LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
[14-year-old Meriel is trying to make herself look older so she can run away]
Her hair would certainly be dry by now. She removed the net in front of her looking glass, then gasped in dismay. The colour reminded her of badly polished mahogany and combing did nothing to improve it. Had she time to wash it again? No – and what would be the use? The tinting was said to remain for several shampoos. Perhaps a hairdresser could help her but for the present she was stuck with this horrible thatch and could only hide it with a head scarf.
To cheer herself up she put on her new brassiere. This was no make-shift bust such as had let her down when she played Juliet. ** She had told the astonished shop-assistant it must be earthquake-proof and it certainly seemed so. Now for the checked skirt and polo-necked sweater! Magnificent effect! A soft white woollen prow jutted in front of her.
Unfortunately it only looked soft; it felt just a bit like a birdcage.
If only her hair wasn’t spoiling everything else!
commentary: We’re a long way from I Capture the Castle here. That is one of my all-time favourite books, and although I know perfectly well that it is the best of Dodie Smith’s books, I do venture to read something else by her now and again. The Town in Bloom was worth the effort. It Ends in Revelations had its entertaining moments. This one – truly, it’s pretty dreadful.
Efficient secretary Jane Minton turns up for a new job at a grand house which should contain Rupert Carrington and his four children. This is Rupert on p1: ‘Strange that such an attractive man should have remained a widow for so many years.’ So you think you know where this is going. But no – Rupert is about to disappear, because he is a criminal. Smith tries to skim over this, she is very casual about a crime not being really his fault, and it is her book, but really, he does not seem to be innocent… the moral standards of the book are very low.
So then the four children have suddenly to cope with a vastly reduced income, so they all try to earn money and keep things going. Jane has become part of the family within 24 hours, and pitches in to help, and the ancient over-worked servants are delighted to go out to work for someone else, give their wages to the family, and still do the cooking and cleaning in their spare time.
Even this doesn’t give the full flavour: the adventures the young people have are bizarre fairytales. Characters are introduced and then disappear. Jane gets a job then we don’t hear much more about it. The whole thing is just about readable, but it is hard going. Smith is always giving you the wrong details – describing a conversation or a journey very closely when it really isn’t that important. Nobody’s character or plotline seems to have been thought through. Really, the book is incompetent – which is so much the opposite of I Capture the Castle. ICTC seems artless and isn’t, you can tell that Smith worked over every detail and scene: couldn’t be more different from this one, even if the basic material seems similar.
There’s a modern author called Victoria Clayton who writes books where young women go and sort out someone else’s household (it’s amazing how many variations she gets from this) – if I feel a longing to read such a book again, I would go to Clayton rather than Smith.
I suppose this book could be considered for my list of Books like I Capture the Castle, but I’d rather not put it there.
Over at Leaves and Pages, a really great books blog, Barb’s review of this book is highly recommended – I shared many of her feelings.
** Meriel had a bad experience playing Juliet, as you might guess – her fake bust moved around dramatically during the key scene with Romeo.
The pictures are from the website of a splendid lingerie and corset company called Naturana, who have been reflecting changes in fashion since 1932, and have a nice history page to prove it.