Adventures in Research: Americans in Post-War England

'Rhubarb' (1951 film poster)

The cover of my edition of ‘Smith’s London Journal’ is very boring, so here is the poster from the 1951 film of ‘Rhubarb’

My apologies for the lack of blog posts recently, but I’ve been reading ALL THE BOOKS and haven’t had time to write about them till now. Next in my Adventures in Research comes Smith’s London Journal by H. Allen Smith, an American journalist who seems to have been the Bill Bryson of the 1940s and 1950s, selling “millions of copies” of his humorous books. Among Smith’s best-selling books were (I am not making these titles up) Lo, the Former Egyptian!, Larks in the Popcorn and Life in a Putty Knife Factory, with his novel Rhubarb being turned into a Hollywood blockbuster starring Ray Milland and Orangey the cat.

Smith’s London Journal describes his visit to England in the autumn of 1951. His trip was partly for the purpose of attending the British premiere of Rhubarb, but also to study the “English character”, which he’d heard was the most admirable in the world. He sails over on the Queen Elizabeth, taking careful notes on the manners and accents of his fellow passengers, including the (mostly unintelligible) Rt. Hon. Anthony Eden (clearly, this was pre-Suez crisis, because Eden is described as “one of the world’s most skilful diplomatists”). On arrival in London, life becomes even more confusing for Mr Smith, but he does his best to cope with English money (“thrupnys and sixpuntses and arf crowns and bobs and double bobs”), English vocabulary (“A saloon is a sedan. Thus it is possible to be arrested in England for driving while drunk in a saloon.”) and English club etiquette (strictly no women allowed, not even Queen Mary). He happily follows in the footsteps of Boswell and Johnson and Pepys; pores over English newspapers; watches a cricket match, a snooker tournament and the dog races; attends a session at the Bow Street Courts and an election candidate’s campaign meeting; buys a “weatherproof” from Burberry’s and tries to purchase the tie of the National Playing Fields Association because it’s the favourite of the Duke of Edinburgh; attempts to master the art of talking Cockney and asks how to address Lords and Ladies (as the only other titled people he’d previously met were “Grand Dragon Wimble of the Klan and Miss America of 1937″). Meanwhile, his wife Nelle visits historical sites, tries to start up a conversation with a King’s Guardsman (“CAN YOU TALK TO PEOPLE?”) and gets into arguments with monarchists (“I still say that the kind of adulation and worship you give to those people over in Buckingham Palace ought to be given to someone who has accomplished something”).

Mr Smith, unlike Nelle, is full of admiration for nearly all aspects of English life, although he does struggle with the meals, which tend to consist of either Dover sole or “flat chicken” (“apparently the poultry chef takes the meat and gristle from a chicken and flogs it with a mallet before cooking; either that or the British chicken is unlike any fowl in my country – a sort of feathered saucer walking around on chicken feet”). He fails in his quest to convince his new English friends that the works of Shakespeare were actually written by the seventeenth Earl of Oxford (this theory is based on “an accumulation of knowledge in recent decades”, although it’s “most unfortunate that the man who did this enormous job of research and then wrote the book has the surname of Looney, so I didn’t mention that fact and was happy no one asked about it”). However, he does achieve his long-held ambition to visit Jeremy Bentham at University College1. Smith’s London Journal not only provided me with a lot of (possibly useful) facts about London, it made me laugh and laugh. Highly recommended, if you happen to share my sense of humour.

'Here's England' by Ruth McKenney and Richard BranstenLess ridiculous, but still entertaining, is Here’s England by Ruth McKenney and Richard Bransten. This is another American-tourists-in-1950s-England guidebook, but this one ranges a bit further than London, travelling as far south as Cornwall and north to Yorkshire and Durham. The authors believe England is “the most beautiful, wonderful, exciting country in Europe”, but they caution their fellow Americans:

“There is a mistaken notion . . . that just because we speak the language (or some approximation of same) and are brought up on Dickens, Keats and Shakespeare, England is therefore easy. On the contrary, England is complicated, more obscure and difficult than Brazil or Abyssinia . . . Alas, a standard sight in the English summer-time is the harried American tourist, dismally trotting about the Tower of London or old St Bartholomew’s, afraid to ask what is Perpendicular, when was the Dissolution, and what happened for the eight hundred odd years after 1066?”

