Look Back With Love by Dodie Smith

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‘Look Back With Love’ is the author Dodie Smith’s childhood chronicle of an Edwardian upbringing in the city of Manchester.

Young Dodie Smith lost her father when she was an infant and was brought up by her mother and a doting household of maternal grandparents, aunts and uncles. Her rather precocious nature was precipitated by her being the only child in a large family of adults.

We track Dodie’s childhood from a young age to the onset of her teenage years, when her mother married a long-time fiancee and moved to London. The decade that Dodie Smith recounts is filled with the most delightful details of how the Furber family (Dodie’s mother’s family name) lived.

It was by no means a privileged existence, but there was no dearth of merriment and entertainment to be had in the Furber household. The first house where they lived and which Dodie could remember perfectly, Kingston House, is described as

…a house with four sitting-rooms and three pianos.

It was located near Old Trafford, then a Manchester suburb. The main inhabitants of the household were Dodie’s grandparents, her uncles Harold, Arthur and Eddie; her aunts Madge and Bertha and Dodie and her mother.The house and rooms are described with delightful detail. One can tell that here lies a household who take great pleasure in making a house their home despite not being blessed by wealth. The description of the kitchen delighted me. It reminded me ever so slightly of Cassandra’s nighttime baths in the kitchen in ‘I Capture the Castle’.

Next to the morning-room was the very large kitchen, with two tall dressers, a long row of iron bells, and a vast kitchen range with a glowing fire in front of which, in our early days at Kingston House, I had my nightly bath. Above me hung the family washing, on a wooden rock that could be pulled up to the ceiling.

In fact most of the characters in Dodie’s family are so distinctive and quirky they might have jumped off the pages of one of her books. Her mother Ella, was petite with a penchant for delicate, elegant dresses. Not well-educated she was well read and enjoyed Hardy, the Brontes and Rider Haggard among others. Her grandmother played the piano beautifully and her eldest Uncle Harold was a brilliant amateur theatre actor. Her Uncle Arthur had a weakness for patent medicine, claimed to have a weak digestion and thrived on toasted cheese. Dodie’s Aunt Bertha was also an eccentric character who could not tell her left hand from her right unless she hopped, and who insisted that if she were left alone for more than three hours her teeth went soft!

The family had known prosperous times until Dodie’s grandfather, the secretary of a large chemical firm lost his job when the company was run to the ground. He then embarked on a number of jobs and was not successful at either of them. He tried his hand at farming, running a public house, a shop and several other projects that were never mentioned in the house. Once the uncles started working, things came to an even keel although from the descriptions provided there was never an excess of money and the family made the best of what they had.

The family were very good at creating diversions and entertainment for themselves. One of their favourite places to visit on the weekend was Old Trafford Botanical Gardens.

To wear a white muslin dress and bonnet and my best white doe-skin shoes, and to wander hand-in-hand with two straw-hatted uncles over the sunlit lawns, while the band played Valse Bleu, was the essence of high holiday.

Those Edwardian days were the kind where a stray sixpence found by Dodie and her friend in the  Gardens would yield four ounces of sweets for a penny and a luxurious cab ride home for the young pair for three pence.

Other sources of entertainment included musical soirees at home, where members of the family would sing, play musical instruments or recite. The family were also avid theatre goers and Uncle Harold’s involvement with amateur dramatics would pave the path to Dodie’s future career aspirations on the stage.

The book is peppered with very funny anecdotes like the case of one of Dodie’s classmates being an avid ink drinker and Dodie’s candid comments about her mother’s changing fiancees. But underneath the gaiety and merriment, the author reveals her personal childhood angst.

I had a happy childhood but I was not a happy child, and I was aware of this from a very early age.

Perhaps the traces of her unhappiness rooted from her heightened sensitivity which would later lend to her creativity as a writer and artist. Her increased levels of empathy made it impossible for her to accept the suffering of living animals and creatures. She was never even able to kill the most rampant mosquito. She was also filled with a great degree of introspection and moral consciousness which also contributed to her unhappiness.

If you like me, loved reading Dodie Smith’s classic novel ‘I Capture the Castle’ you will realize, upon reading this memoir that Cassandra is to some extent Dodie Smith. They feel one and the same. Besides providing a detailed historical description of life and times in the Edwardian age, this bookish memoir is an intimate glance at the person who created a veritable body of literature. The anecdotes are splendid and unique. I cannot recommend this memoir enough and I hope to read later episodes in her life history.

