Forgotten authors No. 13: Dodie Smith
Sunday 09 November 2008
I'd like to think that Dodie Smith is not forgotten by new generations of readers, but her curse is to have been eclipsed by Disney, for Ms Smith wrote The Hundred And One Dalmations. It would be a shame if she was remembered only for the films, for there was far more to her career. A Lancastrian born in 1896, Smith entered RADA but failed as an actress, and went to work for Heal's furniture store. During this time she became a successful author, inspiring the headline "Shopgirl writes play".
After the success of Dalmations she wrote the odd but delightful fantasy sequel The Starlight Barking, in which the dogs awake in a world where flying canines are running the country and all humans are asleep. Probably a step too far for Disney (especially as Cruella De Vil, the best villainess ever, features only in a slumbering cameo), the films returned to safer ground.
Smith wrote four volumes of biography, nine novels and as many plays, including the charming Dear Octopus, but her crowning achievement began with the unforgettable line: "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink."
Smith's novel I Capture the Castle appeared in 1948, and is both a parallel to and the opposite of The Catcher in the Rye, published three years later. It should surely be regarded as an equal, but whereas Holden Caulfield became an eternal symbol for rebellion, Cassandra Mortmain, Smith's teenaged heroine, was possibly hampered by her background. She is, after all, a naive, optimistic bohemian trapped in her family's collapsing castle in the middle of nowhere, while her beloved father, a blocked one-time novelist who keeps the family in penury and isolation, struggles with his demons.
The family – faded, vague stepmother and beautiful sister – are penniless, and the man they adore will drag them down into his own hell unless Cassandra can rescue him. It was filmed on a tight budget in 2003, but the film was a disappointment to lovers of the original. The last line of the book is: "Only the margin left to write on now. I love you, I love you, I love you." What lies between those first and last lines deserves to be remembered.
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