Accordingly, for each historical site, the authors not only tell readers how to get there and what to look for when they arrive, but also provide excellent potted histories of the events and people associated with the site, as well as clear explanations of architectural styles. There are also descriptions of various aspects of English life (an entire chapter on cricket, for example), all written in an engaging, informative manner. In addition, there are maps, a family tree for “The Kings of England”2, a chart of notable dates in English history, a glossary of architectural terms and a lot of charming illustrations by Osbert Lancaster (see below). I haven’t finished reading this one yet (I’ve been distracted by my piles of library books), but so far, Here’s England gets two thumbs up. (If my opinion has changed by the end of it, I’ll come back and edit this post.)

'A Corner in Soho' by Osbert Lancaster

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  1. Mr Bentham, author of Auto-Icon, or the Uses of the Dead to the Living, died in 1832, but provided very specific instructions in his will regarding how his body was to be preserved.
  2. Although they do include The Queens of England. I noticed they fail to acknowledge Lady Jane Grey as a Tudor Queen, presumably because she didn’t last long in the job and didn’t have a coronation, but then, neither did Edward VIII, and he’s in there. I am willing to overlook this because lots of other writers follow their reasoning about poor Jane and the rest of the book is so carefully researched.

Doris Lessing on Reading

'Girl Reading' by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot

“There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag – and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or movement. Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty – and vice-versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you.”

Doris Lessing in her 1972 Preface to The Golden Notebook

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Some Thoughts on Reading

Adventures in Research: Class in Post-War England

Having ‘finished’ a new book1, I’m now thinking about writing a series set in 1960s England, so I’ve started doing some research. At this stage, my reading is fairly broad-ranging, but I do have a few specific questions in mind. One of them is whether England’s class system changed much after the Second World War. Did conscription, rationing and the Blitz break down social barriers and make England more egalitarian? Did ordinary working people become less deferential and aristocrats less arrogant as a result of their shared experiences during the war? And what about the middle classes – did they end up with more money and power, or less? I am currently reading a serious, statistic-laden sociological history about the period2, but I started off with something that looked a bit more entertaining – Class by Jilly Cooper.

Published in 1979, this is an “unashamedly middle class” description of the differences between aristocrats (“about 0.2% of the population”), the middle classes (divided into upper, middle and lower) and working class people (including the nouveau riche). Jilly Cooper acknowledges that the subject is extremely complex, so that even trying to determine which class an individual belongs to can be very difficult. The Census, for example, used a person’s occupation (or their husband’s occupation, in the case of women) to determine social class, but this put Princess Anne (“athletes including horseback riders”) in the same class as bus-drivers and butchers and ranked the aristocratic Guinness family (“brewers”) even lower, alongside bus conductors and milkmen. Income could also be an unreliable indicator of class, with a lot of aristocrats “desperately broke” due to death duties and capital transfer tax, and some working-class men earning more than self-employed middle-class men. A more useful classification system, this author argues, involves examining a person’s education, house, clothes, language and food, as well as the person’s beliefs about the arts, sport, religion, marriage, child-rearing and death. Accordingly, she devotes a chapter to each of these topics. For example, death rituals of the various classes are described in detail, with the author noting that,

“Although it is more upper-class to be buried than cremated, it is frightfully smart to have to be cremated because your family tomb is so full of your ancestors going back to the year dot that there is no room for you.”

The author has made some attempt to consult a range of written sources, but mostly seems to rely on personal anecdotes of dubious reliability. For example,

“My favourite mini-cab driver has a theory that tall people are good in bed because only they can reach the sex books that librarians insist on putting on the top shelves. But this doesn’t explain why aristocrats, who are generally tall, tend to be so hopeless – maybe they never go into public libraries, or don’t read anything except ‘The Sporting Life’ and Dick Francis.”