I received a review copy of ‘Look Back With Love’ from Slightly Foxed, but as always all opinions are my very own.

January, 2016 Wrap Up

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Here is a round up of book related favourites for the month of January, 2016. For a glimpse into December, 2015’s Bookish Favourites please see here.

1. Books

 I read a total of seven books in January. I read mostly from the modern classics genre and successfully ticked off two titles from my list of 12 New Authors I Would Like to Read in 2016 (that made me feel very good!). I enjoyed all these books so much, especially The Diary of A Provincial Lady and A Month in the Country.

1) Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp

I realised I posted about this book in December but didn’t manage to finish it till January. I reviewed this book as part of Margery Sharp Day hosted by Jane from the lovely blog Beyond Eden Rock.

Britannia Mews is a book that describes the life and times of the central character of Adelaide Culver, a child of privileged circumstances, living in one of the row of houses along London’s Albion Place. Adjacent to Albion Place, stands Britannia Mews, once a stable, housing the horses used by the genteel folk living in Albion Place but now reduced to a slum at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Set in the late nineteenth century, Victorian London is portrayed at the intersection of where the rich meet the poor.  Adelaide Culver, marries her struggling art tutor and thereby goes to live in the slums of Britannia Mews. This is the story of what happens to a girl who has bravely broken away from the family shelter into a life of domestic strife and hardship. I enjoyed Margery Sharp’s excellent writing, descriptive and laced with subtle wit and wisdom. For a full review please see here.

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2) Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is the story of twenty-one year old Sophia, during the time when she was married to Charles Fairclough. The story is in its entirety, a first person narrative and tells of the harrowing poverty, the ups and downs of the young couple, in a time during which Charles refuses to take any financial responsibility for his household, using his need to practice his art as an excuse to shirk his duties. This was an exceptional book! For a full review please see here.

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3) A Tale of Two Families by Dodie Smith

A Tale of Two Families by Dodie Smith is the story of the relationship between two families: those of May and June, two sisters, who marry two brothers, George and Robert. When May and George decide to relocate to the countryside for a few years, on a landed estate with a small cottage, it seems the most natural thing for June and Robert to leave their father’s house and set up home in the cottage on May and George’s leased estate. Robert, a skilled but lesser known writer plans on writing his magnum opus in the idyllic surrounds of the cottage. June is happy to be carefree and close to her sister. Robert and George’s father, Baggy, comes to stay with George’s family. May and June’s delightful mother, Fran, decides to stay with her two daughters for a while. The children in the family come upto the property on weekends, from London or the boarding schools they go to and a good time is had by all in the family. Then the close proximity leads to unforeseen events…

For a full review please see here.

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4) A Month in the Country by JL Carr

A Month in the Country by JL Carr is the story of war veteran Tom Birkin and the unforgettable summer he spends in the country, uncovering and restoring a medieval wall mural inside an old country church. It is a journey of discovery for Tom Birkin, both in regards to his work and rediscovery of self after the trauma and ravages of his war experiences. This was a charming, poignant novel. I felt that the narrative was a little uneven, which made it a bit of a slower read, but on the whole the story was so wonderful and evocative that I can’t help but look back upon it, with starlight in my eyes.

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5) The Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield

This was my favourite book this month and it really made laugh. The diary entries are so self deprecatory and certain incidents so cringe-worthy, they make great reading.

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I am #currentlyreading (tagged by Jessica @bookreveries) EM Delafield's classic novel 'The Diary of a Provincial Lady' first published in 1930 and wondering why it took me so long to read this little gem. A domestic diary of a Devon housewife full of self-deprecatory hilarious anecdotes, it is definitely a laugh a minute. The following is an encounter between the diary writer and neighboring Lady Boxe. ~ "Plant the indoor bulbs. Just as I am in the middle of them, Lady Boxe calls… Do I know, she asks, how very late it is for indoor bulbs? September, really, or even October, is the time. Do I know that the only reliable firm for hyacinths is Somebody of Haarlem? Cannot catch the name of the firm, which is Dutch, but reply Yes, I do know, but I think it my duty to buy Empire products. Feel at the time, and still think, that this is an excellent reply. Unfortunately Vicky comes into the drawing-room later and says: 'Oh, Mummie, are those the bulbs we got at Woolworths?" #theyearinbooks

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6) Mystery at Saint-Hilaire by Priscilla Hagon (Mabel Esther Allan)

I don’t remember how I came upon this book or the author but I was lucky enough to find a copy at my library. I’m glad I did. It read exactly like a grown-up Enid Blyton book so if you are a Blyton fan, this is a book for you.

