LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
Corinna, returning from a late class at her Drama School, expected that Hugh would be outside the flat waiting to be let in. She was relieved to find he wasn’t. With luck she could now get time to change her clothes, which she greatly disliked. She was wearing a sloppy tweed coat, a black sweater, a plaid mini-skirt, thick black tights and heavy shoes. Her own tastes were for the pretty clothes that suited her prettiness but whenever she wore these her fellow-students greeted her with cries of ‘Dainty Doris’ and ‘Corinna’s going a maying’. All the really talented girls at the school dressed hideously and sloppily and seemed to do it without effort. She had to work hard at it.
The flat looked slightly denuded but her bedroom was intact. She hastily put on a short, fluttery nightgown and negligée; never before had she had the chance to wear these for Hugh. It flashed through her mind that he might not think the outfit respectable, but it was a sight more respectable than some of her day clothes. There were layers and layers of nylon net between herself and the outer world. And this was the kind of thing that suited her. Sometimes she wondered if her eternal battle to be with-it was worthwhile.
commentary: Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle is one of my all-time favourite books – I have re-read it many times, and never love it less. Smith’s other books are very variable, but never less than enjoyable. This one was completely new to me, and it is a charming and very undemanding read. There is not much to it: just the story of a year or so in the life of the eponymous two families, who move to the country to live in neighbouring houses. Two sisters are married to two brothers, and their various children and parents also feature in the story.
Various aspects of the story are familiar from other Smith books, and from her own life: the young woman above who is studying acting, attracting an older man, and wearing unusual clothes is completely Mouse from The Town in Bloom, is completely Dodie Smith – just translated from the 1920s to the 1960s. In the excerpt above the mini-skirt, coat and stockings are completely convincing and right – the negligee, less so. She is sharing the flat with a cousin who is also a semi-boyfriend, and idea of dressing like that to have kitchen supps with him is fairly disturbing.
Smith is much better on the older characters – Granny Fran is also fairly plainly (the older) Dodie herself, and is an excellent person to spend time with. And, she wears that great blog favourite, a bedjacket:
She slept until her small travelling alarm clock went off at 8.45. May had undertaken to bring breakfast at nine o’clock and Fran never liked even her daughters to see her before she had given her appearance some little help. She was back in bed in a decorative bedjacket before May arrived with the tray.Fran forms an alliance with another aging person, Baggy, who is her daughters’ father-in-law (the relationships sometimes take a bit of working out, and people seem not to know basic facts about each other considering they’ve all been tightly connected by marriage for 25 years). Their conversations are charming, and totally convincing:
‘I did so enjoy our afternoon together.’
‘So did I – except for my ridiculous fall. By the way, I’m not going to mention that to the others.'
‘Quite right. They fuss if one so much as trips.’Another relation, the horrible Mildred, turns up to behave badly and cause trouble. All the clothes in the book are beautifully described, and Smith obviously took malicious pleasure in thinking of Mildred’s awful outfits:
Mildred was in pink, frilled mousseline de soie, the waist up under her arms which dangled from little puffed sleeves. The dress reached to her calves and below it were frilled pantalettes and pink dancing sandals with crossed elastics.And later on:
George reported one touch of light relief: Mildred had turned up for the funeral, looking like Mary Queen of Scots on her way to execution – ‘Somebody asked if she was the widow. By the way, Fran, she said she was looking forward to having you back in London.’
Fran sighed. ‘Well, we all have our crosses.
There are two main plotlines – one of the sisters is in love with the other’s husband; and the young woman above has attracted the attention of a very distinguished older actor. Both lines rattle along, but the point is more to describe life, and memories, and the ways families work together.
I liked the book very much, though I would be hard put to explain why. Probably one solely for Dodie Smith fans - but they will love it.
The collection of nightwear above is startling in its general hideousness. I think that Corinna was wearing item B.