'Class' by Jilly CooperSome of the descriptions, particularly of clothes and food, have dated badly (I doubt that respectable lower-middle-class women wear “a navy crimplene two-piece trimmed with lemon” to weddings nowadays or that they decorate their food with radish flowerets) but I suspect quite a lot of the observations still hold true, especially regarding attitudes to schools and universities. There are sweeping generalisations, especially about the working classes, and a lot of terrible, terrible puns, but I found this to be a very entertaining (and occasionally informative) read. I should also note that the edition I read had a very strange cover photograph (see above), depicting what appeared to be a palette knife with some green lumps (olives? uncut emeralds?) balanced on the end of it, but this was explained in an early chapter:

“Not answerable to other people, the aristocrat is often unimaginative, spoilt, easily irritated and doesn’t flinch from showing it. If he wants to eat his peas with his knife, he does so.”3

A more serious and thoroughly researched perspective of 1960s England was provided by Richard Davenport in his book, An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo. This described the various people involved in the Profumo scandal of 1963, including the Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, certain English aristocrats, slum landlords and property developers, ‘good-time girls’, spies, journalists and corrupt policemen. Old Etonians still ran the country, but there were indications that a new class of rich, ruthless businessmen from impoverished backgrounds (many of them refugees who’d fled Hitler or Stalin) were beginning their rise to power. It was really depressing to read about the status of women, who seemingly had the choice of being a Christine Keeler (forced by lack of other options into working as a stripper and prostitute) or a Valerie Profumo (forced by her husband to end her successful acting career once they married, then required to play the role of adoring wife while he had numerous extra-marital affairs). It was also depressing to see how corrupt and racist the police were and how hypocritical politicians and journalists were about Profumo’s affair with Christine Keeler (who, according to this book, was not the mistress of a Russian spy and in any case, would never have known any important state secrets). Mostly, though, I wondered how England had ever managed to establish an empire when everyone in power was obsessed with such trivia as which old school tie their colleague was wearing and the correct method for eating peas. To this colonial, the English class system appears utterly bonkers – but also full of potential for novel-writing, which is the important thing.

Next in Adventures in Research: An American in 1950s England.

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  1. that is, having sent a manuscript to my agent and asked him to see if anyone might possibly be interested in publishing it
  2. Family Britain, 1951-1957 by David Kynaston
  3. The FitzOsbornes don’t. They use a fork or, in the case of certain junior FitzOsbornes, their fingers. But then, they’re not English.

Lois Lowry on Book Banning

“By and large, the people who challenge and ban books are not the most intelligent people in the world. I’ll probably regret being quoted on that. But they are somewhat shallow in their reactions, taking things out of context and seeming to be unable to see the deeper meaning. Often kids are the ones who can see things clearly.”

When parents are genuinely concerned about the “dark content” of her books,

“I try to explain to them that, of course, we would all love to protect our children from everything. We can’t do that. It’s a troubling world out there. And the best place to learn about what the world is like is within the pages of a book within the safety of your own home, with your mum in the next room and people to talk to about it. I think that books are very valuable that way. And kids who aren’t allowed that experience go into the world unprepared, unrehearsed for what they’re about to face.”

Lois Lowry, interviewed at The Sydney Morning Herald

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Book Banned, Author Bemused

Why Science Book Titles Are The Best Book Titles

Browsing the science shelves at my local library yesterday, I found the following books:

How to Fossilise Your Hamster and Other Amazing Experiments for the Armchair Scientist

Dunk Your Biscuit Horizontally

Will We Ever Speak Dolphin?

The Velocity of Honey

Lies, Deep Fries and Statistics

The Joy of X

Do Polar Bears Get Lonely?

Ignorance

Actual book titles, people. And How to Fossilise Your Hamster is “The must-have companion to the No. 1 bestsellers, Does Anything Eat Wasps? and Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze?

