Poor Dodie Smith. What a shame to have written your first book, and it’s I Capture the Castle, not far off being the best book ever, narrated by a character that is the perfect blend of innocence and charming worldly practicality. Thereafter you can write more books, but none of them will ever be as good, and everyone will feel sad that your subsequent books are not I Capture the Castle. In fact it would not be unbearably dissimilar to the plight of the father in I Capture the Castle, except without the Joyce comparisons.
It Ends with Revelations has my love in a small way because the title and epigraph are in reference to a play of Oscar Wilde’s. A Woman of No Importance, I believe, though I wouldn’t swear to it. Moreover, Oscar Wilde is mentioned in the book:
She’s known about homosexuality since she was ten years old when she asked what crime Oscar Wilde committed. My grandmother, who had met and liked Wilde, obliged with a straightforward answer couched in such a way that Kit accepted homosexuality as being neither right nor wrong, despicable nor pitiable, but simply existent.”
…It now seemed perfectly natural to be sitting here eating cucumber sandwiches (so suitable, in view of the mention of Wilde) in this matter-of-fact way.
Of course the guy’s grandmother met and liked Oscar Wilde. Everyone who met Oscar Wilde liked him. Even the Marquess of Queensberry liked Oscar Wilde when he met him. He forgot about it almost straight away, because his head was full of craziness, but when he met him, he liked him. People did. Oscar Wilde was extremely lovable. Good point, Dodie Smith!
The plot of the book is this. Jill (I love that name) is the wife of a well-known stage actor called Miles, who is working on a play version of something that succeeded on TV, and experiencing some problems with the child actor, who was trained for TV and not for the stage. As Jill is helping smooth down ruffled feathers (producer’s, director’s, actors’), she meets MP Geoffrey Thornton and his daughters, Kit and Robin. At once she is charmed by the girls, and so am I. They are the best thing about the book, and this, I regret to say, is down to their being the most I-Capture-the-Castle-ish aspect of the book. On the up side, Kit’s adorability reassured me about the name Kit, which I had been mad at from that dreadful Mary Renault book. Here’s Kit being charming at length regarding Ivy Compton-Burnett:
She did fairly well on clothes and life but was out of her depth as regards literature–though she was thankful to be able to say that she had read one book by Kit’s favourite modern novelist, Ivy Compton-Burnett.
“If you’ve only read one, you couldn’t have liked her,” said Kit. “People who do, read them all–and again and again.”
“I almost like her because she writes about families,” said Robin. “But she doesn’t tell one enough about their backgrounds, what the houses are like, what the women wear. And though everyone’s always eating, we’re never allowed to know what they eat.”
“Well, who wants to know what anyone eats?” said Kit impatiently. “And she does say quite a bit about backgrounds. Sometimes there are cracks in a wall, or an overgrown creeper, or the rich people have cushions. One can do the rest from imagination. And the strange thing is that whenever I re-read one of the books I get a different mental picture of the house in it–and I can remember all the different mental pictures. Very peculiar, that. And the dialogue’s so marvellous, somehow it’s what the characters are thinking as well as what they’re saying, so it ends by being what they are. People say the servants don’t talk like servants and the children don’t talk like children, but the servants just are our great-grandmother’s chauffeur and lady’s maid, and the children are me, almost before I could talk. And the plots are lovely, all the families have terrific secrets and scandals, just like our family–though Miss Compton-Burnett hasn’t done a dipsomaniac nymphomaniac, which seems a pity. She usually deals with quite ordinary adultery, though sometimes it’s murder or bigamy or incest, but the incest seldom comes to anything. I must say she’s fussy about incest. After all, it’s been highly thought of at many periods of the world’s history, and it appears to work well in the animal kingdom.”
“Kit, dear,” said Robin, getting a word in at last. “Jill isn’t interested in Ivy Compton-Burnett.”
“I am, now,” said Jill. “I’ll try her again.”
“Try A Family and a Fortune,” said Kit. “That’s my absolute favourite. Though More Women Than Men is rather a love. There’s a most charming homosexual in it, the nicest character in the book. He marries eventually.”
Christy at A Good Stopping Point was just talking about cultural references in books, and whether they work, and how, and why. I do not know the answer, but this passage about Ivy Compton-Burnett is doing it right. I think that having fictional characters drop cultural references is a gambit, and it can come off affected, or it can come off like the characters love books and cannot resist talking about them. In this case, Dodie Smith has managed the latter. Of course, in this case she does not do a compelling plotline, or resist introducing a potentially explosive plotline in the last quarter and then resolving everything all nice and pat, but hey, she’s name-dropping Ivy Compton-Burnett very successfully. Even if I didn’t know who Ivy Compton-Burnett was, this passage feels perfectly natural.
Kit and Robin on art films, and I do really sympathize:
“And Julian [their brother] should be back soon. He went to one of the arty films he favours.”
“We only like some arty films,” said Kit. “Even some of the slow ones and some of the horrible ones. But we’re not enthusiastic when slowness and horror are combined.”
“Julian thinks those are best of all.”
Basically you can give this book a miss. It is trying to be about compromises, and happiness, and love, but it does not really succeed. I’m only giving it three stars rather than two for the compliment to Oscar Wilde.