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.”
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.
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. […]”