What I’ve Been Reading

'Daughter of Time' by Josephine TeyI loved The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, a murder mystery in which a police detective solves a four-hundred-year-old crime while lying immobile in a hospital bed. Alan Grant, with the enthusiastic help of a young American working at the British Museum, examines the facts behind Richard III’s supposed murder of the Princes in the Tower and convincingly argues that the villain was actually . . . well, you’ll have to read it to find out. While I don’t think Richard III was quite as saintly as this author believes, the novel was well researched and fascinating, and I was amused (in a horrified sort of way) by the descriptions of the 1950s hospital setting (for instance, Alan lying in bed and CHAIN-SMOKING). It was especially interesting to read about Richard III, given the recent (disputed) discovery of his skeleton under a car park in Leicester. And yes, I did spend the entire book with this song stuck in my brain (“Can you imagine it, I’m the last Plantagenet . . .”). I’m also happy to say that Sydney City Libraries lived up to expectations and provided me with a lovely old volume from the library stacks – not quite a first edition, but pretty close (see picture).

I’ve also been engrossed in Fun Home, a funny, sad, insightful graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel (of Bechdel Test fame) about her father, who died when she was at college. She found it difficult to grieve, partly because he’d been such a complicated, miserable, angry person, and partly because she’d grown up in a family that suppressed emotions and unpleasant realities. At his funeral, she wonders, “What would happen if we spoke the truth?” and when a well-meaning neighbour says consolingly, “The Lord moves in mysterious ways”, she pictures herself screaming, “There’s no mystery! He killed himself because he was a manic-depressive, closeted fag and he couldn’t face living in this small-minded small town one more second!” The story of her father’s secret homosexual life (which included criminal charges and being ordered into psychiatric therapy) is told in conjunction with Alison’s own, much happier, coming-out story. My only criticism would be that there were an awful lot of references to Important Books (from The Odyssey and Ulysses to As I Lay Dying and The Great Gatsby), which seemed to have more to do with the author saying, “Look how well read I am!” than with the story being told.

A different take on the subject of coming out was provided by James Howe in Totally Joe, an endearing and funny middle-grade novel about twelve-year-old Joe and his friends (and enemies). While it’s definitely an Issues Novel, the characters are nuanced and the whole idea of Life Lessons is incorporated in an amusing way – Joe has to write an ‘alphabiography’ for English class and explain what he’s learned about life at the end of each chapter. His Life Lessons range from “Middle school is like being trapped in a reality show where there’s no way off the island and you’re always a loser” (after he’s falsely accused of kissing the boy he has a crush on) to “Religion is only as good as the people using it” (after his friend’s proposal for a Gay-Straight Alliance group at school is viciously opposed by the religious parents of the school bully). I’m a bit wary of middle-grade books that deal with pre-adolescent sexuality, whether gay or straight, but this book is about (very restrained) romance rather than sex. While Joe briefly has a boyfriend, their relationship mostly consists of them hanging out with their group of friends, dressing up as Bert and Ernie for Halloween, and on one occasion, holding hands “for all of maybe five seconds” (and Joe thinks kissing sounds disgusting, although maybe in about four years’ time, “I’ll be ready to exchange saliva”). It was nice to see Joe had supportive adults around him (his parents, his aunt, his English teacher who has a gay son), but there were also adults who needed time to grow into acceptance (his grandparents, his school principal) and some realistically unrepentant bigots (the school bully and his family).

