Sunday, 30 April 2017

Dress Down Sunday: A Tale of Two Families by Dodie Smith

 
published 1970
 

LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES





Tale of Two Families
 


Corinna, returning from a late class at her Drama School, expected that Hugh would be outside the flat waiting to be let in. She was relieved to find he wasn’t. With luck she could now get time to change her clothes, which she greatly disliked. She was wearing a sloppy tweed coat, a black sweater, a plaid mini-skirt, thick black tights and heavy shoes. Her own tastes were for the pretty clothes that suited her prettiness but whenever she wore these her fellow-students greeted her with cries of ‘Dainty Doris’ and ‘Corinna’s going a maying’. All the really talented girls at the school dressed hideously and sloppily and seemed to do it without effort. She had to work hard at it.

The flat looked slightly denuded but her bedroom was intact. She hastily put on a short, fluttery nightgown and negligée; never before had she had the chance to wear these for Hugh. It flashed through her mind that he might not think the outfit respectable, but it was a sight more respectable than some of her day clothes. There were layers and layers of nylon net between herself and the outer world. And this was the kind of thing that suited her. Sometimes she wondered if her eternal battle to be with-it was worthwhile.
 
 
commentary: Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle is one of my all-time favourite books – I have re-read it many times, and never love it less. Smith’s other books are very variable, but never less than enjoyable. This one was completely new to me, and it is a charming and very undemanding read. There is not much to it: just the story of a year or so in the life of the eponymous two families, who move to the country to live in neighbouring houses. Two sisters are married to two brothers, and their various children and parents also feature in the story.

Various aspects of the story are familiar from other Smith books, and from her own life: the young woman above who is studying acting, attracting an older man, and wearing unusual clothes is completely Mouse from The Town in Bloom, is completely Dodie Smith – just translated from the 1920s to the 1960s. In the excerpt above the mini-skirt, coat and stockings are completely convincing and right – the negligee, less so. She is sharing the flat with a cousin who is also a semi-boyfriend, and idea of dressing like that to have kitchen supps with him is fairly disturbing.

Smith is much better on the older characters – Granny Fran is also fairly plainly (the older) Dodie herself, and is an excellent person to spend time with. And, she wears that great blog favourite, a bedjacket:
She slept until her small travelling alarm clock went off at 8.45. May had undertaken to bring breakfast at nine o’clock and Fran never liked even her daughters to see her before she had given her appearance some little help. She was back in bed in a decorative bedjacket before May arrived with the tray.
Fran forms an alliance with another aging person, Baggy, who is her daughters’ father-in-law (the relationships sometimes take a bit of working out, and people seem not to know basic facts about each other considering they’ve all been tightly connected by marriage for 25 years). Their conversations are charming, and totally convincing:
‘I did so enjoy our afternoon together.’  

‘So did I – except for my ridiculous fall. By the way, I’m not going to mention that to the others.' 
‘Quite right. They fuss if one so much as trips.’

Another relation, the horrible Mildred, turns up to behave badly and cause trouble. All the clothes in the book are beautifully described, and Smith obviously took malicious pleasure in thinking of Mildred’s awful outfits:
Mildred was in pink, frilled mousseline de soie, the waist up under her arms which dangled from little puffed sleeves. The dress reached to her calves and below it were frilled pantalettes and pink dancing sandals with crossed elastics.
And later on:
George reported one touch of light relief: Mildred had turned up for the funeral, looking like Mary Queen of Scots on her way to execution – ‘Somebody asked if she was the widow. By the way, Fran, she said she was looking forward to having you back in London.’  
Fran sighed. ‘Well, we all have our crosses.
There are two main plotlines – one of the sisters is in love with the other’s husband; and the young woman above has attracted the attention of a very distinguished older actor. Both lines rattle along, but the point is more to describe life, and memories, and the ways families work together.

I liked the book very much, though I would be hard put to explain why. Probably one solely for Dodie Smith fans - but they will love it.