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Mystery at Saint-Hilaire' (1968) (also known as 'Castle of Fear') by Priscilla Hagon (a pseudonym for Mabel Esther Allan) is a perfect example of a book fitting into the #followmetobookland tag. It's a work of fiction that is set along France's Brittany Coast, where the people speak the Breton tongue (with Celtic origins) rather than the native French. It's hard to categorize the writing: to me it felt more like an Enid Blyton book for grown-ups with a faint whiff of a romance story. The penmanship is not terribly sophisticated but it fits into the old-world, charming, writing style that I enjoy. The story centres around a young British girl called Gwenda, who spends a summer working in a British bookshop in Paris. Whilst perusing some books that have been recently returned from an address in Brittany, Gwenda discovers a note, tucked into the pages. The note is written by another English girl called Sarah, writing to her brother, and she claims that her life is in danger. She speaks of sinister goings on and the death of a fisherman near the Chateau of Saint-Hilaire. Gwenda feels compelled to investigate further and finds herself journeying to an unknown medieval castle, located in the middle of the sea, off the coast of Brittany, to unearth the letter's mystery, only to find herself in the midst of romance and grave danger. An indulgent read, 'Mystery at Saint-Hilaire' is a fabulous foray into the romance of yesteryear. ~ Last night, I stayed up late and finished of this 'adult Enid Blyton' novel accompanied by a square or two of chocolate. I think Enid would have approved. Happy Friday friends. What plans for the weekend? //ps: can we also admire my lilies(?) soooo voluptuous !!

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7) Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

This was another favourite book this month. Quite funny, with several quotable, witty, one liners, this tells of a day in the life of staid, middle aged Miss Pettigrew. It is a day of astonishing unexpected events that transform Miss Pettigrew’s mind and outlook on life for ever.

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2. Movies and Audiobooks

The only movie I watched this month was the BBC adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles (screenplay by David Nicholls) and it was soooo good! It really made me want to pick up the book and read it. I listened to the BBC full cast adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Sittaford Mystery. I do enjoy these full cast dramatizations: it almost feels like going to the theatre.

3. Miscellany

I bought so many books this month. Most of them were bought with Christmas money or were gifts to myself to revive my dwindling library. I hope to enjoy and read them over the next couple of years. Here is a picture of the books!

I hope you all had a great month of reading. I have several library books to get through in February which I am excited to share. Do have a great month!

A Tale of Two Families by Dodie Smith

 

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  • Title: A Tale of Two Families
  • Author: Dodie Smith
  • Published: 1970
  • Location of the story: rural England

‘A Tale of Two Families’ by Dodie Smith is the story of the relationship between two families: those of May and June, two sisters, who marry two brothers, George and Robert. When May and George decide to relocate to the countryside for a few years, on a landed estate with a small cottage, it seems the most natural thing for June and Robert to leave their father’s house and set up home in the cottage on May and George’s leased estate. Robert, a skilled but lesser known writer plans on writing his magnum opus in the idyllic surrounds of the cottage. June is happy to be carefree and close to her sister. Robert and George’s father, Baggy, comes to stay with George’s family. May and June’s delightful mother, Fran, decides to stay with her two daughters for a while. The children in the family come upto the property on weekends, from London or the boarding schools they go to and a good time is had by all in the family. Then the close proximity leads to unforeseen events…

The reason for the move is in one way precipitated by May’s need to distance herself from George’s philandering ways in London. George, is a successful businessman in London. He commutes to his workplace by the train. The two sets of adults in the family along with Baggy, settle into a routine. George leaves early in the morning. May, ever the dutiful wife, gives him an early breakfast and he pops off to work on the train. May is busy with various household activities during the day. Robert, potters about the garden and keeps planning his novel in his attic study in the cottage. June is blissfully happy to be in the countryside, so near her sister and George. Quite disturbingly, we learn of June’s secret infatuation for George, a fact that she conceals quite well. George, returns home from work every evening laden with gifts for household members. The couples frequently dine together or George visits the cottage to watch television together in the evenings.