'Tea with Arwa' by Arwa El MasriFinally, Tea with Arwa: One woman’s story of faith, family and finding a home in Australia by Arwa El Masri was a gentle, simply told account of the life of a “proud and happy Muslim Australian woman”. Arwa’s parents had been exiled from Palestine after the Israeli occupation when they were small children, and although they eventually established a comfortable, middle-class life in Saudi Arabia (her father was an engineer and her mother a teacher), they were not permitted to become Saudi citizens, so they decided to migrate to Australia. Arwa’s story is unremarkable compared to some recent stories of migration – she herself didn’t flee a war-torn nation or arrive here in a leaky boat, her parents simply decided, quite reasonably, that their children would have a better future in a country where the family could become citizens. Arwa, arriving here as a primary school student with limited English literacy skills, had some difficulties adjusting to co-educational schools where students were often disrespectful to teachers and she occasionally faced racism, but just as often, she found Australians to be kind, helpful and interested in learning more about her life.
Arwa is careful to distinguish her religious beliefs from the cultural and family traditions of the Middle East, although it’s clear that both are immensely important to her and not to be criticised. For example, she feels it’s a little unfair that women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive, because there’s nothing in the Quran that expressly forbids it – but it’s okay, because they all have chauffeurs! She also states that “racism and prejudice do not exist under Islam” and that it’s a religion of “peace and harmony” (especially sad to read, given the hundreds of thousands of Muslims currently torturing and murdering one another in various parts of the world, not that Jews and Christians are much better). She has a tendency to state beliefs as though they are facts, and when this contradicts scientific evidence, well, “some aspects of science are yet to catch up to the Quran’s teachings”. She also discusses her decision, as a young married woman, to resume wearing the hijab, which she regards as “a simple way for a woman to protect herself against unwanted objectionable sexual attention in a world that sexualises women”. (Oh, if only putting on a veil really did provide magical protection against sexual harassment and assault. Then there’d be no rape or violence against women in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, but alas, that’s not true.) Anyway, this is a good reminder that multiculturalism means accepting the values and beliefs of everyone in society (providing they don’t break the law), even when those values clash with those of a modern, secular society. Multiculturalism is about much more than lots of yummy new foods, although a key part of Arwa’s philosophy is that sharing food is an important part of cross-cultural communication. Accordingly, the book includes a number of delicious-sounding recipes, from pavlova and sausage rolls with a Middle Eastern twist, to falafel, babaganoush and tabouli, with many descriptions of the meals Arwa has shared with family and friends. This would be a great book to give to your auntie/neighbour/work colleague who constantly complains about migrants taking over Australia but loves to cook – it might shift her ideas a little, as Arwa seems like a nice person to sit down with for a cup of tea and a chat.

Miscellaneous Memoranda

- YA author Simmone Howell, who recently taught a course on writing for young readers, has written a series of blog posts about aspects such as character, structure, voice and place, and why you probably won’t be able to make a living from your writing, with lots of useful links.

- Over at The Paris Review there’s an interesting interview with Robert Gottlieb, editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster and then Knopf, who edited books by Jessica Mitford, John Le Carré, Salman Rushdie, Ray Bradbury, Toni Morrison, Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing and many other writers. He discusses the role of the editor and publisher (“you don’t have to be a genius to be an editor . . .You just have to be capable, hard-working, energetic, sensible, and full of goodwill”) and how much the publishing industry has changed in recent years.

- Something I’ve been pondering lately is the distinction between ‘middle grade’ and ‘young adult’ fiction (mostly because I’ve just finished writing a book that falls somewhere in the middle of those two publishing categories), so I was pleased to see this article about the topic at Publishers Weekly (especially as it mentions A Brief History of Montmaray – thank you, Meghan from BookPeople in Austin, Texas!). Other interesting blog posts I’ve come across include Everything you ever wanted to know about middle grade…and were willing to ask, Where are the books for 13-year-olds? and Middle grade saved my life (the last written by Jeanne Birdsall, author of the wonderful Penderwicks books).

- Finally, I’m tickled that the Montmaray books have appeared on TV Tropes. For those who haven’t encountered TV Tropes before, it’s an enormous and quite addictive website devoted to discussing the tropes (that is, the stereotypes, clichés and overused ideas) in popular TV shows, movies and books. Tropes identified in the Montmaray books include Micro Monarchy and (slightly spoilery) Kissing Cousins and Never Found the Body. But come on, TV Tropers, you’ve missed a few! What about Ace Pilot, British Stuffiness, Everything’s Better with Llamas, I Was Beaten by a Girl and Upper Class Twit? And I’ve always thought of the Colonel as a bit of an Agent Peacock . . .

Scones – The Definitive Version

The good thing about having a blog devoted to books is that you can write about absolutely any topic you like, knowing there will be a book about it, or at least a book containing some references to it. This is why I’m able to direct your attention to this article on the correct way to eat scones, knowing it is a perfectly valid literary topic, because several of my own books mention people making and/or eating scones.

