The Life of Dodie Smith

I’ve just finished reading Dear Dodie: the life of Dodie Smith by Valerie Grove. It has taken some time to read as at first I only read short sections at a sitting. This week I have spent more time on it – one reason being that it is a library book and I can’t renew it. I do like biographies and this is no exception. It is very readable and gives a very full picture of Dodie’s life, and it has an excellent index (always a plus for me).

I think the best way to sum up this book is to quote these extracts (some are very long, but I wanted to quote in full as I have to return the book):

Of the six plays and six novels that Dodie published between 1931 and 1967, at least one play and one novel will stand in a class of their own. Her life was essentially limited and, to a degree, pampered. Though she had to struggle in her actress days, even at her poorest she never cooked herself a meal, and even as a ‘shopgirl’ there was always someone to wake her and fetch her breakfast. After her mother’s death, she never had to look after anyone – husband, children or aged parents: and she was nannied by her husband for fifty years. A writer who has no family, no responsibility for other people, nobody to consider but himself and his own work (and there are legions of such writers, most of them men) lives a peculiarly privileged and self-indulgent life. But however self-absorbed, she was always curious about others, perceptive, incisive, extravagant, obsessively hard-working and oddly vulnerable. One cannot help liking Dodie for her spirit and humour. (page 323)

 She had a compelling presence; she talked precisely, listened intently; and her indomitable determination and diligence in the face of her own fading appeal were quite remarkable. (page 323)

From Dodie herself:

I am constantly trying to possess life, to save it up, to bring the then into now, and make it available for ever. (page 324)

Dodie Smith was born in 1896 and died in 1990. During her lifetime the world when through enormous changes and numerous wars. This biography not only relates Dodie’s life, but is also a record of those years, containing so much about the changing society, culture, values and recalling an unknown (to me at any rate) theatrical age.

She was the author of two classics – I Capture the Castle and The Hundred and One Dalmatians. Those are the two works that I knew before reading this book. She was also an acclaimed playwright and her plays receiving most praise were Autumn Crocus and Dear Octopus. This book has triggered my interest in reading these plays and more of Dodie’s books. She wrote millions of words, mostly about herself – in her journals and five volumes of autobiography. She simply loved writing. But at times she became depressed and stuck:

The death of Hitler was announced on 2 May 1945, the eve of Dodie’s forty-ninth birthday. In the ensuing week, when the European war reached its end – the very thing she longed for – she found she had a terrifying case of writer’s nerves. ‘My inner ear – that faculty for hearing every word spoken in my head before I write it – suddenly went out of gear; or it had become impossible to pull it out of gear because it never stopped morning or night. It worked while I was writing, reading and even sleeping. Always I heard the words battering at me, trying to form their own satisfactory sentences. I became obsessed by rhythm. I have always fussed about the balance of my writing but in a very amatuer way. Only recently it dawned on me that every word of a novel ought to be as carefully balanced as every speech in a play. Since then, life has been quite nightmarish. I found I was trying to impose on sentences the rhythm of poetry. I heard every word that was said with exaggerated accents. Moreover I couldn’t get any relaxation in reading because my ear listened to the rhythm of everything I read and I couldn’t take in the sense. And nights have been almost more exhausting than the days for I dreamed in words as well as happenings.’ (pages 166 -7)

One touching note – Dodie’s last Dalmatian, Charley, slept on the floor by her side on guard, as it were, during her final days. Dodie left £2000 in her will for ‘the utmost care and protection of Charley’, but three weeks after her departure he died.

4 thoughts on “The Life of Dodie Smith”

  1. I just got this out of the library, and I’m greatly looking forward to reading it. I was a fan of 101 Dalmations (and also The Twilight Barking) when I was young, and I Capture the Castle became an alltime favourite as soon as I read it!

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  2. I have always loved her other books too – my copy of The New Moon with the Old is one of my treasures, and I re-read it every few years. A Town in Bloom is about a young woman starting out in the theatre and I think from what I remember of the biography recognisably depicts her own days as an actress. I also remember Dear Octopus from my childhood, it was a repertory standard in those days, and deserved to be.

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  3. Oxford Reader, I love I Capture the Castle too.
    GeraniumCat – I hope I can find copies of her other books. The biography does indeed cover her days as an actress. I need to write another post with more information before I have to return the book to the library.

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