[Jill Quentin, in her 30s, has made friends with two teenagers, Kit and Robin: Robin is planning her outfit for a Civic Reception they are all attending]
“They give Robin such confidence,” said Kit. “I’m sure white boots have a psychological effect.”
Jill said, “An elderly actress once told me much the same thing. She was showing me photographs of herself during the First World War, with white boots up to her knees, and she said, ‘My dear, when I’d me white boots on I could have kicked God’s throne from under him’. But perhaps I shouldn’t have told you that…”
Robin said “I think I can risk my white satin boots at the Civic Reception, don’t you, Mrs Quentin?”
[At the Civic Reception:]
Robin’s white dress ended a couple of inches above her knees.
“Perhaps I ought to have lengthened it for this highly conservative occasion, but I always feel my knees are my best feature. And one needs a good space between the bottom of one’s hem and the top of one’s boots.”
This review contains serious spoilers
Dodie Smith was a great friend of Christopher Isherwood – recently on the blog with his fictionalized memoir Lions and Shadows – and when he read this book pre-publication his criticism was ‘it was a bit of a cheat that Miles’s homosexuality was not disclosed until the middle of the book.’ His other comment was that surely Jill, above, Miles’s beard wife, ‘would have longed for sex during her years without it.’
The book IS structured oddly. If you read it knowing nothing, it is very hard to guess what will happen, or even what kind of book it is – it comes on as a light-hearted comedy of manners with a theatrical setting. The first 100 pages deal with an out-of-town tryout for a play: Miles is the lead actor, Jill his supportive helpmeet wife. They make friends with another family: Geoffrey, a widowed MP, and his two precocious daughters Kit and Robin. There’s a lot of detail about the production, and the details of rehearsals and TV actors and directors and agents are very interesting and presumably authentic. (Smith herself was a very successful playwright, and nobody’s helpmeet wife).
Then everyone moves back to London, and in an afternoon of revelations we find out that Miles is gay (though never called that in the book) and that Jill and Geoffrey have fallen in love. But what shall they all do next? All of them are very good-hearted, and it’s not clear what will happen. Then there is a late plot development concerning Miles, and decisions are made.
This is 1967, so although Smith’s attitude – and that of all the nice characters – is very positive, things are different from now: and there’s a funny bit where one character says only someone who has gone to a good public school can really understand homosexuality. There is a huge amount of discussion of Miles and his ways, and Jill’s needs and hopes – and I found it a bit uncomfortable that he (ie Miles, the gay man) is never included in any of this conversation. Apparently everyone else has a say and a view, even the slightly annoying teenage girls. He is the last to know what is going on. And he is a nice character – unfortunately Geoffrey, the straight man who has won Jill’s heart, is really a cipher, we see nothing that would lead Jill to fall in love.
So it is a strange but entertaining book, very much a period piece – there is a splendid description of a visit to an Espresso Bar. There are great clothes in it: a black-and-white striped ‘zebra’ dress, and patterned tights and sweaters worn with kilts. Smith makes it clear that Jill has hidden herself in the marriage – although always beautifully-dressed, she looks older than her age and wears grey, when she should be in scarlet and white.
There’s a lot more Dodie Smith on the blog, click on the label below, what with I Capture the Castle being one of my all-time favourite books. Isherwood is there too.
The white boots were photographed at the Adelaide Grand Prix by Stephentrepeneur. The dress is an advert from the 1960s.