I’m afraid Tony Naylor gets off to a bad start when he claims the word ‘scone’ rhymes with ‘cone’, when of course, it rhymes with ‘gone’. He seems to think only Hyacinth Bucket types pronounce it as ‘skon’, which seems the wrong way round to me – surely the pseudo-posh pronunciation is a drawled-out ‘skohhhn’? Fortunately, there are a lot of people who are able to put Mr Naylor right in the comments section of his article. And he gets everything else right, explaining that scones should never, ever contain fruit1 or be dusted with icing sugar or sullied with a blob of disgusting clotted cream. I was interested to read that he believes the (fresh, whipped) cream should go on first, then the jam, rather than the other way round, on the grounds of both aesthetics and taste (“by plopping the jam on top you allow its flavour to shine through . . . I assume it is something to do with fat coating your mouth first, and inhibiting your tastebuds”). Wouldn’t the jam fall off? It probably depends on how much cream and jam you use. I should conduct a scientific experiment to investigate this important issue. Although it seems this scone eater has decided to have a bet each way, with jam above and below the cream:

A scone with jam and cream and even more jam

A scone with jam and cream and even more jam. Creative Commons Licensed image by Foowee.

Anyway, I wish this article had existed a few years ago, when the North American edition of A Brief History of Montmaray was being prepared, because then I could have directed my American editor towards it and saved myself a lot of time. She was confused by the manuscript’s references to ‘scones’ because in the United States, they do not have scones. Tragic, isn’t it? We eventually established that the U.S. equivalent is the ‘biscuit’, a small, round, bread-like cake made with baking soda, although I think that’s regarded as a savoury food, something to eat with a main meal, like a bread roll? (All of my knowledge of American biscuits comes from American novelists, mostly Anne Tyler. In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Ruth makes “beaten biscuits genuinely beat on a stump with the back of an ax”, while Evie in A Slipping-Down Life visits her former housekeeper to find out how to make biscuits with bacon drippings. Actually, now I think of it, there’s a recipe for buttermilk biscuits in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, too. Are biscuits a Southern food?) This led to an editorial discussion about what Australians mean by ‘biscuit’, which is the equivalent of an American ‘cookie’, although we do have chocolate-chip cookies2. The notion of Sophie FitzOsborne baking ‘oat biscuits’ was so baffling to the Americans that I took it out of the American edition altogether (it was ‘oat cakes’ originally, but even my Australian editor was perplexed by that). And then I learned what a strawberry shortcake is, and that it has nothing to do with shortbread. Remember the Strawberry Shortcake doll craze of the 1980s? I think there were even some Strawberry Shortcake books. See, everything is related to books.

Strawberry shortcake

A strawberry shortcake. Creative Commons Licensed image by Stuart Spivack.

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  1. The exception is the pumpkin scone, which should be served with butter, rather than jam and cream.
  2. But Anzac biscuits are definitely biscuits and not cookies, despite the views of some baked-goods manufacturers.

‘Dear Dodie: The Life of Dodie Smith’ by Valerie Grove

I picked up this biography with great enthusiasm, but found, on the very first page, this description of Valerie Grove, the biographer, reading I Capture the Castle:

“Like so many readers before me, I was captured from the opening sentence: ‘I am writing this sitting in the kitchen sink.'”

Grrr! It’s “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink”, one of the most famous opening lines in modern English literature, and a person who can’t see or hear the difference between those two sentences probably should not be writing books at all, let alone writing biographies of Dodie Smith. However, I pressed on and found that the biographer seemed to have done a very thorough job of investigating Dodie’s life – assisted by the millions of words Dodie wrote about herself in her journals, her letters to her friends and her multiple volumes of autobiography.