The collection of nightwear above is startling in its general hideousness. I think that Corinna was wearing item B.
















20 comments:

  1. Going to find a copy of this and then read it in bed while wearing a bed jacket!

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    1. Oh yes you must. Let's hope someone brings you breakfast in bed. (Though only after you have had the chance to put on some makeup, which I think is the implication above.)

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  2. What nightclothes! Yikes! Still, it sounds like a fun read, Moira. And sometimes, those 'slice of life' sorts of books are really enjoyable. Glad you liked this one.

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    1. It was a soothing read Margot, nothing to upset the reader or trouble them. And sometimes that's what we need.

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  3. I think I can safely pass on this author thanks.

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    1. I honestly think you can - if you need soothing you will have to find a nice heist book or a particularly gruesome murder.

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  4. Floaty layers of nylon net sounds like a terrible fire risk. And, indeed, rather risqué for a cosy dinner a deux. The pyjamas in view G would be a more sensible outfit. It sounds a nice light book - good for holidays or reading on the train perhaps?

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    1. Do you know, I at first misread your comment and thought you were wondering if item G would be good to wear while travelling. And now I think about it - loose top and trousers with a light layer over the top? If only it didn't look quite so pyjama-y.
      But yes, answering your actual question, ideal book for travelling and holidaying.
      And I hope she wasn't going to be lighting table candles or doing those 60s favourites - flambe, crepe suzettes and fondue. Definitely risky.

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  5. I love Dodie Smith, too, and "I Capture the Castle" is definitely my favorite. A few years ago I read all four (five?) volumes of her memoirs and discovered she'd lived in California for a number of years. I'd never known that. Such an interesting life.

    Those nightclothes are horrifying, and I was certainly a bit non-plused to have you reveal Hugh was a cousin. Good heavens!

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    1. I have heard good things about the memoirs but haven't read them, though did read a fascinating biography of her. Do you recommend the memoirs?

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    2. I found them fascinating. Because there are so many volumes they take a bit of time to read -- she covers a LOT of detail -- but it was all interesting to me. So, yes, I'd recommend them.

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    3. Thanks, I'll look out for them. I think I was prejudiced because I couldn't believe one life needed quite that many pages...

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    4. I just finished "Town in Bloom" and found it almost autobiographical in its description of young actresses in 1920s London. The book was in my pile, and had been for a month or so. I couldn't remember where for sure I'd been encouraged to read it, but in about chapter 2, two of the young women were in bed jackets! I knew it was Moira!

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    5. Thank you! Can't tell you what a compliment that is! It's not the deepest of books, but great fun and -as you say - very autobiographical.

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    6. I'm glad you felt complimented. :-) I traced your original review from a few years back, and I strongly agreed with your comment about the narrator not being prissy. That made a rather old-fashioned story not quite so dated-feeling.

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    7. Of course! And yes, it was a little unexpected, and welcome.

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  6. How did I miss this? I love the posts with pattern covers of this vintage. Actually I saw it earlier but left without commenting apparently. I am going to read I Capture the Castle eventually, and then I will see what I think of Dodie Smith.

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    1. Well, ICTC is by far the best. Reading the others by her is comfort for those of us who love her...
      And yes, there's something particularly fascinating about those old pictures which I think show what people REALLY wore, rather than maybe high-fashion photographers' fancy ideas. (Of course I love the arty shots too...)

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  7. Nearly finished it now. The awful MIldred is a brilliant character, delivering put-downs right and left while everybody says "she doesn't mean it". And only really being interested in her own fantasy life.

    I skipped the bits about the clingy dog. But there's a strange episode when the dog leads Hugh to the bedroom of Sarah, in the crumbling Hall. He is soaked through and she lends him some of HER clothes, while wearing a satin nightdress of her grandmother's...

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    1. Yes, I boggled at that and decided not to try to find a picture. It's a funny book, because it rolls along being just mildly entertaining, and then there is a character or a perception that wakes you up. Mildred was excellent in her horribleness.

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