BOOK REVIEW / An urge to own a dalmatian

DEAR DODIE: The Life of Dodie Smith by Valerie Grove, Chatto pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
IN HER last published interview, at the age of 90, Dodie Smith declared: "I only like to have all my own way." As she ended, so she had begun, the adored only child in a bourgeois Manchester household of 10 boisterous, loving and eccentric adults. In this rackety extended family everyone acted, told stories, performed charades and talked incessantly. Dodie, the focus of their attention and encouragement, grew up self-confident, wilful and highly articulate; of necessity she cherished a secret inner life which found expression in writing. A cat, a dog and chickens were all loved with passionate intensity. The cat, devil-may- care Kit Kennedy, ate Dodie's newly extracted tonsils. Yet those 13 years of undeniable happiness were marked by a faint but persistent sense of disappointment which lasted all her life. "Nothing was ever as wonderful as I expected it to be."

Dodie's father had died when she was a baby. At 17 she nursed her mother, whom she loved, liked and admired more than any woman she ever met, through the final stages of cancer. She went to RADA, then spent seven years searching for romance and seduction while playing very small character parts or understudying in the suburbs and provinces. She earned a pittance, lived on baked beans and put up in freezing boarding houses whose rooms sometimes contained "large, mysterious bundles that didn't look quite dead". The insecurity became monotonous: "I could always talk myself into a job and act myself out of it." She moved on to Heal's, then celebrated as the showcase of pioneering design. Here for 10 years she held autonomy over prints, lithographs and woodcuts, earning extra cash by designing "Queer Clothes For Queer Customers".

She was also writing plays and entertaining her new lover Ambrose Heal, owner of the great emporium. Retrospectively she saw Heal and her previous lovers as "collectable status symbols". With the huge success of her first two plays she lost all interest in romance and seduction, entering upon a "state of love beyond being in love" with her close friend Alec Beesley, whom she later married. Alec became her manager; they bought a cottage in Essex, a Rolls Royce and the first Dalmatian. Rich and triumphant, Dodie was not entirely happy: "Small illnesses seemed to think I could afford them." But her plays continued to prosper.

In 1939, following the rapturous reception of her sixth, Dear Octopus, Dodie and Alec set sail for the States, ostensibly to oversee a New York production, "just for a few months". Even in her journal Dodie was unable to cope with her shame and anxiety over this move and she deeply regretted it for the rest of her life. In the event they spent 15 years in exile. Dodie wrote letters, wrote her journals and worked on scripts for Hollywood, a place she saw as Limbo, "where one's energy and creative power slipped away". She longed to write a play with a Great Theme; nothing came.

Meanwhile, in England, the war had altered the social and intellectual climate beyond her imagining. An article in Horizon slammed her as "head of the cosy school of playwriting", the "well-crafted middlebrow comedy". Revivals of her plays were cruelly reviewed and subsequent efforts were received with indifference or simply rejected. In despair Dodie wrote her splendid novel I Capture the Castle; it became an instant best-seller. But nothing, not the warmth of her obligatory circle of male writer friends, Isherwood, van Druten, Charles Brackett and others, nor the dazzle of success in an entirely new genre, could console her for the irredeemable loss of her beloved original profession.

When Alec and Dodie did at last return to England Kenneth Tynan was demanding plays about warriors, taxi drivers, grocers, demigods, plays which advanced the use of language in drama. Despite her gloom Dodie conceded: "Would I myself not prefer to see a play of passion and ideas to an even quite clever comedy?" Enraged and fed up, she once again adventured into unknown territory; she wrote a children's book, 101 Dalmatians, inspired partly by her experiences with 15 puppies and partly, regrettably, by Enid Blyton.

This all-time triumph and the excitement of the Disney production brought only modest and fleeting pleasure. Dodie continued to yearn for renewed recognition as a playwright. An increasingly reclusive life at home with Alec and their animals offered its own delights, sometimes flawed by Dodie's willed heedlessness. She encouraged mice and rats to join them in the cottage: "There is so much good in rats." Thus a mighty population came to death by Warfarin.

She kept an index of authors who mistreated animals in their books and never read them again (making an exception for her friend Julian Barnes). She read and wrote and listened to music while Alec shopped and gardened and organised their lives. In her old age she projected a five-volume autobiography, adapted from the thousands of pages of her journal, and she saw the first three volumes published. She outlived Alec, dying in 1990, 94 years old. Almost to the end she lived on in her cottage, attended by her last Dalmatian.

Dodie believed that you are responsible for your life, and that people take you at your own estimation. "I write; I don't cook," she pronounced. Her long life as a writer was made possible by her self-absorption and ruthlessness, and by the ministrations of others, most of all her husband Alec, who remains a fascinating, inscrutable shadow in this biography. Perhaps inevitably, the liveliest chapters describe Dodie's childhood and years as an actress. Later the book sags under an excess of detail. There are too many amiable but irrelevant chronicles of meals, visits and visitors. None the less this is a successful portrait of a powerful and original woman of devastating wit and intelligence; it leaves one anxious to re-read I Capture the Castle, to see Dear Octopus and perhaps some of the other earlier plays. One is also left, shameful to say, with an urgent desire to own a Dalmatian.