'Dear Dodie: The Life of Dodie Smith' by Valerie Grove Dear Dodie contains detailed descriptions of Dodie as a spoilt only child surrounded by doting older relatives in a wealthy, theatre-loving Victorian family; of the deaths of both her parents by the time she was eighteen; and of the years she spent as an unsuccessful actress in the 1920s, before she gave up and got a job at Heal’s, the London department store. Dodie was “not temperamentally suited to the shopgirl’s humdrum life of clocking in from nine to six”, but as she was having an affair with the (married) owner of the store, she knew she was unlikely to be sacked, despite her tardiness and temper tantrums (she once “flung one of [the] assistants, a heavy girl, across the china department”). She then had enormous critical and commercial success in the 1930s as a playwright, before being “forced” into exile in the United States during the war, so that her younger husband Alec could avoid conscription.

Dodie seems to have hated America, even though she managed to make quite a lot of money writing screenplays in Hollywood. When she and Alec finally returned to England in 1953, it was to a country that was no longer interested in her cosy plays set in rich people’s drawing rooms, and she never again had much success as a playwright. Her first novel, though, was I Capture the Castle, an international bestseller, which was followed by even greater commercial success with her children’s book, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, which was subsequently made into a beloved Disney film.

But did this make Dodie happy? No. She complained bitterly about any less-than-gushing book reviews and was outraged when the play of I Capture the Castle was not sufficiently appreciated by critics or audiences. She spent money extravagantly, then moaned about how impoverished she was. She was fiercely critical of all her friends and acquaintances, and in later life, preferred to avoid people altogether. Animals, particularly dogs, were her passion, although she took this to extremes – for example, feeding mice and rats in her country cottage, until the kitchen was “carpeted with mice” and the lawn “alive” with rats. (Mind you, her love of animals didn’t prevent her from eating meat or wearing fur coats.) She became increasingly peevish and obsessive about her routines, and was indignant when her husband died, because he was supposed to look after her till her death:

“As Christopher Reynolds-Jones [her cousin] tells, Dodie telephoned him and he asked her how she was. ‘Oh, I’ve had a terrible morning,’ said Dodie. ‘My breakfast didn’t arrive, so I went along to see what was happening and found Alec dead.'”

It seems to me that this biographer didn’t actually like Dodie much, which must have made writing the book a bit of a struggle:

“[Dodie's] 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 have been legions of such writers, most of them men) lives a peculiarly privileged and self-indulgent life.”

The biographer also feels, for some reason, that we need constant reminders of how Dodie was “plain”, “unbeautiful”, “ugly”, “witchlike” and “dwarfish” (she was five feet tall, only an inch shorter than I am, and she looks like a perfectly normal middle-aged woman in most of the photos). Perhaps this is relevant when explaining Dodie’s failure to become a leading stage actress, but what does it have to do with the rest of her life? Do we really need to be told that Dodie dressed up for the opening night of one of her plays, “although elegance was hard to achieve, for a woman five foot high . . .”?

'I Capture The Castle' by Dodie SmithOn the other hand, the biographer acknowledges that Dodie worked extremely hard and was intelligent, witty, resolute, spirited and highly perceptive. Dodie could be very generous to those she liked, and she had fascinating friendships with other writers, including Christopher Isherwood and Julian Barnes – and, of course, she wrote some wonderful books. My favourite part of this biography was about the process of writing I Capture the Castle. The castle setting was borrowed from the autobiography of Margot Asquith, who’d grown up with her sister in a remote Scottish castle, where they’d walked on the turrets at midnight and kept their clothes hanging in a tower. Mortmain’s book, Jacob Wrestling, was meant to be a fictional version of Joyce’s Ulysses. Cassandra, originally called Sophia, was a younger version of Dodie (although Ambrose Heal, her former lover, claimed Dodie was Topaz). In the US, the Literary Guild ordered more than half a million copies before publication, but asked her to make Cassandra kinder to Stephen, which she did. Dodie was astonished when they said they would have preferred Cassandra to marry Stephen, but was “relieved to be allowed to keep the ending ambivalent: she wanted readers to finish the book hoping that Cassandra would marry Simon.”

Fans of I Capture the Castle, then, will find much of interest in this book, and dog lovers will enjoy the amusing anecdotes about Dodie’s own Dalmatians. Dear Dodie is well-researched and provides a clear, chronological account of the life of a very successful writer. Just don’t expect to feel very fond of Dodie by the end of it.