Baggy, the boys’ father feels a little isolated in his small wing of the house. Despite the fine food and company, he misses his home in London, which he had shared with Robert and June. Though May, spoils everyone with her beautifully cooked meals, she lacks the warmth that June had. Baggy also misses his old routine, nightly soaks in his bathtub with his granddaughter’s bath toys! This loneliness is somewhat abated when Fran, the girl’s mother comes to visit. Though Fran Graham is in her seventies she retains her youthfulness, both in spirit and in appearance. When she arrives at the country house by  a taxi, she is mistaken for a young girl by her grandchildren and Baggy.

‘Hello, here’s a taxi. Some girl appears to be arriving.’

Dickon, joining him said, ‘That’s no girl. That’s my grandmother.’

‘Fran does have a girlish figure,’said Prue, then raced after Dickon who was already on his way to the front door.

The family group is complete and a period of great contentment sets in. The lilac bushes on the estate are in full bloom. Nightingales can be heard in the dead of the night.

‘Heavens, how lucky we are,’ said June. ‘Lilac and a nightingale! And there’s a marvelous laburnum coming out near the cottage- and a may tree.’

‘”The lilac, the laburnum and the may”,’ said Robert.’I’m sure that’s a quotation…

They were back at the cottage now. Robert’s torch shone on a drift of cow parsley, left on the edge of the lawn.

‘”Where the cow parsley skirts the hawthorn hedge”,’said Fran.’And I do know who wrote that: Rossetti, the most loved poet of my girlhood.’

This idyllic period is disrupted when Fran’s sister, Aunt Mildred, or ‘Mildew’ as she is jokingly referred to, comes to stay. Aunt Mildred, creates a toxic environment within the household, owing to her childish ways and her overactive imagination which leads to events that have irrevocable consequences.

‘A Tale of Two Families’ arrested my attention till the last page. It had sublime, romantic moments filled with poetry and nature but it didn’t relapse into a completely cozy novel due to the great sexual tension, Dodie Smith developed in the novel.

It is a book I enjoyed reading and will, no doubt, re-read in the future. It is, to echo Dickens, a story about two families, in the best of times and worst of times.

Two poetry references in the book prompted the #poetrymatchart tag on Instagram. The first reference is to a poem by Charles Mackay, the second a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

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"I have lived and I have loved; 
I have waked and I have slept; 
I have sung and I have danced; 
I have smiled and I have wept; 
I have won and wasted treasure; 
I have had my fill of pleasure; 
And all these things were weariness, 
And some of them were dreariness;– And all these things, but two things, 
Were emptiness and pain: 
And Love–it was the best of them; 
And Sleep–worth all the rest of them, 
Worth everything but Love to my spirit and my brain. 
But still my friend, O Slumber, 
Till my days complete their number, 
For Love shall never, never return to me again!" by Charles Mackay Painting – The Long Sleep by Briton Riviere. Last night, while reading Dodie Smith's 'A Tale of Two Families' I came across a reference to this wonderful poem by Charles Mackay. Isn't it lovely?Another tag is being started- #poetrymatchart. I am tagging a few people whom I think might like to do or appreciate this tag. A very happy Monday to all!

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"Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass,– The finger-points look through like rosy blooms: Your eyes smile peace. The pasture gleams and glooms 'Neath billowing skies that scatter and amass. All round our nest, far as the eye can pass, Are golden kingcup-fields with silver edge Where the cow-parsley skirts the hawthorn-hedge. 'Tis visible silence, still as the hour-glass. Deep in the sun-searched growths the dragon-fly Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky:– So this wing'd hour is dropt to us from above. Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower, This close-companioned inarticulate hour When twofold silence was the song of love." Silent Noon by Dante Gabriel Rossetti Painting by Alfred Sisley Meadow , 1875. #poetrymatchart I came across the reference to this nice poem in a book recently – A Tale of Two Families -by Dodie Smith. How lovely is the line 'Where the cow-parsley skirts the hawthorne-hedge' ? Wish everyone a happy Thursday!

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