is a very late addition to the interesting stream of Dodie Smith discussion. I Capture… is one of the funniest books ever written and has a wonderful, fresh and authentic voice. I return to it time and again and never tire of it.
The other three of her adult novels are available on offer (3 for £5) from The Works right now (March/April 2012)… worth getting even if they are flawed. I’m reading The New Moon… at the moment and it IS a little far-fetched but there are some great ‘asides’ – conversational observations both sharp and bright – that are as good as anything in the best works of Smith’s contemporaries. Her style reminds me a little of Wilde’s Sphinx – the novelist, Ada Leverson – both in tone and ambition… and that’s no bad recommendation.