The Mapp and Lucia Novels by E. F. Benson

'Lucia Rising' by E. F. BensonThese books provided a delightful distraction during my recent lengthy convalescence, so I feel obliged to gush about them here, even though you’re probably already familiar with them. Actually, why hadn’t I read them before? They are exactly my cup of tea – comedies of manners, set in England during the 1920s and 1930s, mercilessly poking fun at the trivial pursuits and snobbery of the idle rich. Few of the characters are likeable, but that just makes their frantic attempts to clamber to the top of the social pile all the more entertaining. The queen of their society is Emmeline ‘Lucia’ Lucas, whom even her loyal friend Georgie describes as

“a hypocrite . . . a poseuse, a sham and a snob, but there was something about her that stirred you into violent though protesting activity, and though she might infuriate you, she prevented your being dull.”

At first, Lucia has to be content with bossing around the inhabitants of the village of Riseholme – forcing them into participating in an Elizabethan pageant, ‘educating’ them about etiquette and poetry and Beethoven – but then her husband inherits a house in Brompton Square and she sets off to try to insert herself into fashionable London Society, with mixed success. However, the books really come to life when Lucia and Georgie move to the village of Tilling, reigned over by the formidable Miss Elizabeth Mapp. Lucia usually wins their battles, but Miss Mapp puts up a strong fight. The secondary characters are equally entertaining. There’s sweet, slightly dim Georgie, clutching his “toupet” to his head as he gallops along in Lucia’s wake; Major Benjy with his tall tales of tiger hunting and his fondness for whisky; the Padre who inexplicably speaks “Scotch”, even though he’s never been further north than Birmingham; and Mrs Wyse, who communes on a higher plane with her dead budgerigar, Blue Birdie. My favourite is Irene, roaring up and down the main street on her motor-bicycle, painting scandalous frescoes on the front of her house, and coming up with mad schemes to assist her beloved Lucia, which always go disastrously wrong.

'Lucia Victrix' by E. F. BensonI was intrigued to see how few of the characters fitted into the traditional married-with-children mould, and the most endearing characters were all coded as gay or lesbian. Irene, for instance, has an Eton crop, wears men’s clothes and lives with her not-very-servant-like maid, Lucy. Meanwhile, Georgie is obsessed with his appearance and his favourite hobbies are embroidery and watercolour painting (and Major Benjy sneeringly refers to him as “Miss Milliner Michael-Angelo”). There’s no indication that Georgie is attracted to men – in fact, he spends all his time in the company of women and is devoted to Lucia – but he has a panic attack whenever it seems that a woman might be attracted to him and he eventually settles into a happy, celibate marriage with Lucia. The novels have also been described as abounding in “camp humour”, so it did not surprise me to learn that E. F. Benson was “likely to have been homosexual“. Bonus fact about E. F. Benson – ‘Mallards’, the fictional residence of Miss Mapp and then Lucia, is based on Lamb House in Rye, East Sussex, which was inhabited by not just E. F. Benson, but also Henry James and Rumer Godden (not all at the same time, obviously) and was the subject of Joan Aiken’s book, The Haunting of Lamb House.

There are six novels in the Mapp and Lucia series:

Queen Lucia (1920)
Miss Mapp (1922)
Lucia in London (1927)
Mapp and Lucia (1931)
Lucia’s Progress (1935)
Trouble for Lucia (1939)

Apparently there are also a couple of short stories about the characters, including The Male Impersonator. E. F. Benson was a prolific writer, producing over a hundred books. David Blaize sounds especially interesting, but Benson also wrote some memoirs and a biography of Charlotte Bronte (as well as a novel called The Princess Sophia!). The Mapp and Lucia books were made into a television series in the 1980s, starring Geraldine McEwan as Lucia, Prunella Scales as Mapp and Nigel Hawthorne as Georgie, and the BBC has just announced a new series will be filmed this year, using Lamb House as ‘